Hiring an HCM SaaS consultant - tactics for the savvy customer

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 17, 2015
Hiring a good HCM SaaS consultant isn't a simple as setting aside budget. I talked to two SaaS consultants about why hiring HCM consultants is tricky, and got their tips on how to do it right.

In December, I published The pitfalls of becoming an HCM SaaS consultant, which boiled down insights from  Luke Marson and Jarret Pazahanick, both of whom navigated a successful transition from "on-prem" to SaaS consultants (SuccessFactors in their case). The article called attention to significant changes Marson and Pazahanick had to go through to become legit SaaS consultants.

But I didn't cover the flip side: How should enterprise customers evaluate HCM SaaS consultants? We did address that during the two videos I released from the talk:

Becoming an HCM SaaS Consultant and
Becoming a SuccessFactors HCM Consultant - the Deeper Dive

For this piece, I asked Marson and Pazahanick to look back on our video discussion, and share additional gotchas HR managers should look out for. Here's the high points.

1. Resumes can be deceiving - dig into the exact nature of each project role. Marson sees danger for companies that take the consultant's work experience at face value. That's because there is a big difference between a bonafide lead role and the "shadow" roles that some junior consultants play:

One of the key things is to really evaluate the actual experience the consultant has. Look at how many products they’ve implemented, and the roles they played in those implementations. Were they shadowing, or really taking the lead? Taking a look beyond what’s on a piece of paper. I’ve started to come across customers asking deeper interview questions of each consultant, including technical questions. That can bring to light whether the consultant just shadowed one or two projects, or if they’ve really dug deep into the technology and delivered on a project from end to end.

2.Don't accept the on-premise consulting model for a SaaS implementation. Reflecting on our chat, Pazahanick noted the problem of over-selling underqualified consultants:

Don’t accept an on-premise consulting model for your SaaS implementation. The dirty little secret in the consulting world is that some of the software integrators will oversell their experience and expertise to win the project, and ultimately end up using the customer’s implementation as training grounds for their consultants.

My recommendation for customers is to raise their expectations of getting more value at a lower overall cost then they have in the past from their consulting firm. A great example of this in action: a large retail customer of mine used 20 functional and technical consultants for their on-premise HR implementation many moons ago. They recently moved their HR to the cloud, and did so with a team of only 5 consultants as part of a very successful implementation.

3. Consider using a cloud-focused HCM consulting firm. Given the vast differences between on-prem and cloud consulting, Pazahanick recommends taking a close look at cloud-focused consultancies:

The great news for customers is that there is a new breed of consulting firms that have been built by using smaller teams of more experienced consultants that really understand how to deploy cloud technology. Firms like Aasonn are a great example, as they were the first partner of SuccessFactors and have been doing this since 2006.

One thing we’re finding is that some of the big SIs and even some of the mid-size SIs are really trying to protect the revenue stream because it’s hard for them to get five or six customers at the same time. They want to have that one big cash cow customer and they’re still proposing bringing in teams of people.

4. Don't put too much trust in certification alone - use professional networks to validate experience. Pazahanick expressed concerns about the influx of certified-without-experience consultants. He's used LinkedIn as a way to gut check a consultant's qualifications:

Check them out on LinkedIn see if you know someone; find out who worked on their team team, find out their actual experience, do reference checks. SuccessFactors consulting is just like SAP when I started in 1998. Everyone is trying to break in, so there is way too many certified people out there. Some that are certified have gone through the training, but do not have the experience yet. Nothing wrong with people getting the experience, but customers have to make sure that they’re getting the team that can help deliver the project.

5. Balance overall HR experience with the appropriate level of SaaS product and technical experience. Marson and Pazahanick agree that good SaaS hires combined deeper process knowledge with technical and product depth. But that means understanding the nuances of product releases. Most SaaS HR products are expanding, which means different components have different levels of market exposure. Pazahanick:

Some SuccessFactors products like Employee Central have doubled their functionality over the last 18 months. Some areas in SuccessFactors are more mature, such as performance management.  If a customer is looking for a performance management consultant, they should be looking with someone who has six or seven years experience. But if a customer is looking for an Employee Central consultant, they’ll be lucky to find someone that has two years of experience and two or three projects that they've led, because there's just not a lot of people out there.

Given the potential challenges of finding deep product experience, some companies might be tempted to consider HR subject experts (including their own employees) who lack product experience. Pazahanick and Marson caution against that. Given Pazahanick's belief in process expertise, his caution bears noting:

I’m a huge believer that having business process knowledge is a great thing to have, but I’m telling you right now that if are working as and HR Manager at a company no one is hiring you to do the configuration of Successfactors implementation. Customers are looking for a SuccessFactors consultants that have a deep technical background first and business process knowledge is secondary. The best consultants have always had a combination of both.”

One difference between SuccessFactors and old school ERP consulting: Pazahanick has noticed that far more SaaS consultants do come from the business side, whereas in classic SAP consulting many came up from the technical side of SAP. But that doesn't diminish the importance of SaaS product know-how. Pazahanick used himself as an example of how humbling that can be:

People in the SAP world trying to make the transition to cloud consulting don’t always like to hear this, because in their mind they’ve got decades of deep technical experience but SuccessFactors is a brand new technology to learn. Like me, I’ve got 17 years of SAP HCM/Payroll experience and am a very senior consultant, but at the end of the day, I’ve got two years of SuccessFactors expertise which puts me closer to a junior than senior consultant.

Marson adds:

You need to have a good balance of both process and tech. You have to understand the business process, but ultimately you’ll have understand the technology if you want to be able to align the process to the technology and be able to let the customer know what’s possible. SaaS solutions have more defined processes, but some of them - like SuccessFactors Employee Central - can actually be really flexible in places.  If you don't know the functional boundaries, the depths of what you can and can’t do - you can’t advise the customer without that.

Final thoughts

Companies need to take SaaS hiring dynamics into account during the software buying process. The supply of experienced consultants (and/or) in-house competencies should be assessed rather than assumed. That includes review of expertise in niche modules and new product releases - especially when significant functionality is added.

Companies may think that as long as they are willing to pay a steep price, the expertise is out there. But based on Pazahanick and Marson's description of the type of process and product know-how needed, it would be a mistake to see this as a problem you can just throw money at. And the lack of those experts will hurt project outcomes.

I don't want to give the impression Pazahanick and Marson are opposed to junior-level consultants. In some cases, a junior-level hire is the right one. They are advocating that companies are rigorous in their skills assessments. They are also challenging services firms to be more transparent about experience levels.

One more issue lingers: the importance of industry-specific expertise. Pazahanick and Marson see the value of industry expertise, but they see it as less important for SaaS HCM consulting than HR and product implementation field experience. In hiring there are always tradeoffs, so industry expertise may be one to back burner. But as with any hiring practice, your mileage may vary.

In addition to the YouTube videos, you can download the optimized mp3 audio podcast (direct mp3 link here), grab it on iTunes, or listen to the embedded audio version:

Image credit: Crazy inventor: © Andrey Burmakin - Fotolia.com
Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

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