A bit like perpetual beta, free software trials have become increasingly popular, especially where software is relatively unsophisticated. With perpetual beta, the overhead of testing software is shifted from the developer to the end user – the customer. Something similar could be said to be happening with free trials. Instead of software companies spending time understanding an individual organisation’s needs, and demonstrating how their systems match those needs, the prospective customer is encouraged to just figure it out for themselves.

However, the truth is your time isn’t free.

hr software demo on laptop

So, while selecting HR systems is an important decision, and it is understandable that as part of your ‘risk’ reduction strategy, you may want to test out the system for yourself, the timing is key.

If you’re going to take hours out of your busy day to set up a free trial, so you can see if it really is capable of supporting your specific needs, and the complexity that comes with HR management, it makes sense to take a systematic and organised approach to getting the most from your time.

It helps to think about choosing a new HR system like hiring an intern, with a full-time permanent position the end goal – the free trial being the final test before a permanent offer is made.

Before you speak to any suppliers

You are unlikely to take on an intern without scoping out the job requirements first – and then running a proper selection process – so don’t do it with a new HR system.

To save time down the track, you’ll want to have clearly defined goals and tasks for your new HR system – essentially a job description for the software. It helps to think about the main challenges you’re facing as a HR professional and as an organisation.

• What ‘job’ will the HR system need to do?
• What ‘competencies’ should it have?
• What processes are a priority for you?
• Should process flows be configurable?
• Are all your staff in one country or on the same contracts, or will you need to accommodate different working practices and legislations?

You will also need to think about the future. A scalable HR system that can flex as you grow, change or downsize will save a lot of headache later on; businesses rarely remain static, so you want to be sure you don’t outgrow your system, or get stuck with one that is too rigid.

• Will your organisation expand to other countries?
• Does the system you’re looking at have the capability to service new locations, working patterns, etc?

These are all questions you want to ask before investing too much of your time in a solution that might need to be made redundant down the track.

Build your shortlist – reviews and online references

Starting your search on Google is as good a place as any, but once you’ve identified some potential suppliers, you’ll want to spend a bit of time validating their fit and track record. Typically, most consumers read online reviews now before they even make first contact with a supplier. Review sites for HR software, including Capterra and Software Advice, are a great first step for anyone looking to vet a new HR software system.

Check out your potential supplier on Glassdoor, and take a look at their social media activities. Unhappy employees and unhappy customers can be quite vocal online.

Let someone else do the work for you

Armed with your shortlist of HR software suppliers, it’s time to start first interviews for your prospective system – and the best way to do this is with a free demonstration. Any software provider worth their salt will be happy to run you through a free demonstration of their product. They should ask you questions ahead of the demo to ensure they are giving you as tailored an experience as possible, showing you the modules most relevant to your needs.

Make them aware of some of your more complicated scenarios, for example, a multi-stage approval process, and challenge them to show you the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’:

• How do I set up different absence plans for different groups of employees?
• How do I trigger notification messages?
• Can I define my own onboarding processes or performance appraisals?
• Can I add my own reports and forms, or change field labels?

Warning bells should start ringing if the supplier doesn’t ask you anything about your organisation and launches into a standard out-of-the-box demo – will their service offering ultimately follow a similar generic approach?

Just like interviewing candidates, it’s important to look beyond first impressions and well-crafted CVs to make sure the fit is genuine. Keep a checklist of your needs in front of you while you’re going through the demo so you can make sure they’re being crossed off as you go. If a module is quickly skipped over, or doesn’t make sense, ask questions and probe its use until you’re satisfied you understand the full capabilities of the system.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a second, third or even forth demo. The more flexible HR systems have a lot of functionality in them and, if the sales consultant genuinely believes their system is a good fit for your requirements, they’ll be happy to spend that time with you.

While you’re in the demo stage with suppliers, make sure you double-check pricing; it’s important to be absolutely clear what’s included and what’s not. Ask about updates, data storage, training, typical set up costs etc. so you can benchmark their answers against other suppliers in the running. And definitely make sure you read their T&Cs. Contract terms vary hugely, and there is absolutely no reason why you should sign up to a three-year contract from the very start.

Decide what you need to do to validate your decision

At this stage, you should have a pretty good view of whether the system you have looked at is a good fit, the supplier is one you can trust, you are happy with their technology and security, and the T&Cs are acceptable.

If there are still areas of uncertainty about how the system will work in practice, and you feel like you need to explore the software yourself, a free trial might be a good solution. In order to protect your time though, make sure you have clearly defined what it is you are looking to prove – be clear about what you want to get out of the free trial, with the understanding you won’t be able to learn the system end to end.

For example, what generally separates one system from another, is not the basic functionality – like how to request and approve a holiday – but the depth and degree of flexibility to configure the system around your specific needs. In these situations, presenting the consultant with some real scenarios and asking them to step you through these features may be better use of your time.

Unless you’ve used the system in a previous company, and are confident you know it inside out, it can be a high-risk strategy to demonstrate it yourself to stakeholders. Chances are you’ll only have one chance to prove you’ve selected the right system, so it will be a lot less stressful and likely to lead to a much better outcome for you, if you ask the vendor to run the demo for you. They’ll be able to answer any questions and showcase aspects of the system or the solution that perhaps you’d not thought of.

Getting value from your free trial

The ‘free’ trial might not result in a bill, but it will cost you your time, and you should be prepared for this to get the most from the trial; that’s why it’s best to not jump in before going through the steps above and selecting out unsuitable suppliers.

Ideally, you’ll want to set time aside over a two-week period to really probe the system, making sure you satisfy any remaining questions or concerns before getting started. Before starting the trial, think about your demo/s and reference checking, and what you want to explore further.

The trial is like a final test for a new intern. And if you choose a system with a short contract, even after you sign up, the new HR software still needs to prove itself – just like an intern.

Do your reference checking

Once you’ve narrowed down your shortlist to one or two preferred suppliers, ask for references or case studies that cover the core needs you have for the HR system.

Written or video references are a good place to start, but like when you’re speaking with a candidate’s referee, there’s no substitute for a live conversation; listening out for the pauses or silences when you hit on an area that might need further exploration can’t be replicated with pre-written or recorded case studies.

It’s not just about the tech

Don’t forget, you’re not just ‘interviewing’ the software on its own for the role of ‘HR system supplier’, you’re also vetting how the supplier will help you get up and running – and successfully using – your new HR system.

You will also want to think about whether they offer tailored training and set-up services that reflect your specific requirements.

• What are their SLAs around customer support?
• What did the references say?

Ultimately, the ideal scenario is to choose a supplier who offers short-term contracts – like an internship. There is no better indicator of suitability than seeing the system in action, with all of your data and all of your processes – and this can’t be replicated before the sale, via trials or demos, if the HR system you choose has any level of real complexity.

Shandel McAuliffe author image

Shandel McAuliffe

Now based in sunny Australia, Shandel is prolific writer and editor - particularly in the world of HR. She's worked for some big names, including the CIPD and the Adecco Group. And more recently, she's been the Editor for new HR publication HR Leader.