Before you invest...
Evaluating Systems and Vendors

How to Evaluate Database Systems and Vendors

Investing in a database system is an important decision that will have a major effect on your business.  Here are some things to look for when you compare the companies who sell database systems and their products.

What to look for in a Database Vendor

1. Does the vendor/developer of the system understand the market research business? 

If you're paying someone else to do the programming, you don't need to understand exactly how the database works, but it has to work in a way that is compatible with your business—market research.  Look for a vendor who can speak your language.  While they don't necessarily need a market research background, the vendor should know what focus groups are, how recruiting is done, and why professional respondents are undesirable.  After talking with a prospective vendor for a few minutes, you should be able to tell if they speak your language.

2. Is the vendor willing to customize or change the system based on your special needs?

Purchasing a market research database system shouldn't be an all or nothing proposition.  You will likely pay extra, but within reason, you should be able to order modifications so the system more closely meets your needs.  For example, you might want a certain type of report that isn't included in the package.  Ask the vendor if they will customize.

3. Does the vendor provide technical support and training?

Be suspicious of the company who offers free technical support for the life of the product.  It might be a sign that the company won't be in business very long.  Most software developers can't afford to provide ongoing free service.   Ask about technical support after the sale.  If a support contract is offered, it should spell out hours of availability and fees for replacement disks, telephone calls, etc.

Adequate training can spell the difference between success and failure for you and your staff.  Does the vendor provide training or classes?  Is there a user group or a web site where users can ask questions and get feedback?  Your current staff will likely experience some turnover within a year, and new staff will also require training.

4. Can the vendor convert your old respondent files into their system?

A good vendor will offer conversion services either separately, or as part of a package price.  Ask if they have had any experience converting your type of file (Paradox, Excel, Access, FMS, etc.).  Inquire about the time involved and any special preparations you will need to make.  If conversion services are priced separately, ask for a price estimate. 

If you want to handle the conversion yourself, ask if the vendor will provide you with file layouts and any other documentation to help you understand the system's file structure and table relationships.  

5. Will the vendor provide references?

Ask the vendor to give you the names and phone numbers of other market research firms who use their database.    Hopefully, you will get a cross section of both small and large companies.  Try to get the name of a person who uses the system so you can ask specific questions like "How long does it take to pull a list?" or  "How easy is it to get technical support?"  You may also want to speak with the owner to find out whether the database has helped the company grow, save money, or improve quality control.

6. Is the vendor committed to the product's future?

This is a difficult quality to measure, but it becomes important as time goes by.  A commitment to the future means the vendor will not only continue to support his or her product, but will improve it. Faster, more powerful computers will be built.  New operating systems will be released.  Market research is changing as well.  Look for a vendor who is interested in the future of market research and the technology associated with those changes.   Some questions to ask;  "How long has this software been on the market?"  "Have you come out with any major upgrades?"   "Do you plan any upgrades in the next 1-2 years?"  "If so, what features do you plan to add?"

What to look for in a Database System

1. Does the system appear easy to use?

Assuming you received a demo or watched a product demonstration, you should be able to get a feel for how to use the system.  Are the instructions on the screens easy to understand?  Are there clear menu selections?  Is there a logical flow of steps or processes to follow?  Can you use the mouse to give instructions or move from one screen to another?  Are the instructions written in English as opposed to "computer-ese"? These are a few of the things to look for in evaluating how user-friendly the system is.

2. Does the system have adequate installation and reference documentation?

Will you be able to install the system yourself or will the vendor provide this service?  Are there adequate, clearly written instructions provided?    Is there user or reference material included with the software?  If possible ask to see written documentation before you purchase.

3. Is the database relational?

A relational database (as opposed to a flat file) means you can have multiple jobs in process at the same time, while keeping track of each one.  For example, with a relational database, you are able to have dozens of active jobs, each at a different stage.  At any time, you can locate a particular job, identify the respondents and the client associated with it, and edit information pertaining to the job.  And even after the job is closed, you can revisit that job and identify all the details of the job, including the respondents who participated in it.  A relational database has obvious advantages over a flat file.

4. Does the system have features that will save you time and money?

Look for the extra features that can boost your productivity.  Mailing labels and reports are useful.  Pre-formatted recruiting lists and/or sign-in sheets will save you time.  Client invoicing is a handy option.   If you can identify at least one feature that will save you a significant amount of time, that database system will probably be a sound investment. 

5. Is the database written in an application that is widely used and has a good reputation?

There are many database applications on the market today.  They vary tremendously in cost, ease of use, and popularity.  Some database applications have very specialized uses.  If the database system you purchase is written in one of the more popular applications (e.g. Access, Paradox, SQL Server), you will gain several advantages.  First, your vendor or developer will have better access to technical support.  This will benefit both of you if there's a bug or problem your developer has not previously encountered. Second, it will be easier for you to exchange data with other applications such as a word processing program or spreadsheet.  Finally, using a popular application will give you peace of mind if you have an emergency and your files need to be recovered or restored.  You are more likely to find help locally if your database system is written in one of the more popular applications.

6. Can the system import and export data to and from other applications?

Suppose you acquire a computerized list of respondents, along with their addresses, dates of birth, and other demographic information.  Rather than manually entering each record into your database system, you might prefer to import the information directly into your database.  A system that imports and exports data in the form of text, spreadsheets,  for these purposes can save hours of data entry time.

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