The 2009 CRM Service Awards: Rising Stars -- Salesforce.com: Clouding Up the Scene

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Salesforce.com has been an important player in CRM for a long time, but the company rarely made the short list of customer service technology providers. It had contact center capabilities and feedback mechanisms (Salesforce Ideas is a popular example), but few people thought of the company first for customer service applications. At least, not until January 2009, when cofounder, chairman, and chief executive officer Marc Benioff announced the Service Cloud, a unique approach to customer service and support that aids customers by leveraging social networking and trusted online sources.

The Service Cloud captures conversations from sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and lets customer service organizations turn those conversations into assistance. For example, a person curious about how to get a Bluetooth headset to work with a mobile phone service might put the question to friends in a user community focused on that service, or in a Facebook group focused on that headset. If an answer resolves the problem and receives enough positive feedback, a cloud service manager (Salesforce.com’s coinage for an agent who works with Service Cloud) can make that exchange part of the company’s Web self-service and agent knowledge base, and can even share the information with partners for their own help systems. This expands the reach and value of community expertise, and provides consistency of service across all channels.

“Salesforce.com has been investing in customer service and support for some time,” says Alex Dayon, who saw the nature of that investment firsthand as founder and CEO at InstraNet, a company Salesforce.com acquired in August 2008 to absorb the service management capabilities that now form the backbone of Service Cloud. And yet Dayon, now senior vice president of Salesforce CRM customer service and support, says that spending on technology hasn’t always been in step with customer trends.

“The new generation of consumers trusts content created by peers,” said Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, in a statement at the launch of Service Cloud. “This consumer expectation that they can create answers and content as part of a community will lead businesses and other organizations to adopt similar techniques to succeed.” Like Dayon, Maoz sees the trend of community-based service and support emerging in a big way: “Ultimately, organizations will have to change their singular emphasis on tools for agents, to a broader strategy that also supports the role of community experts.”

In providing a fresh path to the contact center—a part of CRM that many felt Salesforce.com lacked—Service Cloud may complete Benioff’s software-as-a-service suite puzzle, a decade in the making. “It’s a very good complement to what they have today,” says Chris Fletcher, research director with analyst firm AMR Research. “Service Cloud is a good extension of Salesforce.com’s service-and-support capabilities, and using them makes better sense than ever before.” (Fletcher believes, however, that full cloud-based customer service is “not there yet.”)

“There’s community software and there’s service-and-support software, but Salesforce.com has packaged it all together,” says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research for analyst firm Nucleus Research. “I think it’s pretty well baked, [but] the challenge for any CRM is moving beyond the initial point of contact with the customer to other areas.”

No doubt about it—Service Cloud is a technology that the industry will want to watch closely. It’s still early, but the combination of social networking and customer service has a lot of possibilities to explore. Plus, it’s software-as-a-service, something the contact center is accepting in greater numbers than ever before. So, strange though it may seem, this long-established veteran has become the oldest of this year’s Rising Stars.  —Marshall Lager

• CEO: Marc Benioff
• Founded: 1999
• Headquarters: San Francisco
• Revenue: $1.08 billion, for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2009
• Employees: 3,318 (as of Oct. 31, 2008)
• Customer count: 51,800 businesses; major customers include Dell, Harrah’s Entertainment, Japan Post Network, and Starbucks

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