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Three secrets to successful free trials

These days many technologies offer ‘try before you buy’. These pilot or trial programs are designed to do one thing – to get you to want to buy the product. Just like a first date, the tech and the team will put their best foot forward. You will be dazzled by shiny features, pampered with attention, and no requirement is too large or unobtainable.

When done right, trials are a great experience. The technology is shiny and exciting. The support team is helpful and insightful. You are simply left wanting more. So, you sign on that dotted line and are now the proud owner of an exciting new technology . And then … integration, change management, adoption, piles of requests of what you want in the technology that are suddenly not quite as doable as before. And as you plow through the less shiny aspects of a new solution, the realization hits – this great shiny object is not really helping you meet the metrics or KPIs that the executive team really cares about.

Does this mean free trials are not as great as they seem? Absolutely not.

Free trials are like hiring, dating, or planning that perfect vacation. With the right preparation and effort, it will result in something amazing. But if you don’t put in the effort, you could be left feeling duped.

So how do you ensure that you’re getting the most out of free trials and you’re setting yourself and your organization up for success?

Secret one – define success

If you start a trial without a clear understanding of success, the vendor will happily fill the void. They will shower you with all the great features and benefits of their technology. It will all sound wonderful, perhaps even compelling, but if those great benefits are not aligned with your goals, then they will ultimately do little good.

Start every trial with clear goals.

  1. What problem(s) do you need to solve?

  2. How will you measure if the problem(s) is being solved?

  3. Where are you now (before the trial)?

  4. What is your goal – the minimum value you need to successfully solve the problem(s)?

For example

Let’s say the problem you must solve is ‘time to hire’. It’s taking your organization an average of three months to hire a candidate, and it’s causing you to lose candidates to other organizations. Your goal is to get that time to hire down to six weeks.

  1. The problem: time to hire

  2. Measurement: Time from the job being posted to time the employment offer is accepted

  3. Current state: three months

  4. Goal: six weeks

For multiple goals (for example, also wanting to lower costs, remove burden on your recruiting staff, reduce the number of ghosts, and increase diversity), prioritize them and identify the problem, measurement, current state, and goal for each.

With clear goals, you can have the vendor do all the heavy lifting. Vendors will be eager to show you how their technology will meet your needs, so it is reasonable to ask them to set up the trial to track and measure the metrics you care about, and to show how the technology will meet your top priorities.

Secret two: evaluate true cost – (time and money)

“How much is this going to cost me?”

“It’s only $xx / month, and it’s worth every penny.”

If only it were so simple!

Cost is not just the cost of the technology. Even with the hidden or extra vendor costs such as set up fees, services fees, connection fees, etc., that is often only part of the picture. Costs include internal efforts such as 3rd party costs, integrations, testing, training, change management, roll-out, and adoption.

But, good news – you can use the free trial to identify and minimize the true costs of the solution.

As you run the trial, track the following:

  • The functionality you used and/or need.

  • Integrations you require with existing technologies.

  • The different ways that users interact with the technology (for example, you may have managers that do something different than practitioners).

  • How long it took for each user to learn what to do – include both training effort and practice, as well as common questions, areas of confusion, and when they needed support.

  • Bonus: track when the users saw the value of the system (if at all), and what was it that made them see that value

With this information you can:

  1. Have the vendors quote the true costs to deliver what you want, including any per-user costs, add-on and set up fees for specific functionality, and integration costs.

  2. Work with IT to identify and estimate costs of any internal steps required to set up, integrate, test, and launch the solution.

  3. Define the steps required for roll-out including if the tech will be introduced all at once or by departments, training, support materials and staff, adoption materials, and other change management steps.

Like with the first step, have the vendors do as much heavy lifting as possible (and therefore reduce costs). Many vendors will work with IT to help define integration and test plans. They will share training and awareness materials to support adoption plans and could even offer to help train your users.

Some vendors will also share typical rollout time and effort for other customers of similar sizes and needs. However, treat that information with caution. Vendors are incentivized to make it sound as painless as possible (i.e. best-case scenario), and not all organizations work the same, even if the vendor is providing conservative estimates.

Secret three: calculate ROI

If a good pilot measures value and defines cost, that means it should give you the holy grail of metrics – Return on Investment (ROI).

Return on Investment is usually the most powerful way to convey value to the decision makers and gain support for the new solution. It can also be used to easily and quickly compare options so you can pick the best for your organization.

While calculating ROI is a topic within itself (blog coming soon), here are a few common values of interest:

  • ‘Steady state’ value: How much the organization will save per year after all the initial costs are over such as set-up and configuration costs, initial training, and rollout efforts.

  • Time to break even: How long it will take before the costs equal the value. As most projects have a larger up-front cost, it takes time (measured in months or years) before the savings make up for the initial investment.

  • Total value over 5 years: How much total value (or cost) the organization will realize in the first 5 years. Note: not all organizations measure value using 5 years, but it is a good place to start.

The best part, most vendors will do much of this work for you especially if you have them involved in evaluating the value and cost. Request help to convince the decision makers to move forward with their product, and they will usually even package it up in a beautiful slide deck or one pager to help communicate the ROI to your organization.

Bringing it all together: driving value from free trials

With a little preparation, free trials will transform from a playground of new technology with shiny features and pampered service to a powerhouse of work, augmenting your strategic planning efforts and driving the content you need to compare options and obtain approvals.

So, the next time a vendor (like proudly boasts a free trial, don’t hold back - make them (or us) earn your business. Great vendors will see it as an opportunity to augment your power and influence as a leader and establish themselves as a strong partner. And as for the not so great vendors or vendors that don’t fit your needs, well, better to know that before signing on the dotted line.

At, we are committed to being great partners, from proving ROI in a trial, to realizing it in an ongoing relationship. Make us earn your business because we know, once we do, you will be one of our best customers.

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