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Customizations in SaaS: steps to make the right decision

6 min read
Mihir Shah
Associate Principal Solution Architect, PS Conga
Team brainstorming in conference room

If you’ve ever invested in a SaaS product for your business, you may have looked into customizations. This can be any feature, modification, or extension made to the existing product functionality, that is not prebuilt by developers and instead requires custom development. The most common question to consider when looking at customizations: is it worth it? There’s not always a simple answer to this question, and instead there are many dimensions and factors to consider before taking the customization route or sticking to an out-of-the-box (OOTB) offering.

Enterprise organizations facing the adapt vs. adopt question have a unique challenge: on one hand, they’re paying the license fees to use the OOTB features, but on the other hand, there may be critical business requirements pushing toward customization, which will involve costs to implement and to maintain via manage services.

Enterprise software products for CRM, QTC (quote-to-cash), or ERP are built to serve a variety of industries and their standard processes. However, enterprises looking for digital transformation are often burdened by legacy business processes and tools unique to them. There is no way these two go hand-in-hand, so is there a way for large enterprises to implement comprehensive OOTB solutions and avoid customizing the product?

Most of the time, the answer is unfortunately no.

In enterprise transformation programs, oftentimes the organization wants the new technology to work just like their current process or tool. But it’s hard to achieve results and a true transformation if you’re just trying to make a new solution fit an old problem. The technology itself may be smoother, but it may not solve the larger process or system issues at hand, requiring custom features. So it’s up to the business to decide if they think they can streamline the process or adjust the specific feature ask, dropping the need for customization, or if the custom build is necessary for business success.

Let’s explore six key steps that recognize the challenges involved in this process, but can help your organization reach the right decision for your business.

1. Follow product and platform best practices

Before deciding to customize, it’s crucial to understand how the product is built to handle given business processes or required features. Taking a closer look can help organizations see the solution from different perspectives, or even offer new ways of looking at the problems they’re trying to solve.

Product features are typically driven by two things: the most common market scenario, and whether they fall within platform capabilities. Businesses must conduct a fit-gap analysis to consider how the solution will work with OOTB features, and how they might need to adjust their processes, feature asks, and commercial approaches to fit within the standard product offering.

A good example to explore is when an organization—typically an enterprise—needs to handle multiple currencies and exchange rates in their CRM and QTC applications. This feature is generally supported with certain product and platform boundaries, and customizing the application beyond this may meet the business need, but may also adversely impact the application performance and overall administration effort.

2. Explore the business need justification

Presenting the right data to the decision makers will help everyone come to logical and justifiable conclusions. So when the professional services team approaches the customization conversation, asking the right questions of the business is key, including defining the business needs that may require custom features. Consider:

  • What and who will be impacted if specific business needs are not met?
  • What is the expected approximate value loss is this business need is not met? This can be gauged in terms of:
    • Lost business
    • Manual efforts that will be required by users without the custom feature
    • How it will affect other integrated systems
    • User training and adoption period
    • Data legacy migration efforts
  • What percent of business or revenue is impacted by this requirement?
    • Determine the acceptable percentage or threshold that would make sense to exclude this particular use case and deliver by other means

For example: let’s say a business wants the capability to do a cost-based pricing approach to order a specific product, which involves a feature that is not currently available OOTB. Looking at historical data, the business has only seen this product in 2% of quotes in the last two years, resulting in a much smaller revenue contribution compared to off-the-shelf products.

In this case, does it make sense to customize the solution to account for such a small portion of sales? The customization effort here doesn’t appear to be worthwhile here—digging into the business impact and asking the right questions can help businesses make a better calculated decision.

3. Submit a product enhancement request

Ask almost any SaaS company, and they’ll tell you that customer and market feedback is extremely valuable when evaluating their products and the need for future enhancements. If your organization is looking into a customization option that seems to align with industry standards, or could be helpful for others in the industry, it’s worth logging the idea with the SaaS provider, or submitting it as a product enhancement request. The SaaS company may discover that they've heard this request from other customers, or consider it to be a worthwhile enhancement to include in the next product release.

However, if your request is unique to your organization or not common practice across your industry, customization may be your best bet. But you won’t know until you submit your idea!

4. Familiarize yourself with the product roadmap

Always keep an eye on the product roadmap, which outlines the current plan or forecast of upcoming features in next few quarters/years. If your business requirement is on the roadmap, this can be a key deciding factor on whether you proceed with customization or hold off on solving for that requirement now, knowing it will be on the roadmap going forward. Example: in Japan, prices show three decimal points. A particular SaaS solution may currently support only two decimal points, and would require the creation of many custom fields and additional configuration efforts in order to show that one extra point. Before customizing the product to solve for this, the customer sees that the product roadmap already shows this enhancement as scheduled in an upcoming release. If they’re willing to wait, this can eliminate a costly and potentially complicated customization request.

5. Avoid future issues by having a solid design

If you’ve exhausted all alternatives and discover your organization must move forward with customization, it’s essential to have a solid solution design to make sure the custom component doesn’t become a burden in the future.

In other words, make sure to:

  • Design a custom component totally isolated from the OOTB product or framework if possible. The advantage is that other OOTB functionality, system performance, and future product upgrades will not be adversely impacted.
  • If you are extending the OOTB feature, then design a custom component within the product framework and recommended best practices. Modern products typically provide extensions and tools to support this, so always use these to your advantage.
  • Design a solution in such a way that if the product were to release a similar feature as an enhancement tomorrow, the custom component would be easy to unplug. In other words, make sure the custom feature isn’t highly integrated so the OOTB capability can be utilized once it comes along.
  • Most importantly, build a governance around the custom component that is not taken for granted, and becomes a barrier to adding additional customizations, which is the most common scenario to address future needs.

6. Account for user experience changes

Before making any customizations, it’s important to address how that change will impact the user experience and to explore alternatives if needed. Most modern products allow the configuration capabilities to customize the user experience as needed via configuration settings or CSS override—make use of this if possible.

If you’ve discovered that there are no available OOTB capabilities that will serve your needs, be sure to reach out to the SaaS vendor and community for feedback on how this particular custom enhancement may impact user experience, or if it will pose an adoption challenge.

Closing note

In many cases, customization is the best route forward. Enterprises will often opt to pursue custom features or enhancements to avoid change management pains. But in all cases, it’s important to consider all your options, and to work through these six steps before making a final decision.

If you take a broad view of the business need justifications, evaluate the risks by understanding the pros and cons, and consult product experts for their input, you can come to a solution where everyone benefits.

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