One of the biggest challenges we face often is trying to find the right software solution to move our business forward. We want the complete solution that solves every problem, accelerates our business and, above all, is easy to use. Unfortunately, those unicorns don’t always exist.

So instead we search for plug-and-play solutions that allow us to operate and keep the lights on—e.g., process payroll, reconcile invoices, manage email marketing workflows, etc. Other times, though, we are interested in creating custom software to differentiate our value or to create proprietary solutions that give us a competitive advantage. Moreover, many times, along the way, we need both commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) and custom software solutions to achieve our business goals.

There are many indicators as to whether COTS or custom software is right for you, but today I want to focus on three signs that COTS may not make the most sense for your business…

1. COTS Can’t Meet All Your Needs: At Trilix, we often find that COTS solutions address 80 percent of the features and functionality that the vast majority of business require, but fail to account for the 20 percent of value-add where peak performance, transformation, differentiation and disruption occurs. In my last blog post, I reflected on the first major software decision I made as a business owner 23 years ago, when I decided to buy an off-the-shelf accounting system (more on that here). Though the software provided for the 80 percent—empowering us to manage inventory, invoice clients, and integrate accounts receivables and payables—it could not deliver on the 20 percent—non-inventory services, service contracts, and retainers. Since the 20 percent was imperative to the success of our overall accounting process, we had to figure out a different way to address it, which led us down the pathway to a manual, Excel nightmare.  

When you find yourself thinking about compromising on the 20 percent you need—or worse, deciding to forego the 20 percent altogether—it’s a critical sign that COTS is not the ideal path forward. You should not have to sacrifice the 20 percent you need most, especially when there is an option to have a holistic solution.

2. The Canned Solution is Too Rigid: Have you ever gotten up-and-running with a plug-and-play solution, only to find yourself immediately wondering, “Can I break the solution?” If you are in Marketing, for instance, you might wish the lead scoring process could work differently. If you are in Sales, you may be frustrated by the limited amount of details your CRM shows in the Contact and Account views. Regardless of your role, you may find yourself repeatedly uttering, “If only the solution could do [fill in the blank].”

Often, canned solutions impose boundaries and constraints around how we want to use technology to support our business processes. And that’s because COTS solutions are designed with the general mass in mind, versus your unique business processes. Sometimes, we can get by and accept the rigidity because the most essential features and functionality are there. However, if you find yourself trying to break, amend or tweak the COTS solution you just purchased, you may want to start casting an eye to custom software. Alternatively, worse, if you find you are entirely rewriting your business processes to match the technology, you may need to take a solution detour immediately.

3. The Solution is Incompatible with Your Existing Solutions: When evaluating COTS solutions, it’s important to consider how seamlessly the solutions would integrate with your other existing technologies. Though many will play nice through an API connection, some COTS solutions will prove incompatible, or unable to be integrated, with your existing solutions.

Our client Embrace Home Loans, a national mortgage lender Embrace Home Loans, ran into this very problem when they looked to modernize their existing customer service ticketing platform. As they started to review their unique business requirements and desired functionality, they realized that a COTS solution would neither meet all their requirements, nor integrate with their existing support ticket request platform.  “We were… in the market for a change control system that had management natively built-in, and very few integrated into the legacy ticket system solution we had,” said Director of Information Technology/VP Carlos Hernandez. (Click here for more on this project.) And so, they ended up partnering with us to create a custom web application system.

As we face that daunting decision of selecting a software solution, we need to be clear on what business problem we are trying to solve, the ways in which we hope to transform, and how we can use the technology to differentiate our businesses. Instead of trying to find that silver bullet “off-the-shelf” solution to solve everything, the best approach might be a custom developed or even a hybrid solution.

When it comes to software solutions, there are a myriad of benefits provided by both custom and COTS solutions. But the ability to reap those benefits depends entirely on your business environment and the unique ways you need technology to accelerate your business outcomes. So which path is right for you? We’d be happy to talk with you about your specific opportunity and which path will best support your goals; click here to get started on that conversation!

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