Buying Software Online

Buying new software at work is hard, but these professionals have a secret weapon, and they’re willing to share it with you

Do you struggle with picking the right technology product for your business? Cutting through marketing noise, figuring out how products are actually different from each other, checking in on some of the claims from sales reps, making sure you’re investing in the right choice for your organization or making the case internally to ensure the check gets signed are just some of the challenges you might face. Reviews could be the secret to vanquishing your buying process blues.

Buy Right: Using reviews to make better buying decisions

TrustRadius recently hosted our first-ever buyer webinar. We hosted three buyer panelists: Chris Salles, Director of Learning & Knowledge Management at Audible, Dana Mortimer, Human Resources Manager at Milne, and Bethany Chan, Customer Success Manager at Supplyframe.

Chris, Dana, and Bethany each played a major role in helping research, evaluate, and select new software for their companies this past year. (One of them is actually still working to get the deal done – shhh!)

They talked with us about their particular trials, tribulations, and triumphs as buyers, and shared tips for others working on buying projects. If this sounds like you, read on. You’ll learn from Chris, Dana, and Bethany’s experiences so that you can navigate the buying process like a pro.

tl;dr reviews helped them buy smarter, save time, and know what to expect going into a relationship with a new vendor.

Buying new software feels… :/

The goal of business technology is often to make your life easier or to help you save time, or to help your company grow and help you meet your goals–which is exciting. But it can also be stressful if you’re not totally confident that you’re picking the right solution. More than half of buyers have a less than positive experience with the buying process, based on a recent survey of the TrustRadius community.

Buyer Experience RatingThere are a lot of hard parts about buying new software, such as getting through all the steps in the process, getting buy-in from your organization, or perhaps most importantly, making decisions based on incomplete or imperfect information.

Reviews can help with the hardest parts

Though Chris, Dana, and Bethany faced many of these same challenges, they found reviews were a big help to get through the trickiest steps.

According to Chris, “Probably the hardest part of buying software is trying to see through the marketing of all, getting down to brass tacks about what this thing can do, what the tech really offers. That’s why videos, screenshots, and customer reviews are really important to help clear up those muddy waters. When it comes down to it, all of the different options are going to do essentially the same thing. So you have to dig in to try to figure out the differentiators.”

Dana agrees that comparing feature sets and distinguishing between products in a crowded space is hard. “I think it’s difficult to know for sure that you’re investing tens of thousands of dollars in the right piece of software,” she said.

The other hard thing, in Dana’s experience, is trust. “You want to know for sure that whatever you’ve selected is going to deliver everything that the salespeople have promised you. That’s what I go to reviews for as much as anything. How was the implementation? How was the customer service actually functioning afterwards? If you’re doing payroll at ten o’clock at night and you’re up against a deadline, who can you call? Some of those really key pieces that don’t necessarily come across in sales presentations, do show up in reviews,” explained Dana.

For Bethany, the hardest thing was justifying a net new system: “Oftentimes, the need for new software is not known internally. Your team might know it, but others who you work with– adjacent teams–not everyone else is immediately on board. That’s a normal challenge. But actually, reviews help with that a lot. It’s really nice to be able to say, ‘Look, here’s another company like us out there who’s solving the same problems using a technology solution.’”

Pointing to examples of peer use cases helped Bethany get key stakeholders onboard. “We as a company want to be following the best practices of the SaaS industry and moving along with everyone else. So reviews help propel us forward in that regard,” found Bethany.

4 tips to help you choose software like a pro

1. Use reviews throughout your process

Chris, Dana, and Bethany used reviews at multiple points during their buying projects. Here’s when they used reviews (and where you can too):  

  • To get an overview of the space, understand features & terminology
  • To refine and prioritize your requirements
  • To narrow down to your shortlist
  • To compare options
  • To develop good questions for vendors & vendor references
  • To find some independent references of your own (by reaching out to reviewers on LinkedIn, for example)
  • To make a decision confidently

Reviews can also be valuable when the project is dragging on longer than anticipated, or when there’s a setback. “No software purchasing project is ever smooth and it never follows a nice linear timeline. It’s a long process,” explained Dana. But, she found, “Reviews help me refresh what I know about the software. So often, I’ll go back to the reviews when I’m thrown some type of curveball.”

Forrester visualization of the complex B2B buyer’s journey, with all of the sources, shortcuts, and circling back that can happen along the way.

Because they’re quick and accessible, reviews are a good re-entry point when your process goes awry. “You thought your budget was X and all of a sudden it’s Y. Or you thought you were able to do a cloud platform, but now it needs to be on-premises. Or now the software needs to match with this other product you’ve just been instructed to get,” Dana reflected, sharing examples she experienced herself. “Whatever that is, when those curveballs get thrown in, you can go back to the reviews and try and figure out your priorities.”

2. Focus on detailed, balanced reviews from people like you

“The more thorough and specific a review is, the more useful I find it. I’m really not fazed by reviews from people who just say, ‘I love this product. I’m going to buy it again.’ They just leave a star rating and that’s it. They don’t give any reason why.  Obviously, that’s not enough,” said Bethany. “Really, the more time it seems someone has taken to write it and give details, specific situations where it has helped them or specific situations where they think the product needs improvement, that’s where I find the review to be more trustworthy. The more specific and balanced the better.”

Chris suggests hunting for examples you can use to draw your own conclusions. “For me, I love examples whenever possible,” he said. “So if a review says the front end UI is really, really easy to use and super intuitive–okay, that’s fine. But what do you mean? Give me an example.” Chris focuses on reviews that dig in with more description of the exact workflow, so that he doesn’t have to rely on just the reviewer’s judgment.

Dana recommends scanning for reviewer perspectives that likely align to your own. “Reviews that are close to my industry, my size of company-specific, those are the reviews that I tend to use the most,” said Dana.

HR Filters on TrustRadius

In her research, Dana saw that reviewers with a similar size, scope, and focus tended to have needs most similar to hers, and provide feedback she could easily relate to. “I realized that if somebody is in a similar size company to mine, which is a smaller sized company, they’re going to use this software really differently than if they were in a very large company.”

3. Find the cons

What's the Catch?Every product has its limitations; every vendor has its shortcomings. This is obvious to buyers. Not always as obvious is what exactly those cons are. Getting the less-than-glowing side of things can be tough, since it’s something vendors often can’t or won’t help with.

But customers live with the cons day to day. There may be trade-offs they knew about going in, or challenges during implementation and as their use case became more complex. They can offer the realistic view buyers need. And having realistic expectations up front, understanding the tradeoffs you’re making, can help you choose confidently and turn you into a long-term, happy customer.

“My favorite reviewers on TrustRadius are the folks who are really honest and very specific about the shortcomings,” Chris said. Dana weighed in: “No software is going to solve 100% of any individual business’s needs, so it’s only prudent to make sure I know how the software will benefit us, and exactly where it will not be able to help.”

Once she has an idea of the cons from reviews, Dana uses them to get more precise answers from vendors too. “I definitely use those negative reviews to push back on my vendors so that I can know exactly what to expect,” she explained. “For example, I might say, ‘Okay. You guys got some really negative markings on timekeeping. And you’re telling me all about the pie in the sky and the unicorn when it comes to timekeeping but what the reviews are telling me is a little more down-to-earth. So explain what’s going on here.’”

If you can talk with your vendor openly and specifically about the cons, it sets the tone for a more trusting relationship, and you’ll be more prepared to onboard with the product. “The harder it is to uncover the warts, the more I am apprehensive to actually make that purchase,” said Chris. “A product can’t possibly do everything well. And that’s okay. It’s just a matter of what you’re happy to live with and what those trade-offs are. The more information I can find, the easier it is to find out all of the answers, the more comfortable I am, because I feel like I’m getting to really know the product. I’m not going to discover something terrible six months after I’ve paid the invoice.”

4. Share information from reviews with other stakeholders

Create a matrix for efficient comparison

Creating a Matrix to ComareBethany created a comparison matrix to keep everyone involved in her buying project on the same page. Her goal was to show exactly how well each product met their requirements, and where there might be tradeoffs. “It was definitely a really helpful visual tool, and it was also pretty simple to create. We put requirements in the first column and then one software each in the following columns. Then we listed out all the requirements. That included price, the vision, user interface, feedback, and all the different features that we needed in the tool. We could mark checkboxes under each of the tools or indicate additional details to show whether or not they met the criteria we were looking for,” she explained.

Bethany used reviews to verify feature presence, determine feedback sentiment, and gauge the user experience. “We copied and pasted information and key points from reviews along with screenshots or other pieces of research into that spreadsheet. Having that visual really helped us determine what product would meet our needs the best.” Keeping the criteria checklist in front of her also helped her concentrate while reading reviews, and quickly make sense of reviews across products.

Backup your recommendations to execs with data

When it came time to present her research, Dana combined information that came directly from the vendor with information from reviews. She included screenshots of two recent positive and two recent negative reviews, as well as feature ratings, for the three products on her shortlist.

“I wanted to show that balance,” said Dana. “Those who liked a product–this is what they liked. Those who didn’t like it–here’s what they didn’t like. I also used the feature scorecard summary because my decision makers, the final authorized signers on the check, they’re all number driven people. That was very important in making the case.”

The reviews and scorecards helped Dana craft a very grounded, data-rich presentation to share with executives. Her recommendation came across as well-informed, and she was able to set realistic expectations about how products would perform on a practical basis.

Parting wisdom for future buyers

Looking back on the process and lessons learned, Bethany’s biggest advice is not to skimp on reviews and references. “We did run into some surprises once we bought the software,” she said. “And part of the reason was because the particular product that we bought was somewhat scarce on reviews. Ultimately,  if we were able to find more information from other users, get more references and insiders who knew a little bit more about how the software currently worked, we would not have been as blindsided by those things.”

To avoid internal surprises, Dana encourages collecting input from many internal perspectives early on, since stakeholders may have radically different priorities. “Identify your pain points but also identify what’s working well with your current software and processes. Maybe what’s working well from the President’s perspective is simply that it’s super cheap. But from the users perspective, it’s ruthlessly annoying because all the data is on spreadsheets.” Once you know your requirements, really understanding limitations from reviews can be a good way to push back on the information that you’re getting from vendors. “Be bold in having these conversations and asking the questions,” Dana advises.

Chris agrees. “My advice is to be hard on the vendors, especially the sales reps. Be selective. It’s an onion, right? You gotta peel away all the different pieces. Get through the layers, get down to the core. Keep asking why. Keep asking to see things. Pretend that nothing’s gonna satisfy your needs.” At the same time, he says, “be that tech futurist who is open to be inspired by new ways of doing things.” Chris urges buyers to really listen to vendors, and learn from them: “Take heed in the fact that they’re using best in practice knowledge gathered from all their clients when they build their products.” In other words, be flexible–you may find that some of your requirements aren’t actually the best way to achieve your goals.

A last thought from Chris was actually a request for vendors. “When vendors are trying to qualify you, I think they can leverage reviews better–at least portions of reviews,” he said. “As part of the qualification process, vendors should highlight both the pros and the cons, but most importantly, they should provide relevant examples.”

Chris wants sales conversations that are more open and dynamic. He thinks reviews could play a valuable role, not only because they help buyers ask better questions, but because they can help vendors give better answers. “Typically vendors ask about your organization’s needs, and then try to solidify the fact that their product does that really well. It’s one thing for a vendor to say, ‘We do this well.’ It’s a whole other thing to point me to a section of a review, let’s say on TrustRadius, that includes the same statement from a client or even just a random user. I may not know who the person is. But it makes me feel a little better to hear those words coming from somebody else, other than that vendor that’s trying to potentially sell me a piece of technology.”

What do you think? Got any tips or lessons learned to share? We want to hear from you about your experience buying software at work. You can reach us at research@trustradius.com. We’d love to hear your story!

Emily Sue Tomac

Emily Sue Tomac is Research Manager at TrustRadius, where she studies reviews, the buying process, and buyers themselves. Her research aims to arm people buying software at work with the tools and information they need to work better, smarter, and easier. She's on a mission to tell their stories, and drive change in how software is bought and sold. Prior to joining TrustRadius, Emily Sue worked on research in linguistics and the digital humanities.

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