For SMBs, Salesforce works best when business is booming

Salesforce has stepped up its tools and services for SMBs, with an eye on small businesses aiming to grow quickly.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

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Just a couple months into the 2018 fiscal year, Salesforce is gunning for a robust enterprise business that will bring its yearly revenue to more $10 billion.

"No other software company of our size and scale is growing at this rate," boasted Salesforce COO Keith Block on the company's last earnings call. Salesforce posted a record number of big transactions in fiscal 2017, he noted, with 100 customers last year spending more than $10 million.

That doesn't mean Salesforce can afford to ignore small businesses. As the Trump administration noted Monday at the start of Small Business Week, as many as 99.7 percent of American businesses are categorized as small, and they account for nearly half of all private-sector jobs in the US.

Furthermore, catering to small businesses is simply part of Salesforce's "heritage," argued Jamie Domenici, head of SMB at Salesforce. When the CRM company came on the scene nearly two decades ago, it disrupted the status quo for small and big businesses alike. To this day it builds a roadmap that takes into account "the two-person company and the 20,000-person company," Domenici said.

Read also: Salesforce launches AppExchange partner program, new $100 million platform fund | Salesforce partners with WeWork to target SMBs | Salesforce's Einstein: One smart way to upsell AI | TechRepublic: Can Watson help Salesforce make email sends smarter?

In recent years, Salesforce has beefed up functionality aimed at SMBs through a mix of acquisitions and organic growth, concurred Brent Leary, a partner at CRM Essentials. The company is investing in programs like AppExchange, which houses more than 3,000 third party integrated applications, and it's partnering with SMB-friendly companies like WeWork. On top of that, it's ramping up local outreach with small business basecamp events that showcase partners, experts and local resources aimed at helping small businesses succeed.

Even so, "some small businesses aren't ready to financially or organizationally make the commitment needed to take full advantage of Salesforce's platform," Leary said in an email to ZDNet. "But if you are a fast-growth, high-growth small businesses, you should consider Salesforce when you're choosing a CRM solution to implement."

Multiple SMBs that use Salesforce told ZDNet that their experiences lined up with this assessment.

"I think initially, when you start out as a smaller group, the pricing's obviously not in your favor," said Joshua Johnson, head of customer service for Kabbage.

Kabbage is one of the leading small business lenders in the financial technology space. Founded in 2009, the company has grown to 354 employees. It turned to Salesforce in 2013 after its in-house CRM solution couldn't scale with the company.

"If you are growing -- and you're growing rapidly as we were -- then in that sense, it does just make sense," Johnson said of Salesforce.

Salesforce is well suited, Domenici said, for "high-velocity companies that are growing rapidly. Our whole promise is we're going to grow with you."

For the not-for-profit credit union Amplify, scaling up with Salesforce has been manageable in part because integrations make all of the company's data accessible. "In the case of Salesforce, when we say we want to hook in this data, or do that, the answer's always yes," said Lisa Nicholas, SVP and chief digital officer at Amplify.

The 225-person company was initially using Excel spreadsheets to track its customers, Nicholas said. To ensure their deployment of Salesforce was worthwhile, the company started with a limited number of licenses.

"My advice is to start small and understand the group of people who are going to be bringing this up for you," she said. By starting with a limited number of licenses, she said, Amplify has been able to "implement, test, make changes and add other departments in so we can slowly get everyone in and the use cases defined."

Similarly, Kathy Meyer of the small Minnesota company PMG Services said that a small business should have a plan for growth before investing in Salesforce tools. PMG, which has fewer than 50 employees, helps companies in the manufacturing industry scale when they need additional labor and employees.

"For a small company [Salesforce] does look pretty expensive," Meyer said. "You have to have that plan in place and make sure you're using it how you planned to use it."

Salesforce's latest pitch to small businesses is Einstein, its artificial intelligence platform. Initially, most SMBs are skeptical, Domenici said. In fact, Salesforce surveyed small businesses and found around 60 percent didn't think AI would be applicable to their business.

"When I start talking to them about how Salesforce is thinking about it, the conversation usually changes," Domenici said. "We're trying to democratize it, make it accessible for everyone. We're embedding it into everything we do, and for small business people who wear many hats, it's like having another person on their payroll."

Leary of CRM Essentials noted that the pricing models for Einstein varies across the different cloud offerings. So as with other Salesforce tools, "you have to really know what you're looking to do," he said.

"Small businesses who don't have a great deal of data currently accumulated may find it hard to justify certain Einstein editions initially," he added. "But if you are at a fast moving, fast growing small business touching customers in a number of digital interactions and services, Einstein should pay for itself in more opportunities to build and extend customer relationships."

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