How do businesses grow? How do they go from being small or mid-size companies, chugging along as they continue to provide product and service the same way year after year—to being a major player in their market, and changing their entire place in the industry they’re in? In the life of many companies, a lot of hard work, dedication to the quality of product and service, and the breaks going their way (in other words, a good run of luck)—all lead to a point where it’s clear the company is producing something customers want and are willing to pay for, but the company is already at its capacity—it can’t produce another unit or provide another ounce of service without coming apart at the seams.

In the past, the solution might have been to build a bigger plant, hire more people, or establish warehouses out in rural areas—or maybe even carting the entire enterprise to foreign soil, where the labor costs are lower. All of those moves involve large investments of capital, and that entails risks and many unknowns. But many businesses today are turning first to their computers for solutions. Modern businesses already have the equipment and they have their personnel trained to use it—or they hire only people who can. The problem is that most people available have experience with off-the-shelf systems and programs, and those programs are designed for the widest possible applications and business situations. And every business has its own needs, procedures and situations. A one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter computer system places a limit, a ceiling on how the business can operate and grow—and a low ceiling at that. It ignores the special business requirements that every company has developed over years of experience.

Imagine if the only office space available for a company is one that would be suitable for every company; the only manufacturing plant one could have was one that could be used by the makers of… anything at all; and the only signs and logos available were ones that any company could use—whether it dealt in insurance, clothing, furniture, or toys. Can you picture what it would be like if an accounting firm, say, had to use a toy store logo and office façade because that was the only kind available. Businesses are finding it just as absurd and limiting to be stuck with the software that is unmindful of their market’s and industry’s needs, blind to their ways of doing business and to their personality.

This has opened up a need for custom software specially made for the individual needs, procedures and character of businesses. With the right software—well designed and easy for personnel to use—a business can get much higher productivity from its people and present an image to customers of a company at the leading and cutting edge of its industry. The right software turns the machines into irreplaceable assistants and co-workers to everyone in the company, giving them instant access to vital information; quick communication with colleagues everywhere in the company, and with customers wherever they happen to be. The design of the website the company uses—internally to manage work and product, and externally to talk to vendors and customers—has the mark and “feel” of the industry the company is in and the special focus and character that every company has—from the way customers are billed right down to the way they are notified of new developments, new pricing, and new services available. The software and the design is the first, foremost and most impactful way of branding the company in the eyes of the world.

With software designed specifically for the company using it, customized to the way it wants to be perceived by everyone who walks through the door to its website (just as it wants to convey a specific image to customers walking into its brick-and-mortar facilities), customers and vendors who deal with the company feel they’re in the personal and professional care of a company and people they know. The on-line environment becomes a selling tool itself—not only making the operation run smoothly and efficiently, but part of the special service they want their customers to feel they are getting.

What to Look For. Like everything else in business, there are custom software developers that know their business and who provide just what their clients need, and there are those who don’t. Here is a short list of five qualities that any business ought to look for in selecting a company to customize its software and design its IT systems.

Technical Expertise. A solid custom software developer has to have a broad base of technical expertise in all the major programs and platforms out there; there’s no telling which ones will be the best and most suited to the business, and to the people working in the company day-to-day. A software customizer—a good one—needs to be able to work with all application areas: word-processing; database management; external and internal websites; all areas of eCommerce; and both CRM (Customer Relations Management) and internal management tools. And they have to be fully aware of the equipment and software that’s already out there, however inadequate it may be. (After all, if your off-the-shelf software weren’t falling short of what you wanted the company’s system to do, there wouldn’t be a need to look for something better.) A capable custom software developer will be able to integrate any customized system seamlessly into the system you’re already using as best as possible, so that the programs and files your people already know and are comfortable with are not lost and abandoned. (A good custom software developer may even show you things your old system can do that you didn’t even know was there.)  

Business Experience. A custom software developer has to be, first and foremost, sensitive to the business needs of a company. They have to be able to analyze and understand what the industry standards are, and then design software to those values and standards. This will require a company that’s been “around the block” a few times and has had successful contact with industries in various sectors. Nothing turns off prospective clients or customers faster than being made to feel they are being talked down to, or that the company they are considering working with is not sophisticated or professional enough to handle the work. Look at how long the developer has been in the field and what sort of track record they have, especially with companies in areas close to your own.

Systems Design-Sensitive. Every business and industry has its own “style”—standards of design that are consider high-quality in that industry, but may not be standard or acceptable in another. A good custom software developed will be acutely aware of this and use their experience in many industries to create a unique interface that will brand the website in just the way the company wants to be branded. People are hired because they have certain capabilities and expertise, but the company also wants to project an image of being “on top of things” and thoroughly professional. So the systems have to be appropriate and consistent with the industry (that’s where the “Business Experience” kicks in), but also designed to convey the right and appropriate image—to employees as well as to the world that comes to do business. 

Training Capabilities. There’s little point in creating sophisticated software, no matter how good, that the employees of a company can’t use. So any software developer has to be able to not only design it so that everyone can use it, but be able to train people on how to get the most of the software. This requires a good and supportive working relationship that the remote and faceless software developer cannot usually provide. Look for companies that, though they may do the nitty-gritty code-writing in their own facility, will nevertheless be there to make sure everyone in the company is comfortable with the package and able to use it.  And this leads to the final quality—perhaps the most important one:

Long-Term Partnering. A custom software developer has to have an ongoing relationship with the user—able to fix what needs fixing; upgrade the system when the software or the company advances to the next level; show the company how to use things like ERP systems (Enterprise Resource Planning) to forecast future needs of the company and the future development of the business in the marketplace. A custom software developer is not unlike a tailor who stands behind the work and looks upon the customer as always his or her responsibility. In that kind of relationship, there’ll be no question that the source code will belong to the client company—not just the “executable files,” but also all the graphics, audio, project files and everything else that would be necessary to continue building and extending the software—it will all belong to the company, to be worked on by the team that created it if you like, or by another team of “tailors” if you decide to try go somewhere else.

As businesses develop more reliance on the internet and on e-marketing and the cyber-world, the custom software developer is apt to become an integral part of any business operation and the key instrument that will take that business into a bigger and more prosperous future.