When Republic Services sought to retool the systems supporting its national account team, the environmental services company selected Salesforce.com as part of the overhaul-and soon after making that decision, Republic Services hired Bluewolf, a New York-based consulting firm and Salesforce.com partner, for some deployment help.

Bill Halnon, CIO of Republic Services, says his company wanted to work with an experienced hand in the Salesforce.com space. "After selecting the tool, we looked at how we [were] going to implement this," Halnon says. "Even though it is a cloud application, it required some customization and configuration to fit our needs. Just like we would go out and look for an SAP partner, we took the same route with Salesforce.com."

Republic Services tapped Bluewolf for a range of services, from requirements definitions all the way through implementation and testing, according to Halnon. The company also uses Bluewolf Beyond, a service that Halnon says helps Republic Services maintain its Salesforce.com solution while it works to build up the expertise to support the SaaS app in-house.

"BlueWolf understands the package inside and out, which we did not," Halnon says. "We didn't have any experience in it."

Republic Services exemplifies an ongoing pattern in the Salesforce.com market: the massive involvement of consulting and implementation partners. While some Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings are do-it-yourself (DIY) jobs requiring little assistance, the self-service model doesn't necessarily hold true for more sophisticated cloud offerings such as Salesforce.com.

Complexity of Salesforce.com Creates Climate for Partnering

Several factors make a Salesforce.com project more of an undertaking. For one, Salesforce.com offers numerous configuration options, and some rollouts may call for custom software development. Those software tweaks apply to a broadening array of software products-Salesforce.com now encompasses not only sales force automation and customer relationship management (CRM) but also customer service, social media monitoring, collaboration and human resources performance management. Then there's the issue of integrating Salesforce.com into an organization's other enterprise applications.

The choices and complexities of a Salesforce.com deployment compel many enterprises to call in a specialist. "In our enterprise accounts, the bulk of the implementations are done by partners," says Ross Piper, senior vice president for enterprise strategy and alliances at Salesforce.com.

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The company's pool of implementation allies is growing. The Salesforce.com channel ecosystem, which consists of more than 3,900 consulting partners, is growing at a 42 percent clip, according to Piper, while the number of people certified as Salesforce.com consultants is growing at a 144 percent pace.

Piper cited the expanding scale and breadth of Salesforce.com implementations as driving the need for partners; projects increasingly involve multiple Salesforce.com products and platforms, he says. In addition, a small army of ISVs contribute to the constellation of software available to Salesforce.com customers. Piper says some 1,700 apps are available through the company's AppExchange.

Steve Horan, CIO of Nuance Communications, says customers need to think of Salesforce.com as an ecosystem of capabilities. Nuance, which focuses on voice and language solutions, plans to go live with Salesforce.com in October as part of a project to deploy a standard sales methodology across its lines of business. Third-party apps will be part of that implementation. The company also worked with Bluewolf to help sift through the options.

"There is a large volume of companies playing on the Force.com platform," Horan says. "Most of them are new and most are not very big. The partners are the ones who can tell you which ones work and which ones don't."

Horan said Nuance plans to use a third-party sales forecasting app and is looking at other apps that collect social interactions and provide help with sales compensation programs.

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Eric Berridge, Bluewolf cofounder, says the AppExchange provides assurance that the app will run cleanly on the Salesforce.com platform and offers a rating system that provides some insight into an apps success. Beyond that, though, it resembles the Wild West. "Some apps can appear to be very rich in functionality and can deliver on that promise," he says, "but there's not a whole lot behind them from a company perspective or an ongoing development perspective."

Berridge says customers have to take care to avoid locking themselves into an app that serves a short-term need but creates a long-term issue when it comes to the technology roadmap and vendor viability.

The business-critical nature of some Salesforce.com deployments also contributes to the need for partnering. A SaaS deployment may simply focus on the application, with little or no need for professional services. However, Salesforce.com deployments don't always exist in isolation. They are often embedded in broader projects to revamp sales or customer service in a department or across an organization.

K12, a company that provides online K-12 education, fits that model. The organization decided to replace its legacy customer system as part of an effort to provide a more personal and relevant customer experience, according to Dianne Conley, vice president of marketing systems at K12. The company selected Salesforce.com over Oracle as its software provider; Salesforce.com recommended Appirio, a San Francisco-based services provider specializing in the cloud, as an implementation partner.

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K12 planned to hire a partner for the project, whether the nod went to Salesforce.com or Oracle. "It wasn't even something we thought twice about for an undertaking on the scale we were doing," Conley says.

Partners That Understand Salesforce.com Get Company's Attention

CIOs hire partners for a number of reasons, but general expertise in things Salesforce.com ranks among the top draws.

Horan says Nuance was looking for a company that thoroughly understands the platform and could contribute its experience in implementing Salesforce.com across multiple companies. He said the outside-expert approach avoids the trials and tribulations the company might have encountered with inexperienced internal personnel.

"If you engage partners, you are more likely to remain current with both the technology and what other companies are doing, in interesting ways, to solve problems," Horan adds.

That experience translates into configuration expertise, an important factor in the Salesforce.com environment. Salesforce.com offers ample opportunity to tweak the technology to meet a customer needs without having to engage in extensive custom development, according to IT managers and partners.

K12 took advantage of Appirio's configuration skills. The partner's understanding of the Salesforce.com platform let K12 leverage the software's native functionality "minimal customization," Conley says. "That was the real value-add they brought to us."

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Nara Balakrishna, vice president of marketing and strategy at Appirio, agrees. "Our advice, for the most part, is to do as much in configuration as possible," he says, noting that heavy customization adds administrative complexity and begins to diminish the agility of a cloud solution.

As Saideep Raj, a senior executive at Accenture and that company's SaaS lead, points out, "It becomes an enormous burden to maintain those customizations, especially as new versions of the software come out. You need to be careful."

Raj says companies who take on customizations must revisit them when an upgrade occurs to make sure they don't break. Modifications made via configuration, on the other hand, will continue to work and provide for a far more sustainable approach, he explains.

According to Salesforce.com, Accenture was the first global systems integrator to partner with the company.

Salesforce.com Integration Brings CIOs, Consultants Together

The need to integrate Salesforce.com with other apps also brings CIOs and consultants together.

Republic Services' integration points include a customer data repository, an Ariba vendor management system, and an InfoPro system for field operations, Halnon says. As for partner assistance, Bluewolf wasn't heavily involved with the core transport of data, he notes, but the firm handle the integration of Republic Services' Tibco enterprise messaging bus and Salesforce.com.

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At K12, meanwhile, Conley says Appirio spent a lot of time talking to the IT team about how Salesforce.com would integrate with its legacy systems. K12 is using Salesforce.com's Service Cloud to support its student enrollment and customer care processes and call centers. K12 sought to integrate Service Cloud with proprietary systems that support its application approval process, enrollment and student information services.

Appirio, Conley says, provided advice on "how we would architect the integration and make it work," which included integrating Saleforce with K12's telephony system.

Salesforce.com integration at Nuance currently involves a connection between Salesforce.com and the Eloqua marketing automation platform, Horan says. That integration provides a lead-to-opportunity link. The company now wants to pursue opportunity-to-order integration, which will pull Oracle Financials into the Salesforce.com orbit.

Mike Lillie, Nuamce's vice president of information technology, says the company plans to tie Oracle Financials into Salesforce.com soon after its Salesforce.com deployment goes live. He says Bluewolf has participated in preliminary design discussions with the Nuance integration team.

John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 20 years. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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