How to pick apps on the Salesforce AppExchange
Clients often ask Idealist Consulting if we recommend specific applications on the Salesforce AppExchange, Salesforce’s marketplace of cloud-based apps and enterprise solutions. Our emphatic response to this question is that we don't recommend, we suggest. That said, we make every effort to guide the client through a proper due diligence process to help them find the right fit. Ultimately, we want to help you measure what matters.
To contextualize our decision to suggest rather than to recommend, it’s important to first illustrate the evolution of the AppExchange. In the early years, Idealist Consulting was involved with the release of the first apps on the AppExchange. As one of the original Salesforce.org partners, we decided to throw our hat into the ring because the technology seemed solid and the notion of apps for CRM (which we now take for granted) seemed promising. As a result, we developed what we believed would be an essential application for the Nonprofit (NPO) space: the NPOrganizer. This app provided features and functions within the fundraising “application vertical” (an application vertical represents a grouping of applications that are designed to meet a particular need). In this case, the NPOrganizer was built to address the needs of fundraising.
Screenshots of the now-retired NPOrganizer (The “first” NPSP)
To our surprise, the NPOrganizer was one of the first fifty applications on the AppExchange. It was the precursor to the NPO Template which eventually became the Nonprofit Success Pack. As of this month, this application was retired, and for good reason -- it was time. Ultimately the UI, features, and architecture became obsolete and this piece of history needed to be relegated to the dustbin -- where all apps eventually will find themselves. But not before experiencing all three stages of application life on the AppExchange: what we call innovation, common practice, and (ultimately) culling.
Stage 1: Innovation
During the first stage of innovation, an application is new and has yet to be fully tested by the community. If the application vertical is new as well, there is typically only one (maybe two) option(s) from which a user can choose. As a result, the notion of “recommending” an application is easy; there are so few to recommend. At the time of NPOrganizer’s inception, there was nothing out there that represented the fundraising needs of nonprofits. As a result, it was the default recommendation. While the application was not perfect, it was a solution and as a result, was downloaded and utilized by the community.
Stage 2: Common Practice
The second stage in the lifespan of an application is “common practice.” During this stage, we can see usually three or more applications available in a certain “application vertical.” For example, once NPOrganizer had been on the market for a while, others followed. Solutions included but were not limited to, Common Ground, Affiniquest, Patron Manager, NGO Connect, NPSP, Breakeven, and others. Each provides a different UI and support features that are enticing depending on what the user’s needs are -- but they all pretty much do the same thing. It was not always easy to decide which one was appropriate for a particular implementation. A colleague once commented, “Discerning applications is more like selecting colors of the rainbow than a compare and contrast.” In other words, an app that meets standard feature sets should be measured more on how they engage you as a client and less on the fundamentals (see below) that make for a decent app.
Stage 3: Culling
The third and final stage of an application vertical’s lifespan is the “culling” stage. This stage occurs typically as a result of advancements within the core solution of Salesforce. Examples of this include fundamental improvements in architecture (i.e. Householding); advancements in UI (i.e. Lightning); improvements in general solution knowledge (i.e. how to build things more effectively); and acquisition (i.e. Heroku). The aforementioned advancements ultimately make the updates of an app too cost-prohibitive, resulting in its retirement. Our very own NPOrganizer is an example of an app that has been retired for all the reasons listed above. It is important to note that apps in the culling stage can stay on the AppExchange for years before they are removed. NPOrganizer lasted almost six years past its functionality before it was ultimately retired.
So, where does that leave us when suggesting apps?
These days, with over 6,000 apps on the AppExchange, it is nearly impossible for a Solution Integrator (SI, also known as consulting firm) to provide thoughtful recommendations on the endless options available to our clients. Moreover, there are many solutions that are either in the innovation stage or the culling stage -- neither of which are ideal for those seeking out common practice. As a result, we suggest, we do not recommend. Before we suggest an app we recommend a standard due diligence process to consider seven fundamentals before selecting an application. Ask yourself:
Is the app over two years old (to ensure it has been properly vetted)?
Was the last publish date in the last year (to ensure it is receiving updates)?
Has it received over three stars (to ensure there is some basis of quality)?
Do they have a roadmap (to ensure they are considering future developments on the platform)?
Do they have a partner program and/or case management process (to ensure they have minimal support for the application)?
Do they offer the basic feature sets to meet your user story requirements?
Is the app’s created date 10 years or younger (to ensure the architecture is still relevant)?
Assuming the application has these seven attributes, we suggest selecting two similar applications for due diligence. Ultimately the choice of the application will rest on the client, but we are available to speak to our experience with the application. In many cases, the choice of application comes down to culture fit. Do you like the organization and have they answered your questions openly and honestly? Not surprisingly, this is the key motivator for clients selecting an app.
It is important to note that not all consulting partners will utilize this methodology. In many cases applications will pay consulting firms for their recommendation. We decline this offer so you can be assured that we will provide you with an objective suggestion that is not swayed by incentives. In the event we are given a referral fee we will apply it to our Idealist Consulting Grant.
Finally, don’t discount the power of peer recommendations. The Power of Us Hub has a (Salesforce.org’s Nonprofit Community) has an App Advice and Consumer Report group with a crowd-sourced document of research and recommendations around common nonprofit applications such as event management and donation processing. If that’s overwhelming, attend your next local User Group and ask for advice, or post on LinkedIn or Twitter. People don’t recommend technology unless they really love it, and real users in your industry will bring out far more nuance in their reviews than you can find on the AppExchange.
Are there applications you are considering for your org? If so, feel free to reach out to us and we would be glad to provide you with some suggestions.