Bespoke apps vs off-the-shelf software

Deciding whether an off-the-shelf application or custom build is right for your organisation is a complex question.

You’re unlikely to need bespoke software for every aspect of your business. For example, developing a bespoke video conferencing application would be a poor investment for most companies.

But where you have very specific requirements, a constantly evolving market or a need for an enhanced user experience, made-to-measure could be right for you.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions.

What is bespoke software?

A custom-built application will be created from the “ground up” to your exact specifications.

Custom apps are developed using a range of programming languages, frameworks and tools to create tailored functionality and a user experience which meets your specific requirements.

What is off-the-shelf software?

Also known as COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) these are ready-made applications which are available to everyone.

They serve broad needs (such as word processing software) or more narrow ones (such as room booking applications for hotels). There may be some scope to customise your experience (such as adjusting your menu options in Microsoft Word) however this will be limited.

The advantages of bespoke software

Software developers at work

Fit the software to your business, not your business to the software

The obvious advantage of custom apps is that they are built to your specific requirements.

Inevitably, with any off-the-shelf software, at some point you’ll need to adjust your business processes to how that software is built. To what extent this becomes a problem will vary from business to business – but if the number of compromises are damaging your business’ performance, then custom software might be the answer.

There can be tangible benefits from made-to-measure software. If you’re implementing it to reduce repetitive, administrative tasks, a bespoke solution will eliminate more of them and in exactly the way you need it to, so the cost saving will be greater.

If you’re using it to enhance your customer experience through improved customer relationships or case management, a bespoke system will give you the opportunity to offer a better service in every way you can imagine. And it will result in a unique sales proposition and high customer retention rates.

How we helped HDC

We supported pensions adviser HDC to simplify the process of producing detailed product comparisons for their clients. Each document is between 100 and 150 pages and, when collated manually, this took a large amount of time.

An off-the-shelf solution couldn’t have managed the complex level of detail and numerous algorithms involved in creating the report.

We created a bespoke application which constructs the framework of each report quickly and easily, giving significant administrative cost savings. The consistency which this approach provides also makes it quicker and easier for the advisers to add their bespoke advice to each report.

You don’t pay for what you don’t need

An off-the-shelf system will come with an abundance of functionality – almost certainly more than you need. So, you may find you are paying a significant licence cost and only using a fraction of the software’s capability.

A bespoke solution will be leaner, built to only include the functionality you need. This will also make it a simpler and more intuitive landscape for your users.

You’ll receive more effective support

Assuming that you sign up to a support contract for your bespoke software, that support should be superior in a couple of ways.

Firstly, the technician providing your support service should have an intimate understanding of both your business and how you’re using the software, and therefore be able understand and manage issues more effectively.

Secondly, you will often continue to have access to the individual who developed the application and therefore is able to resolve any issues very quickly.

It is important to consider the support contract with your software developer. It should contain clear agreements and SLAs, and specify these for all areas of support, including security updates, integration updates, hosting and bug fixes. If this isn’t clearly defined and agreed from the outset, then you will not benefit from the superior support which should be possible from a bespoke build.

It will grow with your business

Investing in a bespoke application is often a key part of a growth strategy. Custom software doesn’t just solve the problem you have today (eg reducing costs, speeding processes, enhancing your customer experience), it will grow with your business long-term.

Custom applications are scalable in a way that off-the-shelf packages aren’t. Even with the ubiquitous Microsoft 365, you need to move between different packages as your company expands.

Bespoke software will scale with your business and the only time your application will change is when your requirements change.

It’s your software

This might seem like an obvious point, but if you develop a custom app then any future developments and changes are yours to control and align to your business’ roadmap.

With an off-the-shelf application you’re in the hands of the software company. If they decide to make a change, there’s usually little you can do about it. You will have to adapt your business processes to suit the software.

There’s also a risk that they simply decide to stop supporting the software or go out of business. OK, it’s pretty unlikely that Microsoft will ditch Excel or file for bankruptcy overnight, but this is a real risk with more niche off-the-shelf applications. With a bespoke application you have full control.

The advantages of off-the-shelf software

Microsoft storefront, London

Speedy set up times

When you buy off-the-shelf your software is usually “plug and play”, requiring minimal work to establish it within your business. Training information is likely to be abundant and easy to access for your teams.

A bespoke build will take far longer. You will probably spend weeks (if not months) simply defining your exact requirements from the system, let alone the time needed to actually build it. A custom build is not for the faint hearted!

It’s cheaper (probably)

Generally speaking, an off-the-shelf purchase will be cheaper. This is certainly true in the short term: you can purchase a licence to use an application relatively cheaply and require few resources to implement it.

The cost of implementing a bespoke application will almost certainly be much higher. Aside from the cost of paying a company to carry out this custom development for you, there will also be much more time required from you and your people. You’ll need to create detailed requirements, be involved in the project as it progresses and test the final output.

Longer term, the cost comparison becomes a greyer area. If you need to change your off-the-shelf software because your business outgrows it, this can be costly both in terms of purchasing the new licences and the time and disruption of integrating it into your business and re-training your team. With a bespoke application you will be able to adapt the functionality to your new requirements with less disruption for your business, however you will still need to pay the development costs.

Gain benefits you wouldn’t have thought of

Off-the-shelf applications may have more functionality than you’ll ever need, but they can also contain really useful tools which you simply didn’t realise you needed.

These applications have been continually developed for years (decades in some cases) to meet the needs of their users in the most effective way possible. CRM systems, in particular, are a good example of this – it’s a very competitive market which pushes all the companies within it to strive for excellence.

This can be particularly useful for startups where their requirements list for a bespoke build might be unclear due to their short time in business.

More extensively tested

When you purchase off-the-shelf software you are automatically benefiting from the years of development and testing which have gone into it, and the experience of thousands, if not millions, of other users.

This means that any bugs in the software are more likely to be quickly identified, simply due to the sheer volume of people using it each day. With a bespoke build there is a higher chance that you’ll come across bugs – even with the most assiduous testing regime, something always slips through the net.

Of course, whether they are quickly fixed by your off-the-shelf software provider may be another matter.

Which is right for your business?

We specialise in helping organisations to make the right technology decisions.

For example, read how we supported Brooknight Security to streamline and future-proof their software through a combination of off-the-shelf and bespoke applications.

Call us on 01732 600 170 to discuss whether off-the-shelf or bespoke might be right for you, or email us at

Get an expert review

Arrange a 15 minute call with an expert to review your IT set up and find ways to make your IT better.
Get in touch