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How to choose the best Salesforce consultant: 25 key questions

How to choose the best Salesforce consultant: 25 key questions

When vetting vendors, references are essential. But with Salesforce consultants, and cloud consultants in general, a deeper screening will ensure you hire the best for your project. These 25 questions will help.

Customer relationship management is the lifeblood of many businesses. But not every company has the in-house expertise necessary to configure and maintain a complex Salesforce implementation. Here’s where a Salesforce consultant comes in. Steeped with experience and know-how, a Salesforce consultant can pay significant dividends — assuming you choose the right one in the first place.

References are a great place to start. But in screening any cloud consultancy, you need to look for business acumen, industry experience and technical prowess. This is not always self-evident from client testimonials, or even referrals from trusted colleagues. Moreover, a firm may have a stellar reputation, but it all comes down to the people on your job. It’s vital to focus on the people who will actually be on your project, not on the general characteristics of the firm — because the firm’s reputation will do your project no good.

The following set of questions is designed to help you evaluate the suitability of a Salesforce.com (SFDC) consultancy. It is not meant to be delivered as a questionnaire for the consultancy to fill out in the RFP. These are not your typical boilerplate fare. Instead, they are meant to help you uncover hidden red flags in your quest to surface the best for you project, so use the questions conversationally. That way you will see their flinches and know where to probe next.

Be aware that, because client requirements vary, there's no "correct" set of answers to these questions. Instead, score the vendors on how closely they fit your organizational needs and corporate IT style. No firm is going to get a perfect score (be happy if you find a “solid B+”), but rest assured, almost all of these questions can be generalized to fit most CRM platforms or cloud services and applications, not just Salesforce.

Before we get to the detailed questions, there's one key issue to address, which I'll call Question #0: Are you looking for a true consultant or just a contractor? The difference is huge. A contractor will do what you ask, but will typically do only what you ask. In contrast, a real consultant will advise you, guide you on best practices and business processes, and tell you what should and shouldn’t be done—and then do it alongside you. Note that in most cases, I don’t provide normative answers to the questions. I do this because I don’t want to give the consultants a crib sheet of easy answers. To get the “right answers” and the rationales behind them, you — like they — will have to read chapters 9 through 13 of my book Salesforce Secrets of Success: Best Practices for Growth and Profitability. Shameless is my middle name.

Uncover your assigned Salesforce team’s true capabilities

Asking the following questions will help uncover the true capabilities of the consultant team that will be assigned to your particular Salesforce project.

  1. Who specifically will be on the project team? Will they commit to keeping the project personnel from the proposal on the project for the life of the relevant phases?
  2. Are the team members certified SFDC consultants? Do their specific certifications match your project needs?
  3. Has the team deployed a Lightning implementation? Did they write any custom components?
  4. Has the team deployed a Salesforce1 implementation?
  5. Will the team be using any outside resources (including subcontractors and offshore personnel)?

Consultants love to play the bait-and-switch game. A proposal will be full of wondrous tales of experience and achievement at the firm, but no promises will be made about the individuals who will actually be on site for your project. Evaluate the specific individuals who will be involved, as a consulting firm’s reputation isn’t going to overcome a project team’s weakness.

Dig deeper into your assigned team’s consulting experience

You also need people on your project who have been down this road before. The whole point of paying for a consultancy is the value add they provide and the things they know not to do.

  1. How many projects has the team completed that are very similar to yours? Acid-test question: What are the lessons learned from those projects?
  2. How many cloud projects have they delivered overall? How many projects have they delivered in the same “cloud” as yours (e.g., Sales vs. Marketing, AWS vs. Azure)?
  3. How many clients has this team worked with that are of a similar scale to your company (e.g., privately-held SMB vs. Fortune 500 vs. Fortune 100)?
  4. Do the business analysts or project leads have MBAs or more than ten years of non-consulting business experience?
  5. Can you name one of our competitors? One of our suppliers? The kind of companies we sell to?
  6. Does the team have business experience in your field* or industry? Has the team worked with any of your competitors, suppliers or customers?
  7. How does the team communicate best practices on Salesforce and related cloud technologies — in writing, in-person reviews, leading group sessions or by some other means?
  8. How will the team provide best practices on your business processes? Is this going to be drawings, documents or discussions?

This is where consultants' expertise can set them apart from mere contractors. What you want here is valuable insight into what competitors are doing, as well as best practices within your industry. Why? Because you don't know what you don't know.

* When evaluating a consultants' domain knowledge, don't be too narrow in interpreting "your" industry. Partial credit should be given for related businesses. That said, don't overvalue experience that's too far afield.

Get the real scoop on client references

Everybody knows to ask for references, but the consultant’s responses contain clues that many clients don’t know how to interpret, so we go a little deeper here.

  1. What is the percentage of cloud project failures? (Anything below 3 percent is delusional, but failure to give an answer indicates an important character flaw.)
  2. What is the percentage of their clients that they “fire” or walk away from? (Consultant best practice is between 5 percent and 10 percent a year; failure to give an answer is an indicator of weak internal management.)
  3. How many of their clients overall are current clients? (In the cloud, there’s nothing wrong with having a majority of a consultant’s clients dormant and self-sufficient.)
  4. How many clients overall does the consultant claim are referenceable? (Wildly high numbers are suspect; low numbers are scary.)
  5. How many client references did the consultant offer? How many of them were willing to talk to you?
  6. What is the firm's customer satisfaction ranking in the Salesforce App Exchange? (There are two of these: one, a not-very-meaningful 5-star popularity rating; the other, the acid-test “Project History Customer Satisfaction” score with two-decimal point precision.)

Of course, references from clients in closely related industries are king. Ask around to get past the perfectly groomed references that the vendor provides. Check discussion boards, user groups, Glassdoor, and other social media outlets to find out what the buzz is on the consultants, both as individuals and as a firm.

Verify your consultant’s Salesforce focus and depth

It probably goes without saying, but you want a consultant who knows Salesforce. If other cloud vendors are involved in your project, generalize these questions to include them:

  1. What percentage of the vendor's revenues are SFDC projects?
  2. What percentage of the vendor's SFDC projects are subcontracts where they are not the lead consultancy?
  3. What percentage of their SFDC projects are referred from SFDC sales reps?
  4. How long has the firm had a dedicated SFDC practice?
  5. How many SFDC systems has it deployed?
  6. How long has it had an SFDC practice dedicated to your vertical industry?

There are a lot of poseurs out there advertising legions of certified consultants. Take those claims with a grain of salt. Look deeper into how serious the vendor is about its Salesforce practice. Some very large consultancies have, in fact, surprisingly small practices truly dedicated to Salesforce — and they use tons of subcontractors to bulk up their talent base.

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