Salesforce: The unifying message is 'customer first'

Saleforce.com's annual Dreamforce conference highlights the growth of cloud and brings clarity to the company's overall strategy.

In November 2008, I attended Salesforce.com's annual Dreamforce conference for the first time along with 9,000 of the company's customers and partners.

The sense of camaraderie among attendees, many of whom were early adopters of the cloud and software-as-a-service religion, was eye-opening.

Dreamforce 2008, Marc Benioff (photo by Michael Krigsman)
Dreamforce 2008, Marc Benioff (photo by Michael Krigsman)

Along with CEO Marc Benioff's evangelical fervor for the cloud, the catchy "No Software" marketing phrase helped differentiate Salesforce from established providers of on-premises software.

Dreamforce 2008, Foo Fighters on stage (photo by Michael Krigsman)
Dreamforce 2008, Foo Fighters on stage (photo by Michael Krigsman)

In that year, many large companies were still somewhat skeptical that cloud computing could provide a genuine alternative to on-premises software, especially at an enterprise level. Potential buyers had concerns about issues such as performance, uptime, and security.

Despite those old concerns, cloud computing has since gone mainstream for both small and large companies.

The chart showing Salesforce's revenue history, highlighting 2008, demonstrates the rise of cloud computing as a mainstream force. In 2008, the company had under $1 billion of revenue, compared to almost $6 billion today.

salesforce-com-revenue-graph-2.png

Fast forward to Dreamforce 2015, which just concluded in San Francisco. Over 150,000 people registered for the conference and Marc Benioff said that ten million watched video online. For a year-by-year breakdown of Dreamforce attendees, see this infographic.

The unifying message

Over the years, Salesforce has expanded its products and offerings far beyond the departmental salesforce automation system the company launched in 2000. As the company has grown in richness and depth, Salesforce has sometimes struggled to articulate a clear, unifying message. For example, some observers said the social enterprise theme of 2011 was confusing.

Despite evolving products and messages, one underlying focus stands out: Salesforce products help its customers understand and improve relationships with their customers. This theme emerged strongly in 2013, as Salesforce held a series of events exploring the theme of being a "customer company."

The customer company mantra means, in effect, "We provide solutions that help our customers better serve their customers." However, there is a once-removed quality that makes the "customer company" concept somewhat nuanced and complicated, even though it does accurately reflect the mission of Salesforce.

As Salesforce approaches $6 billion in revenue with a growing portfolio of products, Marc Benioff's Dreamforce 2015 keynote begin to resolve this ambiguity by calling Salesforce the "Customer Success Platform."

Boom! The pieces start falling into place. Let's parse the message:

  • Customer: the core unifying theme
  • Success: placing customer success above ours
  • Platform: a stable foundation that remains as products evolve

Precision is important because the right message helps unify and magnetize employees, customers, investors, the media, and other stakeholders around company goals.

Marc Benioff's ability to communicate is without peer among technology CEOs and he knows this better than anyone. Which is one reason that Salesforce today is a member of the Fortune 500.

Disclosure: Salesforce paid most of my travel expenses to attend Dreamforce