Should I opt for a Customisable or Configurable Software Platform?
One size doesn’t (always) fit all, but Out of the Box (OOTB), configurable solutions can get you to an 80-90% fit for a fraction of the price and are significantly more rapid to deploy.
I found myself recently re-reading an interesting article from APSCo ON Selecting a New Software Vendor. We wrote a similar blog post a while ago that approached the question from a slightly different direction. The one thing I would suggest is missing from both articles is the distinction between “configurable” and “customisable”.The cost to implement custom solutions is not just the Professional Services engagement to build the customisation, it's your time to be involved in the Design, Test and Project Management of a much more complex project, so this should be factored into any selection process.
If you opt for a largely turnkey solution that can be configured, you should still look to invest an appropriate amount of time when you implement any software so that solution works for you. But this can often be phased over a number of iterations over time as you peel back the layers in that solution to discover the extra value you could extract. Configuration means easily editable settings to accommodate your processes. Most solutions offer some degree of settings configuration and you can gradually deploy those processes. There are some real advantages in getting a solution live and in the hands of users on a daily basis as quickly as you can so that you can react to the feedback you get in real use cases. Testing this with simulated use during trials and implementations is never quite the same.
A critical success factor behind most rapidly scaling solutions is the fact that their implementation and training can scale at the same rate as their sales. With great onboarding and Customer Success resource supporting your implementation, OOTB solutions can much more easily scale education/training. Whereas customisation generally means that a lot of training content will need to be bespoke.
Where else does this cost come from when customising platforms?
The cost to ”build” custom solutions.
Whilst many solutions built on SalesForce, Dynamics 365 and other platforms are sold as SaaS solutions, out of the box they offer very little. The options to pay and play (turn on the subscription and it’s ready to use) are minimal. And Engineering time doesn’t come cheap on customisation projects, ask anyone who has implemented SalesForce or Oracle eBusiness Suite in Enterprise. I’ve seen quotes running to £40,000 to implement Force.com based solutions without migration of any data and even when they’re following templated approaches to implementations. This is why many vendors who have built on the Force.com or Dynamics 365 platforms would only consider their solutions suitable for 200+ Users because the cost to implement for businesses any smaller than this would be prohibitive. The smaller you are the larger the number of multiples of your annual subscription costs you’ll be paying to implement.
Deviating from Best Practice and Designed User Experience (UX)
By customising platforms you are deviating from the standard UX of any solution. A lot of SaaS businesses spend a lot of time on UX. Heavy customisation means you’ll likely get less benefit from this. It also means you’ll have to build and maintain (or pay someone to) a lot of your own training for staff because what you are doing is custom.
Impact in the future on upgrades and the migration away
Platforms that are heavily customised end up investing a lot of time testing customisations whenever a major upgrade is required. This can sometimes translate into Profesional Service costs to the subscriber, meaning cost and delays before you can take advantage of these upgrades. In addition, if you ever decide to move off the platform, any customisation will mean a standard migration path to any other platform will be impossible without the significant cost of a custom migration or the flattening of data and/or loss of some value from the data that you’ve been capturing. Even if the vendor you’re moving to has migrated from the platform before, what you’re doing by adding custom elements to the platform is turning a familiar system into a unique one.
So, in summary, just because a platform can be "customised" doesn’t mean you should. In buying a customisable platform you may be paying significantly more than you need. Carrying significant costs to implement something that only gives you a marginally better fit than could be achieved with an off the shelf solution is something to think about. Weigh up the pros and cons of customising versus configuring. If you decide that you need the flexibility that customisation brings, consider reigning in the amount of customisation you pursue to minimise the impact of the costs I have outlined above. Think about all of the hidden costs that might exist when moving to and away from a heavily customisable platform.