Announcements may be playing the role usually reserved for M&A activity in the CRM world right now. Generally a company purchases another when it wants to capture the benefits of another business’ R&D or established market base. But at the moment it appears that the desirable partners are too big to swallow and the result is more partnering between the big guys and the really big guys. Salesforce has been pursuing this strategy for most of the last year with Amazon, Google, and IBM. This says a lot about the state of the marketplace on several fronts.
First Salesforce and Amazon announced a partnership in which Amazon and its AWS infrastructure service would become Salesforce’s strategic infrastructure partner when Salesforce absolutely had to deploy a data center in a foreign land.
This makes perfect sense. As I have often said, it makes no business sense to build (in this case a datacenter) when you can purchase the solution at a reasonable price on the open market. As a competitive issue, Salesforce’s choice of Amazon is a direct challenge to Oracle because it offers a safe haven enabling Salesforce to diversify its partner portfolio while keeping Oracle and Microsoft at arms length. Given the rumors of salesforce being acquired by a big tech firm over the last few years, this seems a good way to help preserve its independence.
Much the same can be said of the alliance with Google. This is primarily a play for more SMB business and it’s a good one. Salesforce and Google announced their partnership around G Suite, Google’s free office apps. A while ago Salesforce and Microsoft created an integration with Outlook effectively making Outlook another UI for Salesforce. This parallels Microsoft’s own integration with its CRM and Outlook. So this partly neutralizes Outlook as a differentiator in any CRM decision.
Google integration gives Salesforce access to all those G Suite users who need CRM, especially in the SMB space. It also gives Salesforce another way to compete against Microsoft CRM. But, of course, they didn’t stop there. Salesforce also now has an integration with Google Hangouts too, an effective counter to Skype which is now owned by Microsoft.
Away from the SMB space in the Enterprise market Salesforce also forged a relationship with Google Analytics. Not that they need more analytics but the two partners have developed plausible processes that use Google Analytics to surface macro trends and Salesforce Einstein to go the last mile, a model that works with IBM too.
Last week Salesforce and IBM got closer with Salesforce naming IBM a preferred cloud services provider and IBM calling Salesforce its preferred customer engagement platform for sales and service. The agreement leverages IBM’s Watson analytics and its cloud as well as Salesforce Quip (more office software) and Service Cloud Einstein.
In all of this we can see that Salesforce is working to maintain its independence by linking with anything that can enhance its CRM and make it less desirable as an acquisition target. But of greater importance, it’s these relationships and others like them that will help Salesforce reach its goal of $20 billion in revenues in a few years. When your revenue needs are this big, you need to leverage the market penetration of similar companies. And while all of the companies named are bigger than Salesforce, they each need the bragging rights of working with the most popular CRM in the world.
Another question in all this is what’s happening with M&A activity, which seems to lull while partnerships blossom. The merger market is notorious for running hot and cold and right now it seems tepid, like there’s more opportunity for large companies like Salesforce crafting relationships with bigger partners. It’s not clear if this means there are few attractive acquisitions out there or simply that the times require different approaches to the market.
More than once in talks since Dreamforce in November Marc Benioff has used the logic, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. This logic is being played out in the partnerships his company is spawning. On one level it’s just smart business but in the back of my mind, I see the information utility of the 21st century forming. It will resemble the current electric utility in that no single provider will dominate and a high degree of interoperability will be needed. Standards like 120 volt and 60 Hertz electricity are what give us the impression of a continental electric utility grid but in reality, the grid is made up of smaller vendors adhering to the standards.
Likewise there’s no single vendor capable of dominating the information utility market and standards will be vital. That’s why it’s so important when a company like Salesforce announces partnerships. These incremental agreements have more significance that the press releases might allude to. They are steps on the road to something bigger.
The software platform is likely to be the new battleground in enterprise software. This is not to say that analytics and security are not important but they are being handled in different ways. Security is being handled in ways that address both hardware and software vulnerabilities but these things aren’t what customers or consumers spend their days thinking about. While everyone wants security, few know enough about it and the attitude is that security is someone else’s job. So both of these topics will be dealt with but they aren’t likely to be competitive differentiators, at least not yet.
But platforms affect more people and importantly they are key to making and saving money, topics the C-suite cares deeply about. Some of them might not know data from database but they all know profit and loss.
The software platform can be directly linked to making and saving money, which is why it is such a potent potential differentiator. We live in an era of commoditization. It’s hard to find true differentiation among competing products, which naturally leads to price wars. More than that, the pace of new product and new category introduction has declined precipitously over the last decade meaning that vendors find themselves in zero-sum competitions in which winning new business means poaching someone else’s customer.
So if there’s a lack of strategic differentiation there’s a load of tactical opportunities. Without strategic differentiation we face a market in which the first to react often wins the prize. And since so much of business is undergirded by information technology, the most adaptable technology—embodied in a platform—is the one most likely to help a vendor either make or save money. So we have the platform but where do platform wars come in.
A generation ago we faced a similar situation in which the answer was not the platform but the whole product. However, in retrospect they are the same. Whole product refers to all of the things a vendor in a mature market hangs to attract customers aside from the core product. Whole product consists of not only the core but the policies and procedures, financing and documentation and many other things.
The need for whole product was a driver of CRM’s evolution. Systems were imagined and built to capture customer feedback and to support employees striving to satisfy them. But CRM was an expensive proposition, especially in customer service, which required agents initially. It’s one reason so much energy has gone into developing indirect and self-service support.
Today’s problem is slightly different in that vendors all more or less recognize a need to alter their processes on the fly. It’s no longer enough to offer the support a vendor feels is right even in multiple channels. We must now support and service customers as they wish to be treated and that dimension is always changing. Such change happens at the platform level.
In this scenario it stands to reason that a vendor with a superior platform will be likely to succeed more or more easily in tight competition. But that’s not the end of the story. You can’t logically run a business on a platform unless your people know how to use it and that requires training—ongoing training.
All of this came into sharp relief last week as I attended the annual analyst kick-off event sponsored by Salesforce. The company has been developing its platform for a long time and just as importantly over the last 2-3 years it has brought forth an online training utility that develops platform skills in the rank and file. Giving customers a usable and powerful platform is the future in my mind. Interestingly, I don’t think the messaging has come together fully.
There’s more substance than shine to the mix, an enviable situation for any vendor. In detail there’s a fine platform and a very useful training utility in Trailhead. Also, there is an extensive list of plug and play platform based applications on the AppExchange. Think of it as the three-legged stool we’ll all need in the future.
What’s somewhat missing in most quarters is the realization and effective communication that this stuff is no longer optional, that business supported by platform fundamentals is what successful vendors will be using for the foreseeable future.
Other vendors, for instance Amazon with AWS and some others, see a different need and work to meet it. But primarily providing cloud infrastructure only addresses half of the challenge and amounts to saving money. That’s a great thing but when faced with making or saving money, 10 out of 9 (I said that right) executives who are given a choice will opt for making in money over simply saving it.
That’s why platform is so important today and why I think the decision point for many business leaders in the next year or two will be over which platform to select. It’s a choice that will have far reaching consequences because platform is foundational and not easily changed.
So welcome to platform wars. It will be a thrilling time if you are a software vendor and you have one. Other vendors, not so much.
Happy New Year to all of you reading this and, as Steve Gillmor might say, all of you who are not.
2018 is poised to be a busy year. I am off to San Francisco this week and next. Salesforce’s annual analyst kick-off, a day of briefings and 1:1 discussions designed to inform folks like me as well as to solicit advice happens on Thursday. Past Salesforce events like this have been eye-openers because they expose the theory and motivations for new product introductions and provide focus for several years out. The crew at Salesforce is exceptionally well versed in how to carry this kind of thing off. For starters, they bring out technologists and executives we don’t often hear from or about. Second, they open the kimono a fair bit so what I learn might stay under NDA for a while. So safe to say that even if the temperature in Boston hadn’t been flirting with absolute zero for the last couple of weeks, I’d still be looking forward to the event.
Just to show how competitive it is in CRM and cloud computing these days, Oracle is not wasting time either. I will attend their analyst kick-off the following week. It will be a very different but still illuminating event because they have a lot to say about positioning their IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS solutions in the modern marketplace. Oracle’s recent earnings jumps show the company is once again a powerful competitor at the leading edge of a new part of the industry. Oracle’s big question/issue will be how they intend to encourage their installed base to begin the Herculean effort of moving to the cloud. Hint: favorable pricing won’t get the job done. So as much as I want to hear more about the autonomous database, self-patching, advanced security and all the rest of the technology, I’ll also be interested in understanding their perceived path to market. Two things you can be sure of is that Oracle has some of the brightest minds in the business and they don’t like failure.
We’ll talk. Watch this space or email me.
Show season changes the CRM market, it always does. One day you’re in the vanilla application software space and a week later you understand the need to incorporate social media, or analytics or machine learning or you see a need for enhanced integration and development through platform services. It goes on.
Today, in the wake of Oracle, Salesforce, Microsoft, and many other companies’ trade shows, we’re again taking a look at the available suites. But this time, we need to think less about what’s been added and how well integrated the components are.
With Oracle now a year into rolling out its cloud strategy, we can’t say we’re in cloud computing’s early days any more. We’re in a race to computing as a ubiquitous utility like electricity, water and natural gas.
Oracle was the last cloud holdout, the last company that led with its legacy on-premise products. Today they’ve reinvented themselves to offer infrastructure, platform and applications or any combination as services. They might talk a good game about supporting legacy customers forever, and that will be necessary, but they’d like nothing better than to convert the legacy base to cloud infrastructure. And make no mistake about it new cloud based apps is the eventual goal. Much the same is true of Microsoft whose end user products like Office are now being delivered by subscription even if some of the software still resides on the desktop.
Salesforce was, of course, born in the cloud and it hasn’t suffered through a transition though for almost 20 years it has been undeniably causing one. The disruption impacted everyone else but the next disruption, or whatever we’ll call it, is affecting even Salesforce. With typical poise Salesforce is taking it all in stride and is even taking a leadership position.
The disruption turns form purely delivering technology to focusing on how it is used. The focus is very important to Salesforce and all the others because it will have a direct impact on how much of its services (we used to call it software but this is now) get bought and deployed.
So we see increasing emphasis on learning how to develop apps and administer them even to the point of opening up the training platform, Trailhead, to enable partners to develop training programs for their custom apps.
In the background there’s also an effort to standardize on processes that deserves attention. Back in the day, a process was carved in stone. Your organization used a 7 step sales process or maybe a 5 step one. Introducing a 7-step process into a 5-step organization was enough to set off a riot. It was something you did only very carefully if at all. In that era there were sales methodology companies (still are) and there were software companies and each would tell you their products were agnostic. They were too, with a little coding.
But today it’s different. The introduction of AI and machine learning has made both methods and applications secondary. Yes they’re still important but, no, they don’t rule the roost. Everywhere sales people seem to be sidestepping the argument about which method is better in favor of adopting an attitude of doing what the AI system suggests is the next thing needed to advance a deal. As it should be.
Platform based CRM with robust partner communities and their apps have brought us to the point of fully integrated and automated business processes. Customization has never been easier thanks to the platform too. The next step in our journey will be inventing new business processes that derive from our need for, and attempt to be, more agile, to flexibly approach new opportunities.
That’s what has been most interesting to me about show season. Each vendor has, in it’s own way, made a tacit nod to the primacy of data and analytics for automating processes. In that event, they’ve also begun closing the door on business processes that momentarily pop out of the automation sluice and into a spreadsheet or other manual thinking.
The change isn’t only recognizable in sales though selling is a big beneficiary with solutions that include SFA, CPQ, admin functions, AI, ML, compensation management and gobs of graphically rich reporting. Marketing is a rich area with its newfound abilities to identify, target, hand off, score, and journey map. And service has its own rich tool set most significantly analytics married to multi-channel abilities to take customers from beginning to end of a support journey without necessarily bringing in a human.
In all of this businesses are freeing up employee time for higher-level tasks that add value to customer experiences well beyond getting a deal or a right answer. This is where the customer facing jobs of the future will come from. They will demand more and different people skills as well as technical mastery.
That’s why this show season has been a turning point. I think it will be looked back on as the time we began a more disciplined approach to customers and employees as people who interact with technology, not just as various flavors of technologists.
Salesforce is a large and well-disciplined development company. They’re pretty good at marketing too. They continue to innovate in all product areas from core platform to applications and the one criticism I’d make is that it’s information overload at times. Reminds me of Oracle.
Lately they’ve made a big deal of adding their AI product, Einstein, to every application area to provide insights and stack rank options. Given that this is the first year of Einstein, it’s not surprising that the foundational layer looks similar across all of Salesforce’s disciplines; in cloud after cloud we some version of next best… . I expect that we might see examples of this at Dreamforce.
But back to discipline. Salesforce is paying a good deal of attention to the applications level these days in addition to spiffing up its platform and it’s noticeable in banking and finance as well as in the IoT but the differences in approach are what’s most interesting.
In IoT, the company is taking a very different approach than in finance. The company recently announced IoT Explorer and the ability to develop IoT applications quickly. App building tools are a part of the platform so it’s not much of a surprise that more agile development is coming to IoT though it reveals an interesting take on company strategy.
IoT has a lot of moving parts right now and the natural inclination for some might be to try to dominate the end to end process from intelligent devices to connectivity to IoT platforms and finally on to business applications. But three of these four areas might easily not bring in a nickel for a company like Salesforce. Specialized vendors that Salesforce would have trouble competing with dominate devices and connectivity. IoT platforms is a similar area with companies like Amazon Web Services dominating. So Salesforce wisely didn’t try to compete and is dedicated to supporting the leading platforms leaving the business application area as its chosen place to compete.
By focusing on the apps, Salesforce is positioning itself as the key to capturing value from investments further up stream in devices and platforms. Typically a business might make independent decisions about those areas and the business app company better be able to work with whatever is in place and that’s the strategy.
Given the state of the early IoT market, it makes good sense to go with an app development strategy. It’s too early to have standardized apps that vendors might want to buy off the shelf so having a quick and efficient development tool set makes all the sense in the world.
On the other side of the industry there’s financial services and banking, two mature marketplaces with specific application demands and here the strategy is less about new development than it is about using the platform to make clean and effective changes to process oriented operational systems. So in banking and finance Salesforce can deploy its many platform based tools as well as partners like nCino and Vlocity to produce systems that cover the institution’s critical processes, like loan origination and customer service. Again, Dreamforce might have more to reveal here.