Salesforce.com's Second Stab at Service

It's been nine months since Salesforce.com introduced its Service Cloud, an integration of in-the-cloud customer service information including third-party data from services such as microblogging marvel Twitter. (That launch was a significant factor in CRM magazine's April 2009 decision to name Salesforce.com a Rising Star in customer service.) Since then, the company says that more than 8,000 customers have signed on to the Service Cloud, and the software-as-a-service (SaaS) pioneer seems to have no interest in slowing down, as its announcement today of Service Cloud 2 indicates.

"As customers, we all used to pick up the telephone, and the reality is, more and more today, customers are abandoning the traditional contact center channels and are going to the cloud for service," says Kraig Swensrud, a vice president of product marketing at Salesforce.com. The January release of Service Cloud centered on this notion -- that customer service needs to incorporate Web-based sources in a seamless, integrated, and automated fashion. Service Cloud 2, Swensrud says, expands on that principle within three key areas of innovation:

  • Salesforce Knowledge: "Knowledge is the heart of customer service operations," Swensrud says. "The database that contains the answers needs to be available through all of the channels." In what Salesforce.com is calling the "world's first knowledge-as-a-service" application, relevant information will be made available for customer self-service not only from on-demand knowledge bases, but also from sites built on its Force.com platform. Essentially, knowledge articles can be made searchable on the public Internet so they appear in search-engine results on sites such as Google.

    As with the Service Cloud itself, the Knowledge module is an offshoot of Salesforce.com's August 2008 acquisition of service automation provider InStranet. Salesforce's intention to purchase and plug in InStranet's technology initially met with some industry skepticism -- after all, InStranet's offering was an on-premises solution, contrary to Salesforce.com's all-SaaS model. Some analysts, however, seem to believe this release may put to rest some of the lingering questions. "The intervening nine months have been spent on building a better knowledge-base structure through better integration with InStranet, and calling it 'Service Cloud 2' is a sign of that," says Marshall Lager, managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, a social CRM strategy and analysis firm.

  • Salesforce Answers: Recognizing that consumers are increasingly consulting peers and social networks to find answers to product- and services-releated questions, Salesforce.com has developed a service designed to empower customer service agents as well as consumers. Swensrud says that the Answers application isn't a discussion forum. Forums, he says, are often slow to build critical mass, and even if a forum is populated with responses, correct answers are often difficult to locate. Salesforce Answers instead encourages the community to rate and vote on answers to distinguish what is helpful. The vendor refers to Salesforce Answers as "crowdsourced knowledge": through conversations, consumers help one another find answers to their questions, and, what's more, Salesforce Answers transfers those community-based conversations into the customer service center so that agents can benefit from crowdsourced knowledge, as well.

    Salesforce.com is also leveraging the popular social network Facebook to gather customer questions and insight, enabling companies to set up Answers communities as Facebook fan pages. Facebook members can click the thumbs-up "Like This" button to indicate the most-relevant and most-helpful answers. Those conversations can then be added into the Salesforce.com Service Cloud.

  • Salesforce for Twitter: Salesforce.com announced a beta version of its Twitter integration service in March. Now, Swensrud says, the Salesforce.com Twitter service is available for use by all customers via the Force.com AppExchange. The Twitter automation lets users search for keywords and company names on Twitter; it also aids in monitoring service issues. After identifying a customer question or issue on Twitter, the company can bring that conversation into Salesforce.com and actually respond and interact all through the Salesforce case page. In Swensrud's example, a customer support rep would learn of a customer's concern in real time by "overhearing" a tweet, log the event in the Salesforce Service system, and respond through the system directly into Twitter, providing the customer with a link to the relevant online knowledge-base article.

The extent to which these announcements mark a significant turning point is open for discussion -- not least because the offerings themselves aren't yet on the market. "There are some refinements of message and a better sense of the release dates, but today's announcement by Salesforce.com repeats much of what we heard in January," Lager says. While Salesforce for Twitter is available for download now on the AppExchange at no additional cost, Salesforce Knowledge won't be released until the fourth quarter of Salesforce.com's 2010 fiscal year (which ends January 31, 2010), and it will cost an additional $50 per user per month. Salesforce Answers is currently in pilot and is set for release in the first half of the company's 2011 fiscal year. 

Still, Salesforce.com is clearly counting on the Service Cloud to fuel much of its future growth. Company executives say the market for on-demand customer service is taking off, citing Gartner research indicating that by 2013 at least 75 percent of customer service centers will use some form of SaaS. 

"It's interesting that this announcement coincides with the Oracle-InQuira release from Tuesday," Lager notes. "Both center on SaaS multichannel customer service, and both are status reports on works-in-progress. It will be interesting to see how this battle goes, and who else joins it."

News relevant to the customer relationship management industry is posted several times a day on destinationCRM.com, in addition to the news section Insight that appears every month in the pages of CRM magazine. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top; to contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com.

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