Build + Buy: The value custom add-ons bring to COTS

If you’re already working with off-the-shelf software or considering a COTS solution, there are opportunities to vastly increase the value of your purchase with simple, custom (and not necessarily costly) add-ons. In a previous data visualization post, we talked about using Tableau and Power BI to integrate multiple data sources and provide stronger insights. Both of these business intelligence solutions can be integrated with existing applications—but there are times when the integration isn’t enough. That’s where creating something custom on top can deliver the best value to the user.

In many cases, it makes the most sense to start with off-the-shelf solutions, like when you’re dealing with Customer Relationship Management Systems (CRMs), accounting software, or Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS). Typically, these are well-tested by many other companies and are not part of your core system—and almost every sales employee knows Salesforce. However, these off-the-shelf solutions can be integrated with your home-grown business applications—or other off-the-shelf-solutions—in order to obtain the data needed to track Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As your company grows, or better integrations become necessary, we can start investigating some of the significant benefits that custom add-ons can deliver for end users and your business:

More user-friendly workflow

More than enhancing data displays, custom builds allow us to tailor user workflows to meet specific KPIs. This means that users can quickly navigate to problem areas in a way that isn’t possible with off-the-shelf products.

Some ready-made solutions do allow workflow configuration to be tailored to the user’s experience within that application. For example, a ticketing system can be configured to assign a specific user or group, based on certain criteria. However, rarely are they built to allow workflow configuration beyond that particular instance and sync with other processes—it’s unlikely that the same ticketing system will push data into a standard database.

While ready-made software might not allow direct workflow changes to other applications, you can develop a custom connector for a fraction of the cost of creating a new custom application. This gives you the benefits of a custom build, while retaining the existing functionality of the purchased solution.

A real understanding of people’s workflow, combined with a full grasp of available solutions, helps you determine which route to go.

Better data visualization

A custom build can give you the ability to display data in any format desired: apps, charts, tables, etc. These displays can be combined to allow the user to visualize the exact data points they need to be effective in their roles.

Off-the-shelf software is limited in terms of data digestion—visualizations are designed for hundreds of thousands of users, and it may be difficult or impossible for an individual company to tailor the experience to its precise needs.

The solution may be to develop a custom connector for the off-the-shelf product that will bridge the gaps in the user experience without requiring the company to start over from scratch. For example, we recently built a web application that streamlined data retrieval and delivery. It replaced a frustrating workflow with multiple versions of multiple spreadsheets being shared over network drives and emails, with an interface that allows for filtered search and consolidated reporting. This immediately eliminated conversations like, “Is that the old new, or the new new?” and “I updated that just a few minutes ago!” The adoption rate was rapid, and rewards realized quickly.

Determining the specific needs of the company and those of the users interacting with the system helps us tailor our recommendations.

More actionable insights

Another big benefit of custom builds is being able to export the data in any way desired. This enables companies to combine different types of data from different sources into a single report that generates larger insights. For example, you may want to look at what regions have the highest sales margin, and overlap that with data on what items are selling most. This combined export can uncover demand in specific regions, equipping business leaders to make sure they’re matching local demand with the right supply.

It’s possible to develop a connector to get the data from an off-the-shelf product and combine that with internal data. When the user gets this export, they’ll have insights in one place. It takes experience to know where such custom enhancements can be made in order to streamline processes and deliver stronger insights.

Building custom software or buying off-the-shelf doesn’t have to be a binary decision. COTS software isn’t as flexible, but If you start with an off-the-shelf solution, you may not have to abandon it entirely as your needs grow: You can make up for deficiencies by layering custom development on top of it. These add-ons can generate immense value by elevating productivity, speed, insights, and the overall experience for the users, who are the ones driving real business results.

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