And the winner is ...
If anyone has earned the title of "comeback kid" in this comparison, it would have to be Arena. Based on their "worst in class" website I wrote them off during the round of 22. Which is what really makes this process so remarkable.
When I decided to blog this, I did it in order to help other people who were undertaking the same challenge, and I honestly never considered that by making this public, my own process would be affected, but that's exactly what happened. The only reason Arena even knows they were considered by HDC is because I put the process out there for public comment. Jeremy Hoff of Shepherd of the Hills saw my post and told the Arena guys about me and suggested that they contact me because Arena was not portrayed favorably in my review. Those contacts lead to Arena making the final three, and at the end of the day, Arena is our choice in this whole process. That simply would not have happened had I not made this effort.
I am very pleased with our choice. After the long (6-9 hours each) demos with these companies, Judy and I sat down and compared the answers to the 26 question company survey, the references we received back on the companies, and how each vendor did with the 91 question demo. As we looked over those three elements the choice became very clear. Arena stood out above the competitors for HDC in the areas that were important to us. Each of the other two solutions was very solid, and I will post a full review of those shortly, but in the end Arena won the day for the following reasons:
(1) Arena is tops at tracking and identifying non-obvious relationships among our people. One of the difficulties in ministering to a large flock is trying to figure out who knows who. Too often we struggle to figure out how people are connected and often times we find out after a crisis that "person a" knew "person b" and if we had known that we could have ministered more effectively right out of the gate. Arena helps us identify those relationships based on the activities, groups, programs, and ministries that people are part of.
(2) Arena is more customizable than the alternative solutions. Every church has its own unique ways of doing certain things as the culture arises over a period of time. Arena provides HDC with the most flexible platform for us to make those small changes that we require culturally. A great example of this is that there are several check-in solutions for Arena, including one church that is developing a mac version of the check-in software. One size doesn't always fit all, and Arena is built and designed to work with those who beat to a different drum. Arena was the only company that provides a developer program that encourages an open source model of development of their software including access to alpha and beta code of the core software.
(3) Arena is hosted locally. Although I am confident in the hosting solutions offered by the other companies, I am more comfortable having my data located in my own datacenter and backed up offsite. I already have a server room, high quality racks, extensive battery backup, dedicated air conditioning, and a highly competent IT staff. These resources are paid for and an integral part of my operation now, although I will have to add some hours to my IT staff in order to setup, use and develop for Arena. Also, no matter how fast my internet connection is, it doesn't hold a candle to my gigabit network and a totally dedicated server.
(4) Arena is more "geographically aware" than the other products. If you want to know who lives within a mile of someone in your database, Arena will tell you. The others will not. There were other ways of getting at some of that information, but not to the level and sophistication of Arena. This is a heritage of the CCV origins of the product, as those guys focus a lot on neighborhood small groups and such.
(5) Arena met the requirements of our guided demo better than the competition. Of the 91 questions there were five that none of the solutions could accomplish. Beyond those five, there were only three that Arena did not meet. Those three break down into two business purposes, and one of those areas could already be addressed in Arena but the interface for it was not acceptable. During the demo the Arena team expressed that they would be willing to solve that problem for us as part of our implementation. Thus, there was only one business task that they did not accomplish, and we were told it was part of their development plan. We tried hard to focus on the databases "as they were" and only looked to "future development" at the end of the day. Arena wins either way. The other two solutions had 12 and 27 non-acceptables for us (after removing the five common tasks) in our guided demo.
(6) The references for Arena were overwhelmingly positive. Arena, like any company, has unhappy customers and former customers. I talked with two of those. But at the end of the day the churches that were using Arena effectively seemed more positive about their choice and their solution than the references of the competition, and their satisfaction is something that we hope to emulate :-) The churches that seem to be most positive about Arena are the churches that are part of the developer program and the churches that want to work with Arena in moving the product forward. That fits the attitude of HDC and my team, and we look forward to being part of the Arena developer group.
It's important to realize that we were evaluating three great solutions. Each of the products considered at this level has many satisfied customers, and is working very hard to serve the church as a whole. There was a point (well, three points actually) in this process where I thought we would be choosing each of the three companies. Each of the salesmen in this process is absolutely convinced that they have the right solution for HDC, and two of them are convinced I made the wrong choice :-) That's a good thing. These guys are passionate about what they do, and they are working hard to put their product in the hands of as many churches as possible.
I again want to reiterate my appreciation for Mark White of Arena, Steve Drechsler of Fellowship Technologies, and Dominic Silla of Connection Power. Each of these guys worked very hard, and took the time to answer all of our questions and be available to us in every way possible. The work they did allowed us to get a full understanding of their product and how it connected with the needs of HDC. Without their hard work our process would have been a lot more difficult. HDC owes a debt of gratitude to each of these guys.
At the end of the day, Arena was the right choice for HDC. It may be the right choice for your organization, it may not. You can only decide by putting the companies in front of you through your own process identifying what features are important to you and your organization, and then see who meets that criteria the best.