Learnings from undertaking a large-scale Salesforce transformation project with Robert Whitaker

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This month’s guest, Salesforce transformation leader, Robert Whitaker, joins Ben on the sofa to share his own Salesforce journey and shares his learnings on undertaking and running a project of this size, including resourcing, working with a Partner and collaborating with other businesses.

Ben: We’re here with Robert Whitaker today. Thanks for joining us Rob.

Robert: Thank you Ben.

Ben: You’ve been involved in a huge Salesforce transformation, I’m really keen to kind of talk all through that, what you’ve learned along the way, and yes, really excited to hear more about it. But, I guess for the benefit of viewers and listeners, tell us a bit about your career before Salesforce and kind of where you started out.

Robert: Yes, so as you sort of mentioned, for the last three years I’ve really been running from both a strategy and execution, the second-largest Salesforce implementation in our region. Before that, I’ve done a range of transformation initiatives across, whether it be putting custom master data management systems in, core registry system, consolidations within Financial Services, data analytics environments, digital environments, led strategy and architecture teams. So a broad range of large transformation initiatives, all with that sort of digital transformation type lens, across that time.

Ben: So before moving into the most recent piece, which was the Salesforce transformation, what was your last role?

Robert: So looking after the strategy and architecture team within my current organisation, which basically meant leading a team of about 30 Solution Architects across, basically they were across all initiatives within the organisation in Financial Services, as well as really driving the technology strategy for the organisation.

Ben: Sure. So then how did you fall into that Salesforce piece when your current organisation looked to implement a platform?

Robert: Well, it was just really an ask of the CIO at the time, to understand and explore “what else could we be doing? How could we be doing things differently at the organisation, what opportunities are there in technology?” And it just happened at the time, we were sort of looking at, what do we do with Siebel as a system? It was coming up for another big upgrade, and then it sort of came as Salesforce is potential opportunity here, and it just happened, Dreamforce was that month.

Ben: Oh really?

Robert: And I was sent off to Dreamforce. I didn’t know what it was, when we went off to Dreamforce, and really once I understood the ecosystem, I really realised it was lot more than just a CRM, and then the potential for that. And I came back from that, and really then led the creation of the business case and then how we drove forward from there. It was actually quite a very quick journey.

Ben: So having worked with Siebel for a number of years, then going to Dreamforce and seeing Salesforce, I guess that was a real eye-opener?

Robert: I mean, Dreamforce is, yes, that’s right. But everyone kept saying “this is massive, and you’ll be blown away”, and you sort of get to be a little bit skeptical, and then when you get there, it’s like “oh no, this is massive”.

Ben: Yes, they weren’t lying.

Robert: Yes, they absolutely weren’t lying, they undersold it if anything.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: But also, just the broader ecosystem. You’re sort of going there, thinking it’s a CRM, and then you’re going well, “hang on, but it can do workflow, it can do marketing, it can do this, it can do this”, and then you realize, gee it can, there’s a lot more possibilities here than just, what the traditional people think Siebel could do.

Ben: Sure. So when you looked at the platforms, you were moving away from Siebel, or you were going to have to upgrade, what else did you look at? And why was, obviously it’s a broad platform, but why was Salesforce the obvious one?

Robert: So, it really came on the table, it was with reference as the world’s number one CRM, so it was a bit of a “let’s investigate that”. The real value proposition was that it was looked at more than a CRM. So yes, we looked at Siebel, but then when we started looking, well, that as a business case, yes, probably stacks up, but how can you make that business case stronger? And it’s like, well, hang on, it can do this other capability. So what other capabilities in the organisation do we have? What else can we consolidate on, how can we, effectively create a single customer and engagement platform, for the organisation?

Ben: And externally, outside of Siebel and Salesforce, anything else that you kind of chucked into the mix?

Robert: Well, there was well over 40 systems, that were sort of considered in that mix. From payment systems, to workflow systems, and basically third party sort of portals and what they did. Yes. So that’s some of the sort of internal process, managing internal processes, some of those systems also the came into that mix to enable us to look forward, and simplify. Pretty much, when you think through an organisation architecture, anything that’s customer-facing, I mean, whether it be B2B or B2C, effectively came into scope in some way or another, of a potential to be leveraged by Salesforce.

Ben: Sure, so for someone that hadn’t worked with Salesforce before and then coming into an environment where you were delivering, or you were key behind the delivery of the second biggest Salesforce transformation in APAC, how did you kind of approach it? What did you learn? And what were the challenges?

Robert: Well, it’s quite interesting, the Account Executive asked me on the very first time I met him, “what do I know about Salesforce between 1 and 10”, I said “one”, and to be honest, I’d actually only Googled Salesforce on the way down. I didn’t have any idea across the knowledge there, and it was a really big learning experience.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: If you go back three years, where the ecosystem was and where it is, like compared to now, there’s a lot of things we had to learn to go, how do you set up a program of this scale? How do you mobilize the various teams? You know, what are all the features and capabilities? What’s moving, we’re still back in the days of talking about Classic then, and Lightning’s coming, so, what do you do on Lightning? Do you wait?

Ben: Sure.

Robert: All of those sort of things you had to sort of learn. We didn’t have a Sydney presence in AWS, at the time, everything was still North America hosted. So we had to lean in and learn, basically push that agenda as well, for the community.

Ben: Sure. So what have been, over the last three years, starting the program and getting it delivered, what’s been the biggest challenge or biggest challenges? Well, you could write a book on this. This could be a whole series on it’s own. There’s a range of things learnt along the way. I sort of go, you’ve got to have a really strong vision. It’s got to be compelling. The masses have got to buy into it, and it’s got to be exciting. To get people excited about what the possibility is, and opening up people’s minds to that possibility.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: You’ve got to have strong executive sponsorship, and often executive sponsorship seen as, they’re there to sort of come to a steering committee. I’m saying, it’s got to be day-to-day, they just can’t be dropping in on a meeting once a month.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: They’ve got to be hands-on, there to solve the challenges along the way. I sort of go, the first 90 days of your implementation is actually the most pretty critical, because you’re setting everything up, whether it be your team structures, finding the right talent, what’s your design, you’re going to have? What are the components you’re going to use, how are you going to use them, you’ve got to make a lot of your key decisions in that first 90 days and spending a little bit more time in that period will get you set up for success so much more when you go forward.

Ben: Yes, it’s the foundations, right? You can’t go back and reset.

Robert: You can’t go back, and yes, whatever you don’t do in that 90 days after that period, you’ll be regretting. “I should’ve done that. I should’ve done that back then.” One of the biggest lessons is the prototyping and proof of concepts. I always go, Salesforce is really quick and easy just to mock something up and building a demo or a prototype to show a stakeholder, is way more powerful than a set of PowerPoint packs or requirement documents.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: Not only do you get the stakeholder more engaged, and you’re bringing the whole solution to life, but you’re actually finding out, you know, “does this actually work?” You know, they’ll tell you “well, I don’t like that, and that” and it’s stuff that you can’t really see when you’re reviewing a PowerPoint pack. But when someone sees it on the screen, it’s like “okay,”  and you know, at the end of the day you’ve probably wasted, I don’t know, a couple of days on building that demo, but you’ve actually saved yourself weeks of going back, so that’s a very, very powerful skill along the way. Change management rollout and the sort of the culture, is often forgotten. Everyone told me when I started the journey, change management, you’re going to have to spend a lot of money and you’re going to have to spend a lot of time on that. I can confirm you’ve got to spend a lot of time on that. It’s often quite forgotten.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: And it’s more than just how to get users to use and adopt the system. Often it’s pushing cultural boundaries within the organization because the whole moving from clicks not code, it’s often more agile ways of working. You’ve got to think, “how do you actually help the organisation change the culture within there, and the processes”. So it’s two-fold in that capability, so there’s a sort of a range of aspects there.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: There’s a whole lot you can learn on these.

Ben: We could be here all day, learning.

Robert: Yes

Ben: I bet yes. And you used a big global Salesforce Partner, and I guess this kind of aligns the last question, because when you started the program, you didn’t know what you didn’t know, so the value of having a Partner that has done big pieces of work before, must be great. But what, aside from just the delivery aspect, do you get from working with a big Partner?

Robert: So obviously it helped educate us as a team. And brought that knowledge into the organisation. So you’ve got that real kick-start, the other big part we needed from the Partner was the scale, you know, if I came to you and said can we have eighty Developers tomorrow?

Ben: I’d have loved it!

Robert: But yes, probably trying to find that in this market.

Ben: Yes for sure.

Robert: But they can just sort of bring that scale. Yes, and also it’s not a long game. You don’t need that kind of scale enduring, only for, you know, for short spikes.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: And that’s what the Partner really brings, they bring that expertise, particularly when you start looking at roles, like say a CTA, to be honest it’s pretty much hard to recruit a CTA that’s permanent into your organisation.

Ben: Oh, for sure.

Robert: But a Partner brings that type of role which are really, really hard to recruit for, you need them for particular moments in your journey.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: And you can sort of get them, and then continue to move forward.

Ben: Sure, and talking about specific roles, that leads me onto the next question. What would you say, and I guess it depends on what you’re implementing, but like the key pillars of a transformation of this size, what would you pinpoint to have been the key Salesforce roles that you had involved?

Robert: So I sort of go, “you need a strong Architect”, just to get that foundational design right, and really just to bring the decisions to play, they’ve got to have a really strong knowledge of both the platform, be up to date with what the latest is in the environment, from that perspective, the product owner in the business is so fundamental, because it’s, you know, they’re the ones that do the scope, the prioritisation. They’re the ones giving the Developer and the Admin the guidance. And the Developer and Admin are only as good as the inputs they’ve received.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: And it’s really hard to find that type of person, it needs to have someone that’s both empowered in the business and has that cut through and is prepared to make decision making and it doesn’t have to be a senior person, they could be junior, but just as long as got those those two core attributes across the board and you’ve then just got to have an engaged and excited team. People have got to want to be there and they’ve got to believe in what you’re trying to do, to achieve those outcomes and they’ve got to be passionate about continuing to learn.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: This platform is moving very rapidly, forever changing. You always get frustrations with me, you find people, and it’s like “oh, yeah, I know X. And it’s like, but X was like six releases ago”. It’s about keeping up to speed. You’ve got to keep up to speed whether that be through Trailhead, or paying attention to conferences. It’s one of my, I’ve always asked in interviews, ”you know, what did you find exciting in the latest release?”

Ben: Yes.

Robert: So that gives to me, the knowledge of have you even read the release notes?

Ben: Yes.

Robert: Surely you must have picked something up if you’ve paid attention to those things.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: And what conferences have you been to along the way?

Ben: Yes. Definitely. I think that’s a good question around the releases because it will either catch people out, or it will show they’re up to date. So, collaboration across the Salesforce ecosystem is pretty massive. I know that you’ve been and spoken to a lot of different companies before your journey, or along the journey and after. What kind of value have you got from collaborating with businesses outside of your existing to see how they’ve done things and what you can learn from them?

Robert: Yes. That’s one of the most exciting parts I find about the ecosystem, and one of the things that stood out to me first. My very first Dreamforce I went to, I went in with the “we’ll just do a bunch of sessions and learn stuff”, after about a couple hours, I was like, well no, the networking’s more important. Yes. I can watch the sessions on YouTube and really just learn, like meeting people, meeting companies and I’ve done that through those conferences. I sit on a number of Advisory Boards at Salesforce, and other type of events. The part that I always get out of every one of them, it’s an opportunity to get ideas, like the number of times I’ve walked away from a conversation of hearing what someone else has done and going “oh, we could do something similar to that or we’ve got a similar problem, we could do something similar”. And I just find that it’s just a source of innovation ideas. And especially when you start talking even outside our region to some of the other markets, particularly North America, they’re typically a little bit ahead of us.

Ben: Yes.

Robert: And it’s a great source of ideas and you come back and do that. The other thing is, it just gives you comfort that everyone’s in the same position.

Ben: The same challenges.

Robert: And sometimes you walk away and it’s like damn, we’re either ahead of them or there’s the same problem and they don’t have the answers.

Ben: Yes. Yes, but that’s what I find. I mean, often a lot of the answers are out there and it’s just by reaching out, and having those conversations, and it saves you so much time and pain.

Robert: And everyone’s quite willing to give their time to, you know, once you sort of build up your network in the ecosystem, you know, you can always just pop a question to someone and everyone’s really sharing of how they’re sort of going, or doing, or how they solved this problem.

Ben: Sure.

Robert: And I think it’s important that, you know, when people join the ecosystem, it’s giving back the knowledge. You know, you absorb a lot when you join, everyone’s helping you keep everything up, and I always see one of my responsibilities is to give back some of this knowledge that I’ve built up.

Ben: Hence why you’re here.

Robert: With people that have shared it with me.

Ben: Yes, for sure. So day one of the journey, you said you’d rate your knowledge of the platform as a one out of ten.

Robert: Yes.

Ben: It’s been a long three years, I guess. You’ve really embedded yourself in the ecosystem. Where would you put yourself now?

Robert: I’d be definitely up at that eight or nine. I’ve implemented all the clouds there are are – minus Tableau, Salesforce’s new acquisition, from that front, and you know, the depth of the platform. I always have to go to the team, I get to Apex code, I don’t worry about that, but I know most things.

Ben: Everything above, yes.

Robert: But most things above that, from that, and just even, just the delivery side, the ways of working at scale, large transformation, know all those things.

Ben: So, going deep into the platform. How important is that, if someone is watching this and they’re about to start a big transformation and they’re sitting in the role that you played, how important is it to go deep?

Robert: It’s definitely beneficial. No matter what level you are, there’s, you know, there’s always opportunities to learn and understand the platform, the more you spend time understanding the platform, you know, the more going to get out of it, the more value you’re going to drive to it. I’ve been a big push on Trailhead, within the organisation. I’ve personally done over 200 Badges, and I go, “there’s no level in the organisation that..”

Ben: Where do you find time? Where do you find time to do two hundred badges?

Robert: It’s a source of ideas. When something new comes up, do the Trailhead. Yes, but I just go, you know, whatever level, you know, that’s just a source of learning and development, I encourage people to do that, and the more you put into it, the more you get out of it, and the more value you’ll be able to put back into the ecosystem, the more valuable you’ll be to your employers.

Ben: Yes, and I guess if you’re leading the implementation, the transformation, and you’re investing that time into doing Trailhead and yes, and being up to date and up to speed, then there’s no excuse for anyone else underneath.

Robert: Yes, for sure. Yes, I even got the Head of Contact Centre, he has about 800 people under him. He did 25 badges. Just to encourage people to learn, frontline staff have got to do badges. They now come up with ideas of how they can use the platform more.

Ben: Yes. Sure.

Robert: So it’s quite a powerful tool to get people both engaged and really come up with ideas and innovating on the platform.

Ben: Yes, and there’s nothing like it anywhere else, it’s free.

Robert: So there’s no excuse whatsoever, and it’s a bit of fun along the way.

Ben: Yes, definitely. So what are you excited about now? What does the future look like for you?

Robert: Oh really now, just at the stage of exploring what the next transformation will be within the ecosystem, take a bit of time to relax, and yes, look for that next opportunity, whether it be a Partner, whether it be leading and helping other business drive a transformation.

Ben: Sure. You’ve got all of the war wounds.

Robert: Yes, I know what to expect and know how to deliver it, but yes, we’ll see where it turns out in a few months.

Ben: Sure. Perfect, and if anyone wants to connect with you, or hear more about the story, where’s the best place to connect?

Robert: Yes, just connect via LinkedIn. I’m always happy to share my experiences, and my knowledge, I’m always happy to help people out, whether it be businesses, Partners, always happy to share my knowledge, and you know, you can see that through the various presentations and conferences that I continue to support.

Ben: Well, thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m sure people get a lot of value from that, so thank you, and all the best for the future.

Robert: Thank you Ben.

Ben: Thank you.

Make sure you’re following Rob on LinkedIn and feel free to reach out to him with any questions regarding the topics covered in the podcast episode.

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