Bespoke vs commercial off the shelf (COTS) software in 2020

Bespoke vs commercial off the shelf (COTS) software in 2020

Written by Alan Ingram on Monday, 22 June 2020. Posted in Business process management

Are you searching for bespoke or commercial off the shelf (COTS) software to automate paper-based processes such as employee on-boarding, due diligence or Product Information Management?

When evaluating vendors and software, executives and procurement teams will need to consider whether to purchase COTS, bespoke software, or a hybrid model to automate manual processes and better meet their current and future needs.

In this blog, we look at the pros and cons of each option and ask which one is best in 2020?

What is off the shelf software?

COTS software is developed for mass consumption and includes broad range of features to accommodate most eventualities.

The authors create a set of functionality to meet common business challenges with a feature-set as broad as possible to encompass the needs of thousands of potential customers. They aim to tread the line between flexibility, so as to not limit the audience of their product, and simplicity, to make the product cost-effective and easy to use.

Off the shelf software advantages

Lower cost

A COTS product may be more cost effective initially, as it is aimed the mass market and can benefit from economies of scale. The result is production costs are shared across many users meaning the list price is often more affordable.

Quick deployment

Some off the shelf software is designed to be installed and implemented in-house without any specialist skills, meaning you can be up-and-running more quickly. This is not always the case where integration with other systems is required, but for some simpler applications it can allow for a quicker deployment.

Large support community

Off the shelf software usually has a large eco-system with a community of user forums, verified reviews, documentation and videos to support your learning and save you money on training.

Tested software with regular updates

Before COTS software is released, it is subject to rigorous testing with some companies actively seeking participants to beta test early software versions. This means the software is more likely to work out-of-the-box. However, long development cycles can mean that any bugs that do arise may have to wait until the next software release, which can be many months later.

Off the shelf software disadvantages

High lifetime cost

Although commercial off the shelf software may support integration with common applications such as SAP or Salesforce, if your existing internal application is not supported or you need more customised integration, it will involve expensive and time-consuming development work, if it is possible at all.

More features than you need!

To reach to a wider audience, a COTS package needs to appeal to most organisations and therefore often comes bloated with features you do not need. Whilst it may be possible to just not use these features, their existence will invariably have pushed up your purchase price.

However, over time an even larger hidden cost of overly complex software is that of training your users.

You may need to compromise

As we saw above, off the shelf software contains a morass of features that you might not need and it’s unlikely to meet your every requirement so you may need to compromise.

However, when you are asking yourself "could we change our business to work that way?" while evaluating a product, you are probably making unnecessary sacrifices. Even worse is the possibility you do not recognise the limitation until after you have signed the contract and are committed to the product.

No control over product roadmap

The vendor is highly unlikely to alter their product roadmap to accommodate new feature requests from a single customer. Many hundreds (even thousands) of customers will need to request the same feature to influence a vendor’s development plan.

Conversely, if they decide to implement a feature that harms your productivity, or they decide to fundamentally change the product direction, or even discontinue it, you are totally at their mercy.

False economies

Be wary of what may turn out to be false economies; many large-scale COTS systems may be able to meet your requirements, making it look like a cheaper option to re-purpose what you already have than to buy something new.

However, although it might be possible to add, for example, a CapEx approval workflow to an existing enterprise ERP system, the complexity often means that the size and cost of the project will dwarf the costs to build a simple CapEx process to easily fit in to your business.

What is bespoke software?

Bespoke software, also known as custom written software, is exclusively built for a specific purpose and/or organisation to meet their exact specifications and to work with existing internal applications.

It can be created using one of hundreds of development languages and platforms available by a team of skilled software developers to meet your exact specification.

Advantages of bespoke software

Meets your requirements

You can buy off the shelf systems for things like employee on-boarding, CapEx automation, due diligence, and HR processes. However, even the most ubiquitous products have idiosyncrasies and ways of working that might not fit your organisation.

Consequently, the main benefit of bespoke software development is that it meets all of your requirements and follows your internal processes.

Agile development

Another benefit of building bespoke digital solutions is that the project team can work according to an agile methodology. Agile development focuses on regularly releasing functionality, or iterations, that allows for quick changes based on user feedback.

The feedback received ultimately results in modified software that meets user needs better.

More control

By employing an in-house development team, bespoke software allows you to have control over the project and ultimately own the intellectual property rights on the software.

Both the project management and development teams can work in close proximity meaning you can make quick changes, implement additional features and communicate regularly without the support of a third-party.

Integration with existing internal systems

Your bespoke software can implement any common industry standard APIs to facilitate integration with existing internal databases and systems. This means that as long as the other system supports integration, it can be integrated with your new bespoke solution.

Less training needed

With bespoke software, the process follows documented policies and procedures that are familiar to your employees. The software simply automates a previously paper-driven or manual process meaning users can be trained internally on your processes without needing external training on how to use a potentially complex product.

Disadvantages of bespoke software

High cost

The major drawback of bespoke software is the high initial cost, because it is built to your exact business requirements. But beyond the initial high cost is the unknown costs; most development projects seem simple at the beginning, but the true complexity may only become apparent once you start to deploy the project. It is this complexity and detail that often costs considerably more than the bulk of the ‘simple’ functionality.

Takes longer to implement

Bespoke business software will take longer to implement than a commercial off the shelf product. The danger is you may spend months (possibly years!) building the solution, only to discover the technology is out-of-date or it no longer meets user needs.

Over-reliance on developers

If you employ an in-house development team to build the bespoke software solution, the possibility of key team members leaving the business is an ever-present danger. Most developers have speciality languages or prefer certain toolkits, if they leave your team, these skills can be hard to replace or take considerable time for other team members to get up to speed with.

Risk of appointing developers or third-parties with poor technical skills

If you appoint a third-party or employ an in-house team, how do you know the development team are capable of delivering stable, bug-free software? When appointing a developer or software house, ask for references and always be cautious of very low quotations and always be sure to check references.

You may not have access to source code

If you use the services of a bespoke software development company, you may not have access to the source code.

To protect your business-critical software, it is possible to store the source code with a third-party Escrow provider who will maintain the code for an annual fee and protects you in the event of the software company ceasing trading.

A hybrid model…

So, bespoke and off the shelf software – which option is best in 2020?

We would argue a hybrid model offers the best of both worlds.

The hybrid model involves the customisation of a COTS product to a client’s exact specification, but it can often take advantage of existing building-blocks or no-code\low-code development environments to speed up implementation.

Accelerate digital transformation with BP Logix Process Director

At ePC, we work with Process Director, an off the shelf BPMS in continuous development over the last decade by BP Logix. The platform is a toolkit that allows you to build bespoke software incorporating electronic forms, business rules, workflows and dashboards quicker than a large-scale COTS package such as SAP or Salesforce but with the same flexibility as a development platform such as Java or .NET.

In many cases, we find Process Director can be configured to meet 95% of the requirements out of the box; with the remaining 5% subject to bespoke software development and/or API integration by our technical architects.

This approach results in software that does exactly what you want and is not bloated with extra functionality. Plus, you get peace of mind that your mission critical application is built on a solid, well supported framework.

Cost effective, quick deployment

At the same time, the hybrid model is less expensive than bespoke software because much of the development work has already been completed and you are not starting from scratch.

Another benefit of the hybrid model is the implementation takes weeks, not months. Much of this time is spent talking with key stakeholders to map out the process steps, rules and users and creating a specification. In most cases, the development time takes a few weeks compared to months with bespoke software or enterprise COTS solutions.

Throughout the development cycle, we offer clients access to prototypes of their end solution for testing purposes. In our experience, externally accessible prototypes provide valuable feedback to development teams and help gain user confidence in the end solution at an early stage and helps fuel ideas for the final tweaks towards the end.

And the benefits continue well beyond the initial challenge being completed. Once you have invested in a platform upon which to build your solution, it is highly likely that it can be re-used to automate additional manual processes within your organisation.


Do you consider a CapEx budget used when the request is initiated or approved? Should all team managers approve a new job request or is one, two or 75% of them acceptable? Should you be able to modify the wording of the 'standard' NDA during a merger and acquisition (M&A) due diligence process?

There is often no right or wrong answer to these questions but it is likely that having the flexibility to answer them yourself, rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all product, could be crucial to your implementation.

Ultimately, the decision you make will depend on the complexity of your requirements, available budget and whether you need the system urgently.

While commercial off the shelf software like Salesforce is perfect for CRM, we recommend the hybrid model for large corporate processes, like employee on-boarding or product information management as well as organisations with a unique set of requirements.

Solutions like BP Logix Process Director are no-code toolkits that can be used to build your processes exactly as you need them and not hold you back for ever more. Even if your organisation changes, business users can easily change your forms, workflows and rules thanks to drag-and-drop tools, templates and pre-built data connectors.

With off the shelf systems, you have to change your business to work with them – our hybrid approach means your system is built to work exactly as you want.

Talk to us today

As a value-added reseller (VAR), we have over 15 years’ experience of customising off the shelf BPM software for our clients. Call us on 03300 100 000 or complete this form to discuss your project today.

About the Author

Alan Ingram

Alan Ingram

Alan is responsible for the strategic direction of ePC’s technical services and managing relationships with key client accounts.