360-degree customer view goes fractal in cloud

Hooking up all your interactions with your customer is old hat. Today you have to plug into all your customer's interactions too.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

"One cloud is better than two," FinancialForce.com's VP of product marketing Tom Brennan told me last week. From one perspective that's absolutely right. But from another it's quite wrong and indeed goes to the heart of some of the struggles Salesforce.com has just now. But more of that in a moment.

The conversation with Brennan arose during a pre-brief for today's announcement of the company's summer releases, which include some significant enhancements to its core accounting product along with an update to the professional services automation suite that it originally acquired from Appirio. I take an interest in FinancialForce.com as its roots are in the UK and it's part-owned by Dutch accounting software giant Unit4. Also because it was one of the first ISVs to choose to build its product on the Salesforce platform, thus irrevocably tying its destiny to that of the cloud giant. [A few disclosures: Salesforce.com is a consulting client and will also take care of my travel expenses at next week's Dreamforece event, while FinancialForce.com is a member and one-time sponsor of EuroCloud UK, of which I am chair.]

The enhancements in this latest FinancialForce.com release demonstrate some of the unarguable benefits of staking all on a single cloud platform. To put this in historical context — which is where it makes most sense — the holy grail of customer-facing organisations has been something known as the 360-degree view of the customer. Stripping away the jargon, this is all about having a pooled view of all a customer's interactions with a business so that at any given time the business can have a co-ordinated interaction with that customer. The new release of FinancialForce.com brings that to life with tighter integration into the Salesforce platform so that, for example, customer service reps can raise credit notes for returns or invoices for services from directly within the Service Cloud environment. So instead of being put on hold and bounced around from pillar to post between separate functional silos of an organisation, a customer can actually get what they phoned up for on the spot.

Ignore for a moment that we didn't ought to be surprised that this is so difficult for businesses to achieve and spend a moment rejoicing that FinancialForce.com has been able to do this through its dedication to a single cloud platform. Brennan has been trying out the phrase 'Financial Relationship Management' as a way of conveying what a breakthrough this is — the ability, through end-to-end integration, to directly access financial transactions while in direct conversation with a customer. The trouble with the historical context is that it may not be such a good idea to use phrases that remind people just how long it has taken the enterprise applications world to achieve so little.

And while that may have been the objective that everyone was dedicated to reaching, the trouble is that it's no longer the destination because the goal posts have moved. The 360 degree view was always on a single plane of one enterprise's relationship with one customer. The problem to be solved still revolved around the enterprise, aiming solely to align all of the separate silos of interaction with the customer. But of course in today's cloud environment, the customer's view is no longer constrained to a single relationship. Instead, customers interact with enterprises in the context of many other relationships they have with their friends, colleagues and other vendors. The 360 degree has gone fractal and no enterprise can truly understand how the customer sees it unless it can access all of that rich context too.

Of course Salesforce.com has added to its platform with applications such as Radian6 that attempt to add some of that context, but my feeling is that trying to do it all on a single cloud becomes a disadvantage when everything is so dependent on adapting to shifting connections. What you really need is the ability to connect to and parse across multiple cloud platforms. Salesforce.com's problem is that it's going down the path of trying to solve these problems by putting everything and the kitchen sink into its own platform. That's great for vendors like FinancialForce.com that have chosen to invest everything in the one platform, but what about everyone else who doesn't have that option?

This insistence on the virtue of 'one cloud' leads to absurdities like Marc Benioff's claim at Techcrunch Disrupt today that his company is competing with Okta by developing a single sign-on utility that its customers can use to "manage your Salesforce identity" across different Salesforce services. We'll find out the detail at Dreamforce next week but if the Salesforce platform has become so fragmented that single sign-on becomes a desirable new feature that has to be bolted back in place, then something has gone awry with the 'one cloud' vision. The goal today is much broader, it's working out how to integrate and interact effortlessly across multiple cloud platforms, not just within a single cloud. And Okta (who I wrote about last year) faces no competitive threat from whatever Salesforce.com has in the works, because we will always need independent services to help us achieve that outcome.

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