Not many people would think it wise to buy a car without taking it for a test-drive. But this is exactly what you’re doing if you purchase enterprise software without completing a Proof of Concept (POC).

With a POC, you invite a vendor to your shop and have them run the product on your machines and in your environment. You’ll get the chance to see most of the core functionality requirements and discover particular customization needs—a crucial point when estimating the true cost of the software package.

A POC allows you to look under the hood, kick the tires, and make sure the product is a good fit for your business. If you’re still not sure whether you should conduct a POC, consider these four benefits.

See past the dog-and-pony show
Canned sales presentations and product demonstrations make all products look like the best thing since sliced bread. These demonstrations show the product’s basic features but lack the depth required to show a product’s full range of capabilities.

A POC allows you look at the product away from the safe, canned environment a vendor provides. Instead, you can watch it perform where it really matters—in your company’s environment. (To get the full benefit of a POC, negotiate as much time as you need to thoroughly evaluate the software. Resist sales pressure to make quick decisions.)

In addition to letting you see the product in the light of your own shop, a POC also gives you a view of the vendor and its ability to support the product. They will need to bring along technical staff to install the product and work with you on the POC. What you see at this stage will tell you a lot about their experience with their own product and give you a valuable chance to evaluate the quality of their customer support.

Get hands-on exposure to the product
During a sales presentation, you are a passive observer watching slideshows or prefabricated product demonstrations while occasionally asking questions the salesperson may not even be able to answer. The presentation itself can be of such a narrow focus, you may not even think of all the questions you need to ask after you sort through all of the marketing material.

During a POC, you actively participate and can generate some “hands-on” questions, placing you in a better position to evaluate the product. You’ll find out if it really is easy to use and learn how much customization it will require.

Improve comparison against other products
You probably won’t have time or resources to complete a POC on every vendor you consider, but once you establish your short list, the POC can be the deciding factor. In my shop, we recently completed POCs for two products during an evaluation of business intelligence tools. The products were very comparable, but the POC allowed us to see beyond the sales claims and get a real-world view into what was better about each product.

In addition, the POCs created an extra level of competition between the two vendors. Competition can add some great pressure on the vendors, increasing your bargaining power.

Justify the purchase to the final decision makers
In today’s economy, budgets are tighter and purchases are often harder to justify. Even if you’ve documented the most thorough return on investment analysis (ROI), management may be reluctant to sign off on big-ticket items for which they haven’t seen any tangible benefits. The POC delivers a great opportunity for a visual demonstration to reinforce the ROI data.

In the end, the POC is your test-drive. It also allows you to see past a sales presentation, get your hands on the product, scientifically compare the product against other choices, and deliver a tangible justification to your management team. Remember, most enterprise software costs more than most cars—reason enough to take that test-drive.

Kicking the tires

Do you insist on a POC from your vendors? Tell us how it went by posting a comment below or e-mailing us.