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Salesforce: A quick guide for the channel

Why the channel needs to take a closer look at SaaS pioneer Salesforce

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What is Salesforce?

Not such a daft question considering that for all its hype that surrounds it as the world’s most popular Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform, it still only has 13 percent market share, just a few points above its arch rivals according to analyst firm Gartner.  

The features offered by Salesforce are pretty standardised and include sales and marketing automation, customer service and support and loads of reporting.  But why should salesforce stand out? Well in 1999, when the company launched and before the term cloud was even popularised, Salesforce was the first to offer a true software as a service (SaaS) platform for CRM. In the space of 13 years it went from market unknown to overtaking SAP, Microsoft and Oracle and today has developed a unique platform that is particularly well suited to business of all shapes and sizes – and for SI and VARs.

Who is it aimed at?

Salesforce is aimed at sales, marketing, and customer service teams and crucially is sold on a per user, per month basis with all data held within the salesforce datacentres. The architecture is based on a pick and mix type model where each user can be equipped with different modules depending on the role. So the sales team might get apps that for managing prospects and estimating, while the all-powerful MD will have access to a wider set of analysis and reporting tools. All data is held in the same system, in the same place and companies can scale up and down their salesforce commitment relatively quickly. Also the lack of upfront investment means no purchase of servers, database licences and crucially, all users need is an internet connection which makes it well suited to multisite field sales teams.

How does it impact the market?

If you consider that salesforce launched into a market when CRM was all on-premise and dominated by established players like Oracle and SAP, its rise effectively showed the wider industry why SaaS and the cloud is considered the most significant change to the IT status quo. Today, Gartner estimates that 40 percent of all CRM is now deployed via SaaS, and that number is growing by a few percentage points each year.

However, the second string to its incredibly disruptive bow is the firm’s force.com platform. Again, going back two decades; building bespoke apps for customer and enterprise facing tasks was a complex and expensive task. Maintaining the application and even deploying it globally was a further challenge. These professional service engagement were incredible lucrative with SAP consultants earning a small fortune to jet around the world.

Instead force.com offers a development platform for creating and deploying applications complete with built-in social and mobile functionality, business processes, reporting, and search. All maintained within the same datacentres and with access to the same data sets used by Salesforce.  To date, more than 100,000 firms have created and deployed over 220,000 apps using the platform and the number is growing. 

However, there have been some performance blips in the past including performance degradation in August 2012 and a full outage for many European customers for three hours in November 2013.

Salesforce is no longer the only game in town and in some ways rivals like NetSuite are pushing the envelope on connecting up areas like ERP and financials alongside CRM. However, although also cloud-centric, NetSuite still trails behind Salesforce is terms of product and ecosystem maturity but the healthy competition is great for the industry.

Points of interest

Although Salesforce is a true Silicon Valley success story, its rivals have not just sat on their laurels. At the heart of all CRM, ERP and most critical enterprise applications reside big, powerful databases. Both Oracle and SAP have spent the last few years building new and high performance database architectures and highly integrated applications that provide the basis for bespoke platform for larger organisations.  Emerging areas like big data analytics and Hadoop are still relatively alien to the Salesforce platform although the firm is making the right noises about both.

In addition, although Salesforce has had some success within government, its status as only available from the cloud may prove problematic – especially for a European public sector feeling uneasy about the impact of last year’s PRISM scandal.

Channel Pro opinion

Salesforce is clearly of interest as a tool that channel partners can utilise although it is also worth considering more focused offering such as Autotask and n-able as viable alternatives.

However, another consideration is the deployment of customised salesforce, through the use of force.com based applications, as an alternative to traditional on premise, bespoke or enterprise apps. The learning curve is not as steep as you would imagine and the ability to offer end-customers a per user, per month cost model sits well with organisations that are selling cloud based technologies in other areas.

The differentiators between Salesforce and the chasing pack are not as dramatic as it was say, five years previously, but as example of what the cloud can deliver, it is still a poster child and a platform that the channel should at least spend time understanding. With a new European datacentre going online last year, its profile is growing and customers almost certainly will want advice from the channel on how to capitalise on its potential.

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