I have worked in IT consulting in the energy industry for 15 years and, in that time, I have seen and worked with many different software products – some good, some bad, some in between. In terms of CRM platforms, I have frequently encountered Salesforce. Many retail energy providers (REPs) currently use Salesforce, or plan to use it in the future. Like all products, it can provide tremendous benefits straight out of the box, but there are limitations. Selling power/gas products is not like selling traditional products in different business domains. The CPQ process in Salesforce doesn’t fit nicely into the products/pricing model that REPs use. Based on my experiences with the benefits and modifications needed within Salesforce, I’d like to share an evaluation of the main modules for taking a retail opportunity from prospect to enrollment.
Account/Broker Creation – Setting up new accounts/brokers is fairly simple straight out of the box. Light development is necessary to create individual pages/actions for the two, but no major development should be needed. Business processes to on-board and approve brokers can also be built/managed within Salesforce.
Opportunity Creation – Creating new opportunities can be accomplished on day one of using Salesforce. Similar to accounts above, new fields can be added easily to capture additional data points and additional development can be implemented to develop more complex workflows/processes.
Credit – There are several apps available on the App Exchange that will integrate with your instance of Salesforce (Business Connect, Credit Checker, etc.). Regardless of the app selected, additional development will be needed to get the most out of the data returned from the app selected. Your existing credit process can continue to live outside of Salesforce, but the functionality available in the app exchange is something that should be looked into.
Usage – Salesforce’s architecture was not created to handle the bulk or complexity of usage data from utilities. If you intend for other applications to access historical usage data, it is best to house HU data in an appropriately structured database and use a Force.com API to access this external database.
Pricing – Out of the box, Salesforce offers Price Books to associate a product to a cost/price. That being said, keeping your pricing model outside of Salesforce will allow for integration with other applications, and give your pricing team the ability to update the model quickly based on market demands/changes. However, creating product/pricing fields to capture product/cost/margin(s) is easy to do technically, and can add tremendous business value downstream for reporting and notifications.
Contracting – There are numerous apps available in the App Exchange related to contract management. The apps carry a variety of built-in functionality from storage and versioning to e-signature. Also, if your business does not want to carry the additional cost of a contract management app, users can always upload documents to an opportunity or account record for record keeping.
Enrollment – Reports can be created in Salesforce that gather the necessary information for new customer enrollment and can then be exported to excel before being sent to the utility. Data extraction tools are also available for batch processes in Salesforce if your enrollment/ops team has a preference.
Billing – Salesforce has built in billing functionality, but this functionality does not play well with complex products or structured deals. Reports can be created to help the billing team get customers setup in a separate billing system if needed. However, most suppliers do not use Salesforce as a billing platform in the retail space. I would not recommend using Salesforce in this role, as there are many other options available in the market today that are designed to fill this need.
Reporting – The ability to create and manage reports is simple in Salesforce. Both public and private reports can be created by any user, and the reports offer built in graphs/visual representations. Users can also subscribe to a report, and setup the frequency and timing of when to receive those reports.
Notifications – Creating and managing notifications in Salesforce is simple. Basic notifications can be triggered through process builders or workflows, and reports can be emailed out directly to users through subscriptions. While basic notifications are not visually impressive, more vibrant and detailed notifications can be built using Visual Force pages.
Business Users – Salesforce provides business users with greater ownership roles compared to a traditional .Net application. New fields/reports can be created in a matter of minutes with minimal training. Processes need to be put in place around this, but the technical ability that Salesforce provides traditional non-technical users is beneficial.
Maintenance – Salesforce has three releases every year to resolve known defects, as well as introduce new functionality (spring, summer, and winter). If you have a Salesforce instance/org that has heavy customizations, make sure to devote significant time to regression testing your current instance/org prior to the seasonal releases.
In conclusion, setting up Salesforce in your organization will add value almost immediately in many areas, but also be aware that even experts in Salesforce will still have problems fitting the architecture into a REPs business model. Implementing a market leading CRM will not be the answer to all your problems, and it is important to understand your unique business processes and workflows before diving into an implementation.