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Choosing the right affordable housing software vendor

Selecting the right affordable housing software vendor is a task which, in my opinion, is like shopping for a new car.  How much do you have to spend?  Do you want just a car? Do you want an SUV? Or do you need a truck?  Once you pick the type of vehicle you want, then you have to choose the vehicle with the right options.  It should be that easy ;). Well, there may be a bit more to it than that, but you get the point.   However, when it comes to affordable housing software, just like shopping for a vehicle, first  you need to decide on a budget and think what functionality is  needed to stay in compliance with HUD program and reporting requirements. . . and more.

Now there are more questions…How many users or licenses will you need?  What type of platform are you looking for…Windows-based…Web-based?  Do you have the right IT infrastructure to handle the new software?  Do you need basic compliance software or do you need one that is robust?  Will you need your affordable housing compliance software to be integrated with an accounting module?  Do you have the qualified staff at your sites to run the new software?  How much is training?  There is a multitude of requirements to consider when making a purchase of this type.

Also, keep in mind that whenever you purchase compliance software to manage your affordable housing property, the software vendor you are choosing should provide you with one totally-integrated application to automate, monitor and streamline property management operations for managers of affordable housing.  The software vendor also should be expected to be a long-term partner through ” thick and thin” when support is needed.  So, as you can see, selecting the right vendor is just as important as selecting the right software with the right features and at the right price.

Just as you may have a checklist for selecting the HUD-compliant software (such as particular functionality and pricing), when considering vendors it’s helpful to have a checklist of criteria as well. If you don’t do proper due diligence, you may be committing your company to an unstable relationship, software features you don’t need and a major purchase which you and your staff may regret.

Key Program Features to think about:

  • Are multiple layers of compliance for HUD, USDA, Public Housing, HCV, HOME and Tax Credit programs covered?
  • Is fully-automated tenant certification processing for the various compliance programs included?
  • Is there a Waitlist module dealing with turnover processing  to ensure that units are  offered only to eligible households?
  • What about online vacancy monitoring to minimize vacancy loss?
  • Can you print from a centralized document library with HUD/agency approved forms and letters?
  • How does the program deal with Tenant receivables?
  • Is an integrated GL, AR, AP module included?
  • Is a comprehensive work order management and maintenance history offered?

Additionally, here are some other important things to consider:

  • Vendor & Product Stability
  • References
  • Software Upgrades and Version Release
  • Maintenance and Support
  • Implementation
  • Training
  • Working Demo

Vendor & Product Stability

You may be purchasing directly from the vendor or from a reseller. In either case, when assessing vendor and product stability find out how long the product vendor has been in business, how many employees it has and what their installed base is. It’s important to select a software provider who will be around for years, and longevity and a large install base can be one indicator of stability. This can also indicate whether the vendor will continue to upgrade and improve their software as HUD, TRACS and USDA make future changes, but we’ll get to that below.  If you are working with what is called a reseller, make sure to ask for a letter from the vendor  indicating that they stand behind this partner and will support the partners’ customers in any eventuality. In terms of stability, look beyond the organization marketing the software and do the research on the vendor.

References

Ask for references. Even if the HUD compliant software is a perfect fit for your company, this will hopefully be a long-term relationship and you need to check out the vendor and/or reseller. The vendor should be able to put you in touch with references using the software, and the resellers should be able to put you in touch with other companies for which they have installed their software. Call the references and ask questions such as:

  • Has the system improved your overall performance?
  • Does it do everything you expected?
  • Are your property managers and management staff satisfied with it?
  • Are you satisfied with the level of service provided?
  • How does the vendor/reseller react when you have problems?

Software Upgrades and Version Release

You want to be certain that your vendor is not only up-to-date with the current technological advances, but continues to upgrade the software to address changes at HUD and TRACS. Updates and new releases also indicate a commitment to the software. Ask how the provider handles bug reports and enhancements requests, how often new versions or patches are released and what (if any) costs are involved in upgrading. In general, patches are offered as part of the on-going maintenance, but different vendors have different schemes for upgrades to new releases.  Some will require payments for new versions; some will provide them free-of-charge as long as you pay your annual maintenance fees.  So, in terms of upgrades and/or new versions, inquire about frequency, policy and costs.

Maintenance and support

What are the monthly or yearly fees and when was the last increase?  With any complex software that is upgraded on a regular basis ,you can expect occasional bugs or issues to crop up. The important thing to look for is a system in place to address these eventualities. This is something that can vary widely by reseller and by vendor–and one size does not fit all.

  • What are the support terms?
  • How easy is it to contact support?
  • What is the average number of years your technicians are there?
  • Are different levels of support available?
  • What are the escalation procedures?
  • Is there a guaranteed response time (even if only to state that work on the issue is still  in progress)?
  • How long is your bug list at present, and what is the average turnaround once it is reported?
  • Are upgrades/service packs released on a regular basis and are they seamless?
  • Is there a toll-free line, Web support or e-mail support or even chat support?
  • Can you track progress of your support tickets or call on the Internet?
  • Who from your team is allowed to contact technical support?

Terms and cost of support could vary.  Many will charge an annual maintenance fee which is often calculated from a percentage of your software’s price or can be calculated on a per unit basis, to provide basic level support and upgrades.  Most will charge an additional fee per ticket item or service related issue for enhancements, or you may be billed on the hours spent providing support.  Make sure you understand what kind of support is available so that there are no unpleasant surprises down the line. Also, while some resellers and/or vendors may only support their own product, others may have support teams who are able to assist in areas that may be underlying to their solution such as database management.  If not, make sure that you find someone that can support those systems so that in the event of an emergency you don’t have to start doing your homework while in crisis mode.

Implementation & Consulting

It’s crucial that any potential vendor takes the time to understand your needs and how you work as a company.  Be wary of vendors who agree to show you their solution without first asking you some in-depth questions about what you are looking for in a HUD-compliant solution and what key issues you are hoping the system will address.   For instance, are all reports published from a centralized library?  You have heard the saying “timing is everything.”  That said, will the roll-out be done with consideration of your staff…meaning will you be able to roll out the new software during the slower period of the year or month as to reduce the amount of business interruption?  Can your staff run parallel with their soon-to-be former software and new software?

Ask about the vendor’s implementation methodology.  Can the software, reports and processes be implemented as required? Are the costs of training rolled into implementation?  Find out in advance what is included in the implementation and rough estimates on how long each property conversion will take. Will it import the tenant data from your previous compliance software application?  What about post migration issues that arise after the property data conversion?    Does the vendor help you set up business rules? Are SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) included?  The idea is to uncover as much information as possible and to commit the vendor or reseller (and yourselves) to a plan in writing. This will help all concerned stay on track, on schedule and within budget.  Designate a staff representative from your company who will provide you the solution consultant with the information needed to help plan and execute your product deployment from beginning to end.

The following are examples of items that may be included in an implementation checklist:

  • Business/system analysis
  • Network configuration
  • Project management services
  • Application Installation
  • Comprehensive project management
  • Customization of system configurations
  • Identification of opportunities for process re-engineering
  • User security review
  • Property conversion and training scheduling
  • Data entry and/or data migration into the new system
  • Site-level operations review and data support
  • Formal transition to ongoing account management and support
  • Training your staff to customize the default system configurations
  • Scheduling of training and migration dates
  • Training on the data migration process and project management tasks
  • Customizations
  • Setting up reports and business rules
  • Data conversion/migration
  • Training

Training

The vendor should have a clear plan for training your affordable property management staff on the HUD compliance application. Although many businesses prefer having the training done on-site, that is not always possible or cost effective. Optimally, the vendor will have different options from which you can choose including user documentation either built into the system, file based or a combination of both. Printed manuals are usually found either on-line or provided in a PDF formatted file. Ask to see samples of the documentation. Verify that some basic training is included in the implementation plan. Set out clear goals for training that is arranged either on-site or remotely. Web-based training also can be effective, if done properly. Find out what topics are covered in each session, where and how the training is done, who is trained, how long it takes.  Consider the option of training managers or “key users” of the system only, who will then be available to train other members of your staff in-house thus reducing training costs overall.  Be prepared to factor some level of training into your overall budget. This will ease users into using a new system and foster ownership of the tasks that will be performing in the system.

Working Demo

Some vendors will present beautiful PowerPoint presentations showing you corporate information and often screen shots of the software tailored to what you, the prospect, wants to see. This is not enough. Some vendors will have a demo environment that they will allow you to access so that you can poke around and get a feel for the software. As the software is new to you, the demo might not have all the features available and even if it did you might not know where to look. No sufficient! Some will show you a demo of their system, showing you the bits and pieces that they want to show. This isn’t enough either. Indicate to the vendor what your specific needs are and insist that you be shown at least some of the functionality working on their application. The data doesn’t have to be specific to your company, and they don’t need to show you every single field that you may require in a particular form. However,  they should be able to walk you through some of your key functions all the way to the level of reports generated or how the information will look on the dashboard with sample data. This is a good indication that the software can, perhaps with tweaking, address your business needs, and that the sales people know and understand what they are selling and aren’t spinning stories of what their software can and cannot do.  During the demo be prepared with a list of questions and perhaps some others you hadn’t thought of earlier will crop up.  Make sure that your questions are answered, not skirted .

With so many software vendors and resellers fighting hard for your business, you need to choose wisely so that you don’t wind up with an excellent software system behind which is a company that no longer exists. The first three criteria are good indicators that the company behind the product has staying power, good working relationships with its customers and a vision for the future. The latter criteria address understanding the actual working relationship you will potentially have with each vendor, so that you enter a partnership with eyes wide open.

In conclusion, with so many issues to consider, choosing a software vendor should be done carefully and thoroughly. However, if you use the above checklist and do the due diligence, you should be able to make an informed decision and choose the best partner to help meet your business needs.

I have tried to provide you a framework with which to make the best purchasing decision. The framework may not be all-inclusive so feel free to add some suggestions.  Here is a link to some software vendors that may be able to fit your needs; HUD Compliant Software Vendors, but do not hesitate to seek out additional ones on the internet.