Over the past few months, I have been the point person at my firm for needs assessment, evaluation, and product selection for seven information-related resources. This compressed period of product evaluation and contract negotiation gave me a chance to consider best practices and what has worked well for me.
As you have probably experienced, some so-called needs arise from ignorance of or frustration with existing resources at the organization. Others come up out of the blue, seemingly, or have not traditionally been a library service but now are. A couple of the items I listed above have been on my own wishlist for a while. And, of course, when existing license agreements approach the end of the term, that provides a good opportunity to ask if there is something better out there and if the contract is advantageous.
As I reflect on the process I follow when evaluating products and services, I realize that a big component of it for me comes down to conversations and relationships. Sure, I want to know if a product can do X, Y, and Z. I review the vendor’s terms and conditions, pricing, and product development plans. A quantitative, impartial assessment of the product is critical to an informed decision. But a comparative analysis or deep dive into a product’s functionality should be complemented by discussions— with your vendor representatives and your colleagues and users.
Here are a few ways to engage your co-workers and the users or prospective users in the identification of needs and product reviews: From the outset, talk with users to understand the perceived shortcomings and evolving needs that they hope a new service would address. You will identify requirements and generate confidence in your process. Invite selected users into a streamlined evaluative process—the determination of criteria, testing or trialing products, and recommending action. They will recognize you as an authority and lend their expert perspective to the assessment. They will understand the nuances and concerns about products and potentially address those issues with their colleagues later. Perhaps a contracts law attorney will review an RFP or license agreement for you, especially if they have a vested interest in the outcome.
It also makes sense to develop or strengthen relationships with vendor representatives throughout the product identification, review, and selection process. Be direct with them about your level of interest. For example, I often demo products for my own professional growth; I want to know about new tools and features. In those cases, I tell the vendor and make it clear that I am not exploring the product because of a current need at my firm. When a product review is part of a more formal vetting process, I am as direct as I can be about our needs and timeline. If I discover early on that pricing takes consideration completely off the table, I explain that. Should concerns arise about functionality, coverage, or terms, for example, I relay that information. Perhaps I will learn about planned near-term enhancements. At a minimum, I’m sharing directly and honestly the disconnects between our requirements and the product’s current state. And when the evaluative phase is complete and a decision is made, I keep the door open to future consideration because needs and products change.
The more analytical side of a product review and selection should include a clear expression of your requirements, whether memorialized in a Request for Proposal or, less formally, on a checklist used during a demonstration or trial period. Ask professional colleagues for product recommendations and sample documents. Consult these excellent, tried-and-true CRIV resources when embarking on a product evaluation and selection process:
Guide to Fair Business Practices for Legal Publishers The Guide covers everything from procurement to problem resolution to the quality of physical items. As you engage in a formal product review process, the Guide will reinforce practices that will influence your stated requirements and what you should expect from the vendors, like the clarity and accuracy of product information, their billing cycles and pricing details, how the customer is notified of content changes, and details related to training and customer support.
Principles & Practices for Licensing Electronic Resources While this resource is focused on components of license agreements and the negotiation process, the reader will be reminded of many points that can be factored into the product evaluation process such as the vendors’ stance on and your needs related to interlibrary loan use of content, confidentiality of firm or client data, length of the contract term, which users to count or include, and usage statistics.
You might wonder if we acquired everything I have been evaluating. We are on the verge of selecting a couple of proposals, we decided not to pursue two products further at this time, one of the reviews will spill over into the coming year, and I am much better informed about tools and user expectations because of our evaluative process and many informative conversations.