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Comment: Thoughts from Salesforce's Dreamforce 2016 event

There are two views of Salesforce the company that I have encountered out in the world, a world heavily influenced by retailers rather than other industry verticals. In one view, the company is a B2B sales lead-to-contract tool, one that, sure, can do an awful lot out of the box, but actually can end up quite complex if you really want to get it around to supporting exactly what your sales process can do. In the other view, Salesforce and Adobe are poised to duke it out against each other in a battle to the death to own every company’s single view of the customer, and Salesforce is in it to win – as their acquisition of Demandware validates.

Competitors who in any way touch customer data should not buy into the first view above about Salesforce. Make no mistake, the company wants to own the single view of the customer, and wants to help their customers take as much advantage of that view as they possibly can. I would use the words “relentless pursuit of one view of the customer”, except for the silly cartoon characters. I can’t use the word relentless without picturing Astro and Einstein, mostly because you could not walk 10 feet in any direction at Dreamforce without being confronted by one or both. And in the face of those characters, relentless just feels weird.

I don’t know what Astro is really supposed to signify, but Einstein is the personification of Salesforce’s Artificial Intelligence solution, billed as “the data scientist for everyone”. And it’s here that I feel like Salesforce is maybe reacting to that old, dated idea that the company is only a B2B sales tool. Einstein really represents a very sophisticated set of technologies, a bundle of artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and predictive analytics, all tied into the Salesforce platform through an increasingly complex framework that spans some fascinating technology innovations, like Lightning, the company’s development framework and UI, that lets anyone with a minimum of drag-and-drop capabilities build apps or customer experiences which can be deployed to just about anyone with access to the platform.

And I have to believe that this framework, unlike others I’ve seen from tech vendors, really works, because in the two months since acquiring Demandware, the company is already promising new commerce capabilities that leverage Einstein into what has now been branded the “Commerce Cloud” solution. And already demoing live experiences that leverage those capabilities.

I also believe that the acquisition is an injection of retail understanding and capability that the company has lacked until now. You can still see vestiges of Salesforce’s past minimally viable forays into the retail vertical – for example, I attended a session on mobile apps in retail only to be shown a B2B sales tool from Staples’ office supply business. To be fair, it was followed up by Combatant Gentlemen’s customer insights platform, which was more directly relevant, but the Staples story would’ve been far more appropriate on the Sales Cloud track than a retail track. In the expo hall (the “campground”), the Commerce Cloud section of the floor was packed to the gills with people there to understand how Commerce Cloud fits into the big picture of Salesforce – and their own technology portfolios.

I guess this is a long-winded way to say, where Salesforce before had relevance to the retail industry, just never well-expressed or organized in a way to appeal to the retail vertical, they now have a retail industry powerhouse, Demandware, and one that appears to fit more snugly into the Salesforce Cloud than most acquisitions fit within any new owner. They have demonstrated at Dreamforce that they plan on being the real deal in retail – in fact, the real deal in a retail environment where more and more companies of all stripes find themselves in the retail business, whether manufacturer, distributor, retailer, or even services companies.

But they need to shed their “small, old” image once and for all. I’m all for companies having a personality, and it’s hard to claim that people don’t take Salesforce seriously when 170,000 of them show up to see what the company has to say. And maybe I’m jaded and need to get over the fact that I found the whole thing cloying and overly saccharine – cartoon owls and bears and bunnies are cute, but I’m not sure how I feel about taking technology advice from a South Park-shaped kid in a raccoon onesie.

I’m fairly certain that the cartoon characters are intended to make Salesforce more approachable and easier for customers to embrace, especially as the capabilities get more sophisticated (which are easy to demo, and increasingly harder to explain how they work). However, I’m really not sure they accomplished that goal. It’s going to be more and more important for Salesforce to achieve it, though. You are way dated if you still persist in thinking of the company as a B2B CRM – and they have moved from being a leader in cloud to being a leader in technology, period. Cartoon characters aside, that’s a big deal.

This article originally appeared as 'Salesforce continues mission of one view of the customer via cartoon characters?' on The RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.