George Weiner wishes he knew a year ago what he does today about choosing human resources (HR) technology. Instead, the founder and CEO of Whole Whale, a digital marketing agency for nonprofits, learned the hard way that the cheapest option for managing employee data isn't always the best, even when it's a name brand.
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Weiner's problems started when he signed up with a well-known, cloud-based national payroll provider (which he declined to name on the record). The user interface (UI) was dated, the system felt cobbled together, and in the span of nine months, he had three different account managers. Weiner claims the provider's mistakes led him to miss making several months' worth of legally required workers compensation payments, resulting in a $500 fine. Miscommunications between the vendor and a third-party partner it used to process 401(k) retirement savings account contributions led to more errors.
After less than a year, Weiner bailed and switched his agency to a smaller start-up payroll company he says has a better UI, usability, and customer service. His advice for other small businesses buying HR tech: "Don't shop on price because you get what you pay for."
Price is just one of multiple factors to consider if you're upgrading from older HR tech or looking to move from spreadsheets to cloud-based services for the first time. If I've learned anything from my time reviewing HR tech for PCMag.com and interviewing vendors and business owners such as Weiner for this column, it's that a smart shopper is an informed shopper. If you're looking at applicant tracking systems (ATS) or performance management (PM) or HR management software, ask the following six critical elements when vetting potential tech partners:
1. PricePrice might not be everything but it is important, and vendors take different approaches to pricing what they offer. Many charge a flat per-user, per-month fee but vendors don't always classify users the same way; some vendors charge based on a company's total number of employees while others charge only for employees who'll be covered by the system. Still other vendors only charge for the HR staff who'll use the system (this is most common in ATS or recruiting software).
When you're shopping, ask about volume discounts; some vendors provide an enterprise rate for customers with more than a specific number of employees or users. Many offer tiered features and pricing, so you can start out small and add functions as you need them or as you get comfortable with the platform.
2. Demos and Trial AccountsYou wouldn't buy shoes without trying them on, and an ATS or HR management platform can cost a lot more than a new pair of Nikes. Demos are good for getting a taste of what a program can offer (but you and I both know they're essentially sales pitches and don't always reflect the realty of using the software.)
A healthy portion of cloud-based HR tech for small to midsize businesses (SMBs) offers some kind of limited-time free trial. Many let you convert a trial account to a paid one so you can save any data you inputted during the try-out period. Vendors such as Deputy and Humanity have sandbox accounts designed for specific types of businesses or industries, so you can see how companies like yours could use their platforms.
3. UpdatesYou might not buy a new car if you knew the manufacturer was planning a head-to-toe redesign of that model the following year. By the same token, you might not sign up for a software platform if you knew the developer was about to undertake a major overhaul. It's hard enough getting an HR team and employees up to speed on a new platform, let alone having to do it all over again for a new UI a short time later.
Use your vetting process to find out if a vendor has a UI or other changes in the works, so you can use that information in your decision-making process. Even if a developer doesn't have big changes planned, find out how frequently they make platform updates (every day, every two weeks, more?) so you can use the information to decide if that's too often, or not often enough, for your business.
4. Employee FilesUnless you're a start-up, you've probably got personnel data stored somewhere, even if it's just in Microsoft Excel or Google Drive. In most cases, uploading the data to a new vendor's platform will be easier and faster than re-keying employee data or having employees sign in and fill out profiles themselves (unless your existing data is pretty dirty).
A lot of HR platforms for small businesses I've reviewed have built-in functions for importing data from Microsoft Excel and other formats that costs nothing extra to use. It's a little more complicated for midsize and larger companies; if you've got hundreds or thousands of employees, you may end up paying a fee for a vendor to upload existing employee data for you. Sometimes that information appears on the pricing page of a vendor's website and sometimes it doesn't, so be sure to ask.
5. Mobile AppsThe employee scheduling and shift planning software I recently reviewed drove home how important mobile apps have become to companies and their employees, including hourly workers. When it comes to mobile apps, though, HR tech vendors are all over the place. Many offer apps for Android and iOS devices, but not all apps cover all the functions of vendors' web-based platforms. Some vendors opt to make their websites mobile-responsive instead of creating separate apps. Whether one is better than the other depends on your company, the type of employees you have, and how those people work.
The vast majority of HR tech apps are free add-ons that customers get when they sign up—but not always. At least one HR tech vendor I reviewed in my scheduling and shift planning roundup charges extra for apps, assuming most of its customers' employees would rather log on through a mobile-friendly website.
6. SupportVendors of cloud-based HR tech for small businesses go out of their way to provide free support through video tutorials, webinars, FAQs, user forums, blog posts, and other online material. It's in their best interests to offer self-service support because it costs less than staffing live chat and phone support or assigning account managers to specific customers.
Know going in what kind of support you want and whether you'll be comfortable figuring things out on your own. If you'd prefer to talk to someone when you need it, that could be deciding factor between going with a vendor that provides what you need and one that doesn't. Also, find out what support, onboarding, and training are covered in the platform's subscription fee—and what you'd have to pay extra for.
Depending on your business, you may have other factors to consider. Does the platform cover non-US currencies and holidays? Is it available in languages other than English? Does it have an open application programming interface (API) that makes it easier to integrate with other HR tech you're already using? How much time and money is a vendor devoting to adding new features, and how much time and money to fixing bugs as they show up?
"Put together criteria of what you're looking for," said Weiner. "Kick the tires on the UX [user experience]. Ask basic questions. Talk to the account manager."
Do you have specific things you look for or questions you ask when evaluating new-to-you HR tech? If so, share them in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.