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Four Tips to Conduct an Objective WMS Search

Oct. 6, 2016
Where do you start when you're looking to find the right warehouse solution for your facility?

So you operate a distribution center or warehouse, and you're thinking about investing in a warehouse management system (WMS) to improve productivity and accuracy and keep you on track for future growth. The challenge is that you've never used a WMS before and you're not sure where to start with the search process. Sound familiar?

A bit of trepidation about getting over that hump is perfectly natural—it's important to choose the right WMS for your business. To make that decision a little bit easier, here are some tips to point you in the right direction, and a few common pitfalls to avoid.

1. Start with the Basics

Before talking to a WMS vendor, prepare for the project internally. Start by performing a simple assessment of your warehouse and define what you want to achieve with a WMS. This will help you select the most important areas to improve and decide which features your new WMS needs to have.

Next, pick a "warehouse champion." This is someone within the organization who will drive the entire project and communicate what's happening to all of the internal stakeholders. This can be the same person who took charge of the first step.

Third, make sure that the executive team is completely on board with the project.

Having a laundry list of too many requirements or asking too many vendors for proposals will slow down the project and make it less likely to succeed, so focus on the problems that you want to solve. Nailing down goals and preparing the company ahead of time will make the search process much more manageable.

2. Finding the Vendors

The best way to find high-quality WMS vendors is by word of mouth. Networking with similar companies and asking about their WMS providers is a good place to start. Trade shows, industry associations and ERP system user groups are also good places to gather intel.

Once you have a shortlist of vendors, start a dialog with each one by phone or e-mail to discuss your needs and what the provider can and cannot offer. This will give the WMS vendor a better sense of the scale of your operation, ballpark price numbers and your priorities for WMS capabilities. This will also let both parties know if it'll be productive to continue the conversation. If there's a disconnect in terms of price range, product function or experience, you can filter out the vendors that are poor fits.

3. Get to Know One Another

If the WMS vendor hasn't seen your facilities yet, your next move should be to schedule an on-site review of your operation. Some may charge for this but there is value here and often some (or all) of the fee will be refunded if you ultimately decide to purchase from the vendor. In all cases, this gives the vendor an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of your business objectives going forward and take a first-hand look at your current processes.

A thorough warehouse review may take several hours. Afterwards, the WMS provider should send you a discovery report that details their findings. This ensures you are both on the same page.

If the vendor's feedback and suggestions do not match your needs, get back in touch with the provider to clarify. If there are too many red flags, continue your search for a different provider.

If the discovery report seems in order, you can move on to a proof-of-concept product demonstration. This could be done at your facility so that the appropriate stakeholders can more easily participate. Expect the WMS provider to present specific scenarios that match your original list of priorities. At this stage, if all has gone well, the WMS vendor will provide a formal proposal that includes all of the necessary components and pricing information, including recommendations about software and hardware implementation, system set up, configuration, and employee training. Read this proposal carefully and make sure it contains all of these details.

You have the option of hiring a consultant to handle part or all of this process for you. This will usually involve a request for proposal (RFP). In my experience, this does not necessarily result in a better outcome. It can slow down the vendor selection process considerably, and you'll need to balance the consultant's fee versus the cost of your time. If you go through the selection process as outlined here, you'll be just as thorough as 90% of RFP processes.

Finally, you need to make your decision. If you've done your homework and covered your bases, it's straightforward. While this is not a choice that you should make lightly, keep in mind that your competitors aren't waiting around for you to decide. Don't automatically choose the lowest bidder—look at the federal government to see how well that works. A strong track record of satisfied customers is the best indicator of a good WMS vendor.

Make sure to pay attention to the ongoing support and training that each vendor offers. Do they offer continuous learning opportunities to ensure product proficiency? Find out how often and to what extent the vendor is improving and expanding the capability of their product line. This is important to consider as your business grows and your requirements to deliver customer service change. Remember that your partnership with this vendor should last a long time, so it needs to be built on a good working relationship.

4. Use Caution with Online Resources

If it's on the Internet, it must be true, right? Wrong. You'll find many "Top 10" lists with names of WMS vendors. Treat them with suspicion—they're usually created by someone with a vested interest in promoting certain vendors, and vary widely in accuracy and quality. Always do your due diligence by checking the source, and "following the money" to see if the list was sponsored or paid for.

Research done by analyst firms tends to be more accurate, but may not cover all WMS providers, especially if the firm doesn't specialize in the distribution industry. For example, Gartner's Magic Quadrant for WMS only includes 12 WMS vendors. While it does give a detailed and unbiased analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each system, it doesn't include many smaller WMS vendors who don't pay the substantial price tag to become a Gartner client.

A WMS search might seem like a monumental task, but it isn't insurmountable. It does takes time and effort to choose the right vendor, but if you start with a solid plan, know what you need, do your homework and don't believe everything you read on the Internet, you'll be set up for a successful search and the right WMS match. 

Keith La Londe, vice president, systems for Seattle, Wash.-based PathGuide Technologies Inc., has more than 19 years of experience in the WMS industry. At PathGuide he has led many major areas of the business, including implementations, software support and customer training.

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