Inventory management software delivers inventory at the right place, at the right time, and at the right cost. But before you can enjoy all those benefits, you need to find the platform that's right for you.
When shopping for a platform, you'll need to weigh different factors and think a lot about your specific situation. In the end, there's no perfect, one-size-fits-all version of the software. It's the same with cars. You're not going to win the Indy 500 with a cement truck, but when you do need to haul cement, a NASCAR racer is worse than useless.
When making your decision, make sure to look at features, integration, reporting, onboarding and ongoing support, and ease-of-use. Let's look at them one at a time.
This one can be a bit tricky. If you're looking at inventory management software for the first time, it's hard to know what you want because you don't know what's being offered. It would be like trying to order food in a restaurant without first seeing the menu. How can you know what to ask for if you don't know what's available?
The solution is to become negative. Not your attitude, though. Just your focus. Make a list of all the problems you have with inventory right now. Maybe you're constantly having to rush order parts and materials. You never have what you need when you need it. Or, you might have a room full of old part you're never going to use. Maybe sitting in your bottom desk drawer you right now have three replacement cartridges for a printer you threw out last year. It could even be the case you think those cartridges are there but they're not. Like a lot of places, you might suffer from high rates of inventory shrink.
The problems you face are directly related to your type of organization, so when googling around for information, it's a good idea to include your industry in your search terms. Inventory demands for a chain of shopping mall coffee shops are different than those for a luxury resort on a remote island. Inventory management software for small businesses solves one set of problems. Inventory management software for international conglomerates solves another.
Once you have your list of problems, you're in a good position to start talking with software providers. There's a reason providers call their products software solutions. They want to be the solution to your problems, and working together, you can create a list of the features you need.
On a basic level, integration is about data moving in and out of your inventory management software. It's important because inventory management software is not going to be the first software your organization uses. An organization will never go from using zero software across all departments to only one department using inventory management software. You're already tied to a few platforms, and even if your department isn't, it's guaranteed that other departments in your organization are. So you want to make sure your new inventory management software will fit in to and improve existing workflows. For example, it would be great if you could share data from cost tracking and purchase orders with the already-in-use account's payable software.
Basic: exporting data
On this level, we're not talking about true integration; it's more like easy sharing. When looking at inventory management software options, you'll want the ability to export data in formats that are readable by other software. Generally, the software should be able to export to CSV files and Excel sheets. CVS stands for comma separated values.
But on this level, we're talking about real integration. Instead of the software exporting data other platforms can read, APIs allow the one piece of software to use a different piece of software's features. Think of it this way: you have two cars, A and B. Car A has air conditioning, but B doesn't. Using APIs, you can drive A while enjoying B's air conditioning. You're pulling features from one into the other. APIs sound awesome, and they actually are. But remember, there's likely going to be a difference between what's eventually possible and what's immediately available. Setting up APIs takes time, effort, and IT skill. If you don't have all three, getting them up and running takes money. If you're hoping for API-backed integration, talk with your IT department early and often.
Day to day, inventory management software streamlines your workflows and makes sure you have what you need when you need it at a price you can afford. And the way it does this is with data-backed decision-making. By making inventory tracking easy and seamless, the software helps you gather lots of data which it can then crunch into reports, giving you the inventory big picture. Take min and max levels. By looking at how much of a piece of inventory you use over a set amount of time, you can determine how much you need to carry at any given time. If you use on average a liter of cleaner every a week, and the lead time for deliver is four weeks, you need to have four liters in inventory.
When comparing software solutions, look at how easily you can generate reports. The software should be doing most of the work for you. In the end, most solutions will be able to leverage the data into some sort of big picture for you, but be careful. Some of them will look like abstract Picassos.
Onboarding and ongoing support
No one is a born natural when it comes to using inventory management software. Everyone needs some training at the start, and then some help along the way. The last thing you want is to buy software from company that's only ever going to throw in a couple free user manuals. When speaking to providers, make sure to ask about onboarding.
Questions about onboarding include:
What are the specific steps and how long does the whole process take?
What training resources are available during onboarding?
Does the company provide videos, online manuals, live instruction, or a combination?
Can trainers come onsite?
Can training sessions be delivered online?
Make sure to also ask about support. You want to make sure the provider is as invested in your success as you are.
Questions about support include:
- If something goes wrong with the software, how easy is it going to be to reach the provider?
- How can you reach them, email, phone, direct chat window in their website, or a combination?
- Where is their support team located, and do you have to worry about a language barrier or time zone gap?
Find a provider that has the resources to get you up and running smoothly and the desire to keep you as a happy long-term customer.
Saved this one for last because it can be the ultimate deal-breaker. In the end, fancy features, slick APIs, even the most dedicated training and support, and comprehensive reporting cannot make up for bad UX design. It doesn't matter how good something is, if you can't figure out how to use it, the whole thing quickly becomes useless. Imagine your ultimate dream car. It's perfect in every way. But how good is it to you without the keys? You can't use it. Basically, you've got yourself an insanely expensive lawn ornament.
What is ease-of-use, how can you tell the difference between good and bad UX? With something that's well designed, there are generally no surprises. Everything is where you expect it to be and everything does what you expect it to do. Back to that dream car of yours. Imagine you're cruising down a gently twisting highway along the coast. Suddenly they're playing your favorite song on the radio, but when you hit the button on the steering wheel to crank up the volume, the trunk pops open. Not good. Then when you hit the brakes to stop, the windshield wipers turn on. After you finally get the car to stop (turns out to stop the car you needed to open and close the glove box three times), you, of course, never drive it again.
Good UX doesn't mean you won't need training and support. Remember, no one is a born natural when it comes to inventory management software. But good UX does mean you can learn the software relatively quickly. Good design makes the learning curve nice and gentle.
The thing you should do next is read go back to the beginning of this post. Sit down and write out a list of the problems you want the software to solve. Start talking with providers and make a list of the features you need. Talk with your IT team and see what they have to say about APIs and integration. Then talk with providers some more, making sure to focus on their onboarding and support systems.
It's a bit of a process, but the rewards make it all worth it in the end.