Cloud ERP is a non-starter without the right partners - inside FinancialForce's partner strategy

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 30, 2018
Summary:
I often judge a software vendor by the health of its partner community. At Community Live, FinancialForce gave us the context behind a slew of partner announcements. Here's what they've accomplished since last year - and the challenges ahead.

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As I look back on the spring 2018 event season, one standout issue for cloud ERP vendors - or any software vendor for that matter - is the underrated role of services partners.

If your partner community is insular or disillusioned, your ability to serve customers is handcuffed. And your "platform" talk is basically a wet noodle.

But some vendors respond in the opposite direction, opening the doors to partners of all stripes and losing customer oversight.

It's not easy to expand a partner community while retaining control over implementation quality. That's why I always look for clues at any show I attend: where are the partner wins and sticking points?

During my semi-regular show recap podcasts with Brian Sommer, we frequently riffed on what we saw from partners as we made a nuisance of ourselves on the show floor. At FinancialForce Community Live, we got plenty to digest, as FinancialForce made the expansion of their partner network a big news theme at the conference.

FinancialForce partner news - focus on Salesforce, ADP, and tiered programs

The news included the introduction of a "tiered ISV program," similar to the tiered SI program FinancialForce already has in place. During our FinancialForce Community Live podcast review, Sommer hit on the impact of the Salesforce partner channel:

Probably the most interesting leverage point to me - which we heard about a lot this morning - was how they're leveraging a lot of the same partners that Salesforce has. They're trying to take advantage of Salesforce's channel ecosystem really, whether it's for ISVs or systems integrator and bringing them in much closer to FinancialForce.

On the HCM side, partner delivery is crucial, as FinancialForce now relies on ADP to provide the HR functionality for FinancialForce customers. If anything, FinancialForce doubled down on the ADP partnership in their messaging this year (the partnership was first announced at least year's Community Live).

At a candid analyst session, we got a partner health check and progress report from Johnny Ola, VP Global Alliances and Business Development at FinancialForce.com. The first question on the partner news is: why now? As Ola told us:

I was very excited to make the announcements. Last year we overhauled our SI program, and really put emphasis on two things with our SIs: customer satisfaction, and how could we grow a business together? As you saw in the release there, there were some great accomplishments, where our referrals and bookings from SIs have tripled over the last 15 months.

Ola sees the Salesforce partnership as hugely important versus competitors:

We have big platform opportunities against a lot of our mutual competition, including a lot of very focused [projects] around Sales Cloud and Service Cloud and CVQ. You've heard the Einstein announcements, so it's just a tremendous field partnership with Salesforce.

That's adding up to deals: Ola says a third of the FinancialForce sales pipeline and closed deals comes from Salesforce and other SI partners. New SI partners are part of the mix, including a new global sales and implementation contract with Appirio, further bolstering FinancialForce's PSA (Professional Services Automation) play. Ola also added stats for ADP adoption:

57 percent of our customers have either already signed with ADP, or intend to.

Pesky questions time - on partner quality, certification, and competitors

Progress? Yes. But the analysts had questions about the obstacles ahead. Pesky questions specialist Brian Sommer wanted to know: competitors like Intacct and Xero have built deep networks into the accounting channel. He asked Ola:

I would have thought with Intacct being acquired by Sage that this would be an opportunity for you guys to reach out to the accounting profession, and try and tap into that world?

Ola's response:

Absolutely, yeah. We're looking at how we can position our platform for a BPO type of service so accountants want to run that using the FinancialForce platform, deliver their managed services or financial services. We are looking at some referral type relationships where we can work together and lend each other expertise. It is coming; we are definitely thinking about it. It's not here today, but it's an area that we've put some focus into.

With twenty SI partners in the mix, and more in process, a partner certification program will be important for enforcing quality. Ola says a new testing certification will be in place next year. The revamped partner enablement program has several components:

  • Salesforce platform certification is required
  • product fundamentals for cloud accounting or PSA
  • sales training and sales certification
  • hands-on software implementation and configuration training

But Ola knows that enablement program isn't enough for a full certification:

We don't think you're certified at that point, we're not that naïve, right? We're going to require that partners get on at least two projects with other folks who have gone through that full training. At the end of at least two projects, and a reference from one of our customers, we're going to let them take the test and be certified.

We've done everything but that final testing piece, which for us is probably the least important. It's much more important to go through that whole cycle.

The hard part of partner quality enforcement is moving partners out that don't pass muster. Ola acknowledged that's been an important step:

We're going to be disciplined, and we're going to be focused on that. We stopped working with some partners last year. I'll be honest with you, they weren't delivering great outcomes. We are super focused on the customer satisfaction side of things, and the partners we have now I feel great about.

My take - upstart ISVs are needed next

I was glad to see FinancialForce hitting on the issue of partner quality rather than filling our heads with talk of aggressive growth for its own sake. One area of disappointment for me was the lack of progress I perceived on the ISV side since Community Live 2017.

One of my key criteria for cloud ERP players is: are upstart developers and vertical experts building bold new apps on your platform? Or is it just the same handful of preferred ISVs? FinancialForce does have some excellent ISVs, from Conga to Vena to Avalera, but I didn't see the emergence of creative new ISVs.

I asked Ola about that, particulary towards vertical apps. He responded:

My job number one is to get the Salesforce [go to market] relationship right.

But now, he's looking beyond:

We really fixed that.

With the "SI program fixed and the ecosystem working for us," Ola expects to make the ISV push:

This is the year of the ISV, and crossing over into next year.

Ola credits Dan Brown (Chief Product Officer, joined September 2017) and his team for advancing this:

Part of our core strategy, as Dan started to reveal yesterday is: where do we need ISVs? Where can they fit? We've got a good setup in it today, but we're going to get a lot more strategic. You mentioned the integration platform, so that we can connect to the top software platforms in the industry, and also make it a lot easier for software vendors to integrate to us, and customers to integrate as well. That's an example, and you're going to hear more.

You'll hear more about where we're strategically filling in the pieces that we need... It's coming... We didn't put enough focus there, but it was on purpose. Next year, I'll give you the progress we made there.

Ola can look forward to more pesky questions from me then, as they pursue the ISV side. With sixty partners at the pre-conference partner day, and ninety partners at Community Live overall, FinancialForce is making strides. We'll track how it builds from here, with an eye towards certification and project quality as well.

End note: the full FinancialForce Community Live podcast review:

You can download the audio file or pick up Busting the Omnichannel on iTunes