Salesforce.com cloud CRM apps demanding IT skills for customization

Salesforce.com users are adopting traditional IT practices of software development and project management to tailor this cloud CRM software to meet their business requirements.

BURLINGTON, Mass. - Salesforce.com customers are increasingly discovering that the cloud CRM system, once looked at as a plug-and-play technology, often requires the same rigorous planning, management and customization that used to belong to the IT world and on-premises applications.

At a Salesforce.com Boston User Group meeting held here this week, customers discussed the challenges they face in adapting the software by adding such functions as scheduling, project management and contact management  to better fit their business requirements. Many are wrestling with the choice of investing in CRM in-house developers or turning to a third-party CRM consulting company to do the work for them.

Customization can rack up costs and create tedious tracking and documentation work to ensure that the code changes -- and the ripple effects that they can cause to related programming -- are maintained properly.

“Vanilla isn’t always going to cut it,” said Leah McGowen-Hare, a Salesforce.com senior technical instructor during a presentation. “Things are becoming more complex, so the simple [program] may not give you what you need.”

But the prospect of changing Salesforce.com code clearly troubles some users. One Boston-area customer, who asked not to be named in this story, challenged a panel of Salesforce.com representatives and customers when he asked how to best mitigate risk from customization projects.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” this customer said. “Whatever the development time is, you add two times that for maintenance. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.”  

“I’ve stopped thinking of Salesforce as a solution and I’m recognizing it as a platform,’’ he added.

For many Salesforce.com users, customization isn’t second nature because they are often from the business side of the house. To adapt the software, they need to consider hiring developers, acquiring the skills themselves or contracting with a consulting firm.

Another option is to license software from the Salesforce.com’s App Exchange, which has more than 1,000 programs written by third-party software companies and independent developers. But despite the abundance of choices, customers will not necessarily find something that meets their specific needs.

In fact, Carmen Goitia, another user group meeting attendee, said that even if she had selected a program from the App Exchange, she may have still needed to do some customization to create the scheduling application her company needed.  

“I just don’t have that time,” said Goitia, a partner at Exec-Comm, a communications consulting company in New York.

Instead, Goitia contracted with OpFocus, a Burlington, Mass.-based consulting firm that provides training and programming services. The company also sponsored the user group event. It designed a scheduling program for Exec-Comm that blends data from multiple sources and tracks the availability of speakers and teachers the company employs.

For some users, the real catch with customization is the tracking and management of the code, which conjures up a very contradictory picture of the cloud-based, easy-to-use software that was supposed to be so unlike traditional software. But Salesforce.com’s McGowen-Hare said it is critical for customers to document any coding.

“Salesforce isn’t going to document your customizations,” she said. “You have to take ownership of anything you add onto it. If you have consultants coming in and building stuff, you need to require them to give you documentation of what they did.”

Despite this added burden and expense of customization, some users said it is definitely worth the investment to make the application environment better for their users.

“I start with the goal to use standard [code] for as much as possible,” Jeffrey Wechsler, a Salesforce.com user and vice president of strategy in research and development and technology at MaidPro in Boston. “Having said that, the more time I spend with the users, I find myself doing more and more customization.’’

Wechsler, who participated in a panel discussion at the meeting, said he increasingly opts to customize if it will improve the user interface or help users do their jobs more efficiently. “It will cost me more and maintenance is hard, but if it works on the customer side, it’s worth it,” he said.

Adam Bataran, co-leader of the Boston-based user group and director of Enterprise Salesforce.com at  Iron Mountain Inc., said if companies are considering customization projects, it is all the more important to create a roadmap for their Salesforce.com implementations.

“We understand that when we introduce new levels of complexity, there is a downstream impact,” Bataran said. “The more customization, the more time it takes.”

He said companies should create a vision statement so they know what they want to achieve with the Salesforce.com software, and this should help them determine which customization projects make sense and which ones fall into the nice-but-not-necessary bucket.

Once specific projects are identified, a company can make informed choices, he added. With customization, you are “introducing complexity to the system, but that’s for a very small population of people, maybe five or six people,” who develop and maintain the system, Bataran said. “But your overall user community could be hundreds of people and for them the usability has dramatically changed.”

“Imagine if you could shave 10 minutes off of a worker’s day and it cost you $10,000 in consulting,” the user group leader added. “Multiply that time savings times the number of users and that’s a massive savings.”

 

 

 

 

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