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Five Signs Your Off-the-Shelf Software Needs Customization

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I’m a big fan of car shows where the host takes a regular old car, sometimes a beater, and has his crew totally transform it into a custom-designed dream car.

Shows like that remind me that buying a car doesn’t always get us 100% of what we’d like to get out of it. Sure, we get from point A to point B, but does it do the job as well as we’d like, or in the style, we’d like?

Not always. That’s where the custom body shops help us out. They add the tires and rims that impress, stereo and speakers that rock, and spoilers and paint stripes that excite.

It’s no stretch to say that business software is similar. Many companies buy a commercial off-the-shelf solution (also known as COTS) to get their basic needs fulfilled. You know, point A to point B functionality.

But oftentimes what you get is only 80-90% of what you really need to run efficiently and error-free as a business. Perhaps even more important, a solution that only meets just enough of your needs is not going the be the one that helps you out-innovate and beat the competition.

Translation? You may need to customize your business software!

Unlike tricking out a car, however, changing your COTS software is not about making fanciful additions or cool upgrades. There are very real business reasons why you should consider customizing your business software. We came up with five:


Every business changes over time. New processes get introduced, additional product or service lines are added, new technologies become a competitive necessity — whatever the case may be, a business must stay in motion to thrive. Rarely is off-the-shelf software capable of changing in lock step to match your needs. This means your business will be left scrambling to fill in the gaps to completely fulfill customer requirements. Whether it’s automating order processing from a variety of source platforms or adding a product line with different production requirements, existing software gaps can grow over time to the point they end up impacting customer satisfaction, product warranty costs, and future revenue.

Final Mile

In a previous blog post, I wrote about automating the ‘final mile’ of your business. Too often businesses think that once an off-the-shelf software solution gets implemented the job is done. Were it only the case. As mentioned above, a typical COTS software package was designed with the lowest common denominator in mind. Very often, you have your own particular ways of doing business, ways that make you unique, maybe even give you a competitive advantage. By fully automating the final mile of your business you will begin to experience the success of end-to-end computing, and your employees and customers will be delighted.


A big challenge with some COTS software packages is the ability to integrate additional software applications needed to run a business. Much like customizing cars with aftermarket parts can boost performance, you may want to get more productivity out of your business after a major implementation. New apps can help you do that. But, depending upon the inherent extensibility of your COTS solution, you may need custom software to ensure the integration is seamless, efficient and reliable. Making that process even trickier is that some software runs on older technology. A wholesale bakery or an insurance company could both be running on AS/400 technology from the 1980s and yet both might need ways to integrate front-end, administrative or financial reporting apps in fundamentally different ways. Custom software may be the only option for arriving at a more integrated, efficient and sustainable solution.

Constant Tinkering

Some companies find themselves with escalating workarounds that require employees to do more and more work outside the system to accomplish their tasks. While this isn’t an existential threat to a company’s survival, it can dampen productivity and lead to a spike in errors, some of which could be felt by the customer. That’s because workarounds involve a great deal of manual work, either in spreadsheets or on note paper. The added friction in processing basic transactions can even chip away at employee morale. Another drawback? The increase in manual workarounds leads to unnecessary hiring. By building a custom software package to automate workarounds, you will improve business efficiency and profitability even as you reduce the risk of costly errors and needless hiring.

More Mileage

One of the biggest complaints about some off-the-shelf software packages is that, when companies start growing and need more throughput and user access, the existing software seems to run out of gas. It’s not uncommon for companies to buy software solutions based on their needs today and not factor in where they will be in five years. Customizing off-the-shelf software may be the only viable way to keep from having to make another costly investment in software.

Since off-the-shelf software, by definition, can’t possibly match your business needs the way a 100% custom designed solution can, it stands to reason that judicious investments in customization will be needed from time to time.

What’s the moral of my custom car story? Simple. If you treat your software like a timeless ‘67 Chevy Camaro or Ford’s iconic ‘68 Mustang GT fastback — with a new paint job, some boss rims and a lot of chrome polish — then you just might get to enjoy some turbocharged gains in key areas of your business.

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