How to Grow a Salesforce Practice with Vamsi Bollineni and Ben Duncombe
5 min read | SEPTEMBER 23, 2022
Talent Hub is a podcast dedicated to highlighting prominent and inspirational figures from the global Salesforce Ohana and offers a platform to share their stories. In this episode, Ben Duncombe chats with CEO Vamsi Bollineni about his background and how he came to form a rapidly growing and 5-star rated Salesforce implementation company that is Access Global Group. The pair also discuss how professionals can align businesses to specific industries, how to build Salesforce products, as well as hiring and retaining staff during a global economic crisis. So without further ado, let’s get into some of the key takeaways from this episode.
Vamsi on How Access Global Group Got Started
Ben: I’m looking to hear about your journey into the world of Salesforce and running your own consulting firm. But let’s start at the beginning and, I guess your career before Salesforce, and then how you kind of found your way into the ecosystem. What did that look like?
Vamsi: So, before Salesforce, I worked with the “Big Four” companies in D.C. A majority of my work was in federal spaces around implementing Siebel, and then eventually it transitioned to Salesforce because that was the “in” thing back then, around 2007/2008. There, I worked with some of the early Salesforce partners at that time. Transitioning into the Salesforce ecosystem was actually something that was pushed while I was working at one of the “Big Four” companies in Siebel. Salesforce was something that one of the customers was pushing us towards. That’s how we got trained and we transitioned. A lot of things are very similar – Siebel is a CRM too. But Salesforce, you know, can do a million more things than what it could do in the past. That’s how I started transitioning into the Salesforce ecosystem. Pretty quickly, it started becoming more and more relevant in the CRM world. The role started evolving for me, where I started getting more into the architect role pretty early in the game. But it was a pretty important role at the time. So that’s how my journey started.
Ben: So, when did you decide that you wanted to start your own business? Was that always something even before you were in the IT world that you planned to do? Or was it an opportunity you saw?
Vamsi: Yeah, it’s something that’s always been in my mind. But we thought that it was going to be much later in my journey. So Salesforce is a tool that, again, is much easier than Siebel. And I used to work in telecom and Siebel – I’m very familiar with the telecom industry and their products too, right? So what came about is, Salesforce telecom integration was very new and 99% of the partners didn’t have the knowledge on how to integrate Salesforce to Cisco and all these telecom systems. Now I used to work on both sides, so I created a connector. In my initial journey, when we started, we used to sell these connectors and we used to do these call center implementations on Salesforce. We had a bunch of customers, we did the Department of Education in D.C., we did their call centers. Eventually, we had a bunch of customers in D.C., in insurance, healthcare and state agencies. Every “Big Four” partner, or every big Salesforce partner used to come to us to help them with implementing because they don’t have enough expertise internally to support this, direct this, or guide this. And we were training a bunch of resources too in that domain to help those guys get up and running. So that’s how it started, I created a connector that can talk to Cisco and then we started taking it in the direction of creating our own corporation and started doing consulting work around it. And eventually we got into partner-to-partner.
was pushing us towards. That’s how we got trained and
we transitioned.” –Vamsi Bollineni
Vamsi on Transitioning from Being a Partner to Servicing Customers Directly
Ben: Having gone down the route of partner and with partners, how difficult was it to make the move away from that model into servicing customers directly?
Vamsi: It’s a little difficult financially. The spend is much higher for us. On the other hand, if you’re trying to run both, the spend is significant. What we had to do is make significant cuts in our efforts to go to new partners. Right now, we only do strategic partnerships where we have bigger partners, they have to be a certain size, a certain million in revenue that they can bring into Salesforce, and they don’t have any support internally. So we support them on pre-sales and on any deal that comes in – we support them in deploying these projects under their white-label. But again, we only do those with certain size big partners, we have a threshold now.
Ben: So when you say certain partners, is that non-Salesforce specialist consulting firm, so a consulting firm that might do management consulting has a deal or a customer that is looking at Salesforce and you can come in as the specialist?
Vamsi: Ideally. It’s management consulting firms, or bigger billion dollar consulting firms who don’t have Salesforce expertise, but they need support. They might get Salesforce deals along the way, they might start looking at Salesforce to see if this is something that would work for them or for them to eventually build a practice.
Vamsi on Specializing Salesforce Practices to Specific Industries
Ben: Obviously there’s lots of partners popping up all over the place and some specialize in industries and verticals and others don’t. Salesforce has begun pushing the vertical/industry specialisms with different products through Vlocity and things like that. So for you, have you targeted certain industries and if so why and what have been the benefits and also downsides of doing that?
Vamsi: We target financial industries. That’s our number one industry that we target. If you ask me, “you don’t work with other industries?” The answer is yes, we work with healthcare, we work with education, we work with nonprofits, we have a couple of manufacturing customers, we have all of those. The primary spend for us is going to be on financial industries, meaning banking, insurance, wealth management and mortgage. So that’s what we stick to, but again, we support a lot of customers and a lot of industries. It might be our legacy customers or it might be a customer that may have acquired one of our customers from a different industry just to add on. We’ve got a home building customer that acquired one of our lending customers, so they’re trying to offer lending to their existing customers that are coming for their home improvements or home-building and whatnot. That’s where we inherit a lot of those things.
Ben: So what has been the benefit of doing that for you over the years and really drilling down on “this is what we’re going after and we won’t turn away other businesses but this is where our focus is, on driving revenue with financial services?”
Vamsi: This is to be the niche provider. Because when you say “everything” the quality typically goes down, whether it really goes down or not, but in the customer’s understanding, everyone says “we do everything.” Let’s talk specifics, right? So we get into the specifics and we need to start being able to give them examples that are going to comfort them. That’s the bigger focus. When our sales team gets on calls with prospective customers, by the end of the call, we want to leave the customer in a place where they feel that these guys know the industry. These guys know what I’m doing every day. With these guys my life will get better, with Salesforce and with the way they set up Salesforce for us and with our direction. They should feel much better. That’s how they should get off the call. When sales gets on the pre-call or scoping call, they should be able to comfort the customer at every level so that they feel like we know the industry language. We know what is needed. We know what some of the common gaps are, things we’ll fix to align with these guys too.
Ben: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I think a lot of consulting firms could learn from that because I think when they start initially and they’re small, they could go after everything. And then you kind of can’t build that trust with a stakeholder when you’re discussing the in’s and out’s of the business because I think now more than ever there’s that kind of business consulting side of Salesforce as well, right? You need to understand their pain points to solve it with a solution.
Vamsi: True. But again, you also have to keep in mind that a lot of partners, when they start, they say they do everything because they’re not trying to invest a lot upfront by industry, so they’re trying to take whatever they can get so they can build a practice, right?
Ben: And I guess having legacy clients is also beneficial anyway, like having some diversification is important, because if there’s a global financial crisis or something and if you’ve only got finance clients then that makes things difficult.
Vamsi: True, but in my opinion it depends, right? It depends on how much of an investment you’re putting into it. So if somebody is starting from scratch, unless they’ve worked in the industry pretty deep, I would just start with one industry, perfect it, and then start replicating it with other industries. That’s what we’re doing with some of our industries too. So our primary focus is financial services, Marketing Cloud, and Mulesoft right now. These are the three things we focus on because every customer wants all of these three things. And then, we’re expanding into a couple of other industries. Whether it’s manufacturing, CPQ billing, revenue cloud; we’re looking at a couple of other pieces right now. That’s what we’re looking at for the next six to eight months.
Ben: So when you say financial services, Mulesoft and Marketing Cloud you’re talking about Financial Services Cloud specifically?
Vamsi: Financial services industry generally. The customers in this industry tend to use Financial Services Cloud. But again, we also have financial customers who don’t use Financial Services Cloud because they already have Salesforce, or Sales Cloud. We customize it to them and align it or just take it to the next level completely because at the end of the day, we’re starting to get into some heavy compliance sectors, right? Whether it’s insurance, whether it’s healthcare, or auto insurance or workers comp or whatever insurance policies you’re dealing with. So the security level of it and the compliance level of it is ultimately defining the customer’s comfort. When you’re going and selling to this industry and they know that we’ve already worked within this industry and with other customers and we have success stories that you’ll be able to see on our website, it’s giving them an added comfort. This is not their first rodeo, first of all, second of all, these guys can use best practices that’s going to make our lives better. That’s what it comes down to.
Vamsi on Building Salesforce Products
Ben: You mentioned before your business started with a product and you continued to build products and in my view there’s a difference in marketing products and services – they’re different businesses right? There’s different go-to-market strategies. So in your view, how different are they and what other kinds of challenges come up with running a product company inside a services business?
Vamsi: It’s not a complicated combination but it’s a weird combination in my opinion. So, we started off our practice with a product, and now the goal is to sell more services around the product. The product is a way to get customers in the door and to sell more services. Initially, we started partnering with these telecom vendors. At that point – we’re product diagnostic. We had all these guys by 2013 and we built our product in 2011. We did decent revenue for the first two years and we started cultivating relationships. In 2013 and 2014, all these vendors had add-ons built. So at that point, what do we want to do? The big thing for us is the consulting revenue and services revenue, always. So we ended up partnering with these guys, where we recommend to the customer which product they need to use. If you already have a product? Great, we’re the folks that talk both the Salesforce and telecom language. That’s the biggest gap, there’s no one person that can talk both languages. There’s a lot of disconnects. So that’s what we ended up doing. We sunsetted our product in 2013, the telecom product, because now we’re partnered with these guys, we had to be product diagnostic. Whatever the customer prefers or whatever fits the customer’s criteria, whether it’s cost or features, that’s what we’d recommend to these vendors at the end of the day. And same thing, vendors are going to bring us into the mix when their existing customers are looking to go to Salesforce and they need help integrating both of these things. That’s how we’d get into the early stages of the pre-sales process.
Now, the new set of products that we’re selling now, we’ve been building them and selling them since 2019. We started our direct-to-customer practice in 2017, on the consulting side. Any customer around mid-market size, they’re willing to spend the money, but smaller customers, they’re not able to digest Salesforce unless there’s an add-on or plug in from the appexchange. So that’s how these products are built. We have a product called Access Commissions, which is to calculate the commissions for the customers, sales reps, vendors or internally for other folks. Today, to build a commissions module, it can get anywhere between $100,000.00 to one million dollars for smaller insurance companies. We built this custom for insurance customers. This is something where we thought “we need to make it simple, so that even a third grader can understand it.” Something simple, no code, it should be as simple as possible unless it’s so outrageously complicated that it can’t be done normally, that’s when we get into customizations. But it has to be a plug in and play setup in under a week. So that is the goal for every product that we have. Access Quickbooks is the same thing, it’s a plug-in between Quickbooks and Salesforce, where invoices, customers, everything is synced. There’s a two-week implementation time for that. Access Commissions is a one-week implementation. Access Docs is for document generation. A lot of customers don’t need electronic signatures right away, they want to generate the docs and then they want to do other processes. So that’s what all of our products are about. We’ve got four products and all of them are in the same boat: plug in and plays and quick deployment. This is big for smaller customers under mid-market because we’re adding value to Salesforce. Every product of ours has to have a Salesforce license for every user that is touching our product, they can’t just have five Salesforce licenses and have 50 people on our products for commissions. Everybody that is touching our product has to have a license. This is also helping us to sell more Salesforce licenses in a way. But we are cutting the implementation timeline and cost which is something customers are significantly concerned about.
Ben: So how do you ensure there’s communication if a new idea comes up, a new product or a new feature?
Vamsi: Salesforce has this thing called Idea Exchange, we go through it the same way. The sales team and delivery team on the consulting side have feature recommendation logs that we do internally. And based on those things, we prioritize whatever is most requested. During every presale we have logs going on for what is being requested, what happens when our product is demoed, and all of these things. What is missing? Why did we lose the deal on this product? So based on how many deals we lost based on feature “X,” those learnings that we do. Just like how we would do on the services side. Why did we lose a consulting deal? Because we don’t support this industry or we don’t have expertise in something specific or we lost to another partner because of various other reasons, right? So the same thing. But the people who are architecting the product side are the people that are coming from that specific industry. Who know the industry and who work in the industry.
We are cutting the implementation timeline and cost which is something customers are significantly concerned about. –Vamsi Bollineni
Vamsi on Staff Retention During “The Great Resignation”
Ben: In your business your turnover rates are low in comparison to a lot of consulting firms and we’ve been in a phase where people are moving jobs regularly, there’s been a lot of talk about the “Great Resignation.” So why do you think that is? Why do you think you’ve been able to retain and keep staff at such a decent level?
Vamsi: The whole retention rate for us has been very low, it’s under 5%. The bigger reason is the culture. We’re not a very big company compared to some of these bigger partners, who have like 500-1,000 people on staff. We are around 100-120 people. But I know every single one of them and I personally touch base with each of the teams at least once a month or once a quarter. We’re trying to do that as long as we can, but on the other side we’re trying to increase the whole family culture. That’s the bigger core of our business. So everybody knows everybody on a personal level, even if it’s not deep enough, just enough to jump in and help others. There’s always going to be politics, no matter where you are, but we’re trying to avoid that as much as we can. All of the productivity going into politics is better off going into the real work or making the process in such a way that streamlines internal efforts. Because nobody’s an expert internally, everyone is learning something. When we bring on someone new, we tell them we have some processes that we have nailed down really well, but again, we’re not perfect. If there’s something that you think can be done better, feel free to raise your voice and say it, don’t worry about anything. Just feel free to make recommendations that will make things more streamlined internally. But going back to your question, family culture is something that we encourage big time. And we educate employees that family comes first, work comes next. What’s the point of you doing all the work and trying to make all the money when at the end of the day it impacts having a good life with your family? So this is something that we emphasize on. That’s what it comes down to. I think that’s what helps us.
with your family? –Vamsi Bollineni
Vamsi on The Challenges of Running a Salesforce Practice
Ben: What would you say is the hardest part about running a salesforce practice in this day and age?
Vamsi: Scaling up fast enough. That’s always the challenge. On the other hand it’s keeping up with costs. Because we’re trying to follow the culture, we’re trying to follow the other norms to ensure that we’re on par with other employers in the industry. The cost of benefits and all, everything is going up, so we constantly have to recalibrate our position in the market and our pricings to the customers, the costs that we’re spending. That’s the biggest challenge. That has actually gone significantly up compared to where we were 10 or 12 years ago. So that’s the biggest thing we’ve been looking at. Just looking at our benefits package, we scaled our benefits from 5 benefits in a package to 20 or 25 benefits in a package, we have a couple of different policies, insurance policies, life insurance policies, we’ve had those from the beginning but there’s now five other types of policies like extended sick leave policies, a bunch of those things. Unlimited PTO is a big thing that we just unveiled a couple of months ago, which is becoming a common norm – but it’s a big cost that we had to digest too. But it’s becoming an industry norm.
Vamsi on Looking Forward
Ben: In terms of future growth opportunities and where you see continued growth opportunities to scale as a business – you mention marketing cloud and mulesoft which were two acquisitions of Salesforce over the years, when Salesforce acquires a company do you instantly look to grow a service line around that? Is that how you’ll continue to grow and scale your business, by continuing to align with what Salesforce does from a product perspective?
Vamsi: We never look at the acquisitions they do and try to grow around them because acquisitions from Salesforce are going in two directions, right? One, they’re acquiring existing partners to grow their headcount and support their internal ecosystem and two, they’re buying these products to integrate into their existing functionalities so their capabilities are going up to meet the ecosystem’s needs. So the way we typically look at it is, we work with a bunch of folks in the Salesforce ecosystem, and I work with Salesforce pretty closely on a lot of things, so we try to see where the need is. Today, there is a need in the financial industry that we’re focusing on, there’s a need in banking, there’s a need in insurance, there’s a need in wealth management, or asset management, or mortgage. But what we look at is the specific pieces, not just the whole industry we look at the niche. Where is the biggest gap today that is stopping Salesforce from selling more deals? Is it with insurance carriers? Is it with insurance agencies? Is it something that’s related to a specific integration that they’re not able to do between Salesforce and other systems and it’s stopping them from being able to get from 50 to 100? We look at those gaps and we try to come up with these pre-built integrations. Our goal is to provide customers with comfortability and end-to-end solutions. At the end of the day there’s a lot of solutions, but they’re not complete. So it’s end-to-end, 360, recommendations and best practices, that’s what we’re trying to bring to the table. This is to not only comfort the customer but to comfort Salesforce.
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