Vendor Comparison: Who’s Backing Your LMS?
Ever had a problem dealing with tech support? If you're living in the 21st century and reading this online, the answer is "yes!" Your latest phone, tablet, or smart watch might be a great piece of technology, but what's it worth if you can't get support when you need it? This is just as true for your Learning Management System (LMS) as it is for your phone. You don't just need the right LMS features, you need an LMS backed by the right vendor. It's time for a good look at how to evaluate and compare LMS vendors.
If you're in the middle of selecting a new or replacement LMS, you probably won't be surprised to hear that it takes many companies up to six months of research and investigation to finalize their decision. Choosing the right LMS is a long, costly and labor-intensive process, and it's one you won't want to repeat in a hurry. But even if you studied the options and found the system with just the right features, you can still find yourself thrown back to the beginning - and without another six months to spend finding a replacement - if you don't select the right vendor.
To avoid problems down the road, you'll want to consider the following issues.
3 Key Issues
1. Are the vendor and the LMS likely to be around in the long term?
A Capterra study found that over a quarter of organizations seeking a replacement LMS were in the market because their old system was no longer supported. Given that 9 out of 10 startups fail, an awful lot of LMS vendors will be going out of business over the next few years. A vendor going belly-up is bad enough if you have a self-hosted system, but it's an outright emergency with a cloud-based system. And that's not the only risk. Even when the vendor itself is solid, they could decide to drop the LMS from their product line.
2. Do you like where the vendor is headed with the LMS, and are they doing what's necessary to get there?
Do you know the latest trends in eLearning? It seems there's always a new one. Of course, the one thing you can count on to change even faster is the technology behind eLearning - and your LMS better be keeping up with the important developments.
If your vendor thinks their LMS is a finished product, stagnation won't take long to set in and you'll be watching yourself fall behind the industry.
You won't be much happier if they have a stellar development plan that's going in a direction your organization isn't. Say your business model involves dropping xApi and SCORM courses into an LMS and offering them through eCommerce. You may have found a great LMS for your current needs, but it won't stay great if the vendor's focus is on developing their own content authoring tools rather than keeping up with the latest standardized formats and eCommerce developments.
It's not just a case of where the vendor wants to go. There's also the issue of whether they're going to get there.
- How do they select their goals and pare them down to what's reasonable?
- Are their plans well-thought-out and sufficiently resourced?
- Do they have a track record of releasing updates on schedule?
Finding an LMS you like now is a straightforward process. Finding one you'll like just as much in two, three or five years can be more of a challenge.
3. What customer support does the vendor provide?
Good customer support is vital to your success with any LMS. In particular, you'll want to know what support a vendor offers for:
- Ongoing issues
Implementation support and training for personnel who will be using the LMS may or may not be offered by a vendor. Most LMS vendors, apart from those with free or open source systems, provide some form of ongoing support. It can vary widely in terms of what you pay and what you receive.
As you can see, vendor evaluation is essential to selecting an LMS that works for you. But what specific points should you nbe looking at when you compare potential vendors?
7 Points to Compare
1. Vendor Revenue and Profitability
Don't be afraid to ask for financial information from potential vendors. While some information will be confidential, you do have the right to make sure you're working with a financially solid organization. You can ask:
- Are you publicly traded or private?
- Are statements from previous fiscal years available?
- Do they show a profit?
- Is business growing, stable or shrinking?
2. Leadership Quality and Track Record
When you're looking for vendor stability, you start with the past. One of the first questions is how long has the vendor been in business. But what's the right answer? Are you looking for a vendor with a long track record or a new startup? A startup could be the next best thing - and it's likely to be less expensive. But the one you pick could also be one of the 90% that don't last. Brendan Noud at eLearning Industry recommends sticking to vendors that have been around for at least three years. If they've stayed the course that long, someone's probably interested in what they're selling. They'll also have picked up a bit of experience by then.
The organization's leadership is another factor to consider. You'll want to see experienced leaders in the fields of business, technology and learning.
Some criteria for evaluating leadership quality and track record are:
- Has the vendor been in business at least three years?
- Who's on the leadership team, and what's their experience? Do they have good coverage in terms of building a business, technical knowledge and industry experience?
3. Staff Experience and Skill Levels
The leadership team aren't the only vendor representatives who matter to you. Check out the people you'll be working with day-to-day.
- Who handles customer support, and what's their experience with the LMS?
- How many staff positions are devoted to customer support and development?
4. Updates and Product Development
This topic brings us back to where the LMS is going and whether it's going to get there. Technology and training best practices change, so you need a vendor who's going to keep up with changing realities. Furthermore, no LMS will ever be all things to all people, so you want a vendor who's interested in your development needs.
Accepting customer input is a sign that the vendor keeps an eye on the market and is headed in a direction that suits you, but customer input should be part of a sound process. A vendor who jumps to make any change you desire might sound like a good thing, but that vendor likely has problems with prioritizing that could compromise the quality of the LMS in the long run. In the end, you're usually better off with someone who keeps your needs in mind, but also assesses industry development to distinguish between key innovations and passing fads.
- How does the vendor select areas or features for future development?
- Is there an opportunity for customer input?
- Are there sound criteria for determining development focus?
- What are the vendor's current development plans?
- Is there a product roadmap, and can you see it?
- Are development plans properly resourced?
- How and when are updates released?
- Do regular updates come out as planned? Are they sporadic? Scheduled, but rarely on time?
5. Quality of Products and Services
It's worth taking some time to look at what else the vendor offers. Quality and professionalism should be apparent in all offerings.
- Do they offer other products or services?
- Do other products/services appear to be of good quality?
- Are offerings well-integrated, or does the LMS appear to be a peripheral product? If it's not central to the vendor, there's a risk it could be neglected or even dropped.
- Does the vendor's website offer non-commercial products or services - White Papers, blogs, eBooks?
- Are they helpful, and do they show a knowledge of the product and the industry?
- Are they professionally written? Remember, while a valuable website and other materials in no way guarantee a good LMS, poor-quality materials give you reason to ask if the same effort and skill went into the product.
6. Quality and Availability of Client Service and Support
Test the support services of the various vendors, and look at the quality of the help on offer. Remember, the success or failure of your LMS will hinge in no small part on the level of support you receive.
- Does the vendor provide support for implementation? Are there additional costs?
- Does the vendor offer training? What is the cost?
- What type of technical support is available - immediate phone or chat access, email, help documentation, user forums?
- When is technical support available?
- When can you access human support - 24/7, set hours, the vendor's office hours? Is there holiday coverage? Remember that one of the benefits of eLearning is that people can access it at any time, so will the right support be available when problems occur?
- What is the average hold or wait time for access to a human?
7. Customer Reviews
As with any significant purchase, it's important to discover what existing customers have to say about a vendor. Vendors often publish case studies or customer comments or testimonials on their websites. While useful, these are never the final word as vendors will naturally select the best advertisements for their services.
Other resources include reviews on more neutral sites such as Capterra. You might also ask if a vendor will put you in touch with customers. The vendor will still select the customers, but contacting them directly gives you the opportunity to dig a little deeper and get the answers to questions that are particularly important to you. Unfortunately, talking to customers isn't always possible. Reputable vendors will always respect the confidentiality of current clients, just as you'd expect them to respect yours.
Key points to consider when assessing customer reviews are:
- Does the vendor have previous clients in your field? It's best if you can find a vendor with experience in your speciality. Also, clients in your field can often provide the most useful assessments.
- How do reviews on neutral sites rate the vendor? Are there enough reviews to get a good overview?
- If there are critical reviews, do the reviewers sound reasonable?
- Do multiple reviews note similar strengths or weaknesses?
- On both vendor sites and neutral sites, pay particular attention to any comments about how the vendor responds to setbacks and other issues. It's rare for everything to go smoothly, and how a vendor reacts to a problem can be more important than the problem itself.
In this article, we've reviewed the reasons it's important to consider the company behind your LMS and identified criteria for vendor comparison. If you'd like to review vendor comparison and its role in the LMS selection process, download our LMS Vendor Comparison eBook now.
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Sarah is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems and is currently completing a PhD in Educational Technology. Her research focuses on implementing competency-based learning systems in all types of organizations. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.