Continuing its efforts to lead the charge towards cloud computing, Salesforce.com has launched an initiative to tie together disparate online communities, including social networking and partner communities, into a unified web for customer service. The resulting product's ability to gather and provide relevant data could mark a major step forward in providing support for end users.
Although Salesforce.com has been the poster child for successful on-demand software vendors, the company has the long-term vision to see that, in order to continue its stellar growth pace, it needs to expand into new areas. While the firm has customer relationship management (CRM) applications listed as part of its portfolio - and indeed as its stock ticker symbol - its success to date has primarily been in just one area of CRM: automating sales organizations and processes. That area has been extremely good to the company, and is likely to help it become the first on-demand application service provider with $1 billion in annual revenues. To keep feeding the growth machine demanded by investors, however, the company recognizes the need to penetrate other CRM domains. Given the sheer size of the customer service and support market, it is no surprise that Salesforce.com has set its sights squarely on that trade for some, or even much, of its future growth.
On January 15, Salesforce.com unveiled the Service Cloud, a multi-piece solution for customer service and support. While the customer service functionality is indeed present, the bright new idea here is to incorporate numerous formerly disconnected internet experiences, primarily those involving social networking or social computing, into the client interaction process. At the event, Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff described the Service Cloud as a mechanism to enable businesses to join the conversation already taking place about their products and services on the web. The crucial point is that, for the bulk of these dialogues, the companies have no way to participate and, in many cases, no inkling that the conversations are taking place or where.
Salesforce.com actually made it clear that service and support was a strategic priority last year when it closed its acquisition of knowledge management specialist Instranet. The Service Cloud is the first tangible result of that merger, as its knowledge capture and organizational functionality comes from Instranet technology. In addition, the executive now in charge of the company's customer service and support business, Alex Dayon, was the CEO of Instranet before the takeover.
As Dayon describes it, the Service Cloud aims to tap into the conversations on web community forums and discussions between friends on social networking sites. The utility of that information can then be ranked based on its popularity on those sites, essentially using a 'crowdsourcing' method to determine which conversation generated the most useful information. This can then be distributed to end users through search engines, partners and contact center agents.
The overall vision driving the Service Cloud is impressively expansive, essentially redefining the multi-channel contact center to include not just phone, chat and email, but also search engines, social networks, web forums and business partners. As with any scheme this ambitious, the first iterations are bound to be incomplete and the Service Cloud is no exception. In this release, for example, Salesforce.com took the sensible route and built its new solution around the products and partnerships that it announced at its recent annual user conference, including its integrations with Google and Facebook. That means, however, that when Salesforce.com says search engine, it means Google and only Google; when it talks about social networks, it means Facebook and Facebook alone.
Given the popularity of those two companies' services, they make a patently great place to start, but Salesforce.com clearly has more ground to cover before enterprises can truly tap into customer conversations no matter where they take place, as the company's marketing materials would have it. Twitter, for example, has the ability to spread negative news about a company - say a service outage for a wireless carrier - faster than Facebook. Companies such as Bank of America are even starting to experiment with Twitter as a tool for agent-assisted customer service. Integration with Twitter would, therefore, be an obvious next step for Salesforce.com. Additionally, although the company would not comment explicitly on this, Salesforce.com executives did hint that they were working on incorporating some form of text-mining into the service as a means of pulling actionable information from more unstructured conversations on the web.
There are also issues that would need to be worked out around opt-in mechanisms for an expanded Service Cloud. For forum-style conversations, in communities such as specialized company-sponsored Facebook groups, the act of joining the forum can include an explicit opt-in, allowing a company to utilize discussions on the forum in other contexts. When tapping into any conversation anywhere is the aim, however, privacy issues will inevitably crop up. Still, Datamonitor takes a highly optimistic attitude towards the Service Cloud; even the issues mentioned above simply mean that Salesforce.com has ample room to grow this solution through new partners. The company has, in essence, laid out a vision and convinced clients to begin to think about ways to reorganize their ideas about customer service and support. Even if the Service Cloud solution itself is an early-stage offering, it points in the direction of the changes that enterprises will face in the coming years and gives them an anchor around which to begin their planning and process amendments.
Much of the attention of this release will inevitably be focused on the use of social networking sites to gather customer service information that might be difficult or impossible for enterprises to generate on their own. An example used during the service's unveiling: pairing a Bluetooth headset with a mobile phone. The sheer number of potential combinations of handsets, headsets and service providers make it unlikely that knowledge articles on every possible combination of the three will reside in the handset manufacturer's contact center knowledgebase (or the headset manufacturer's or service provider's knowledgebase, for that matter). But the information needed to successfully solve the pairing issue likely exists somewhere on the internet. For the handset manufacturer to be able to tap into those data via Facebook, for example, and then distribute them to its own contact center agents - as well as those of the headset manufacturer and the service provider - is impressive.
Datamonitor is, however, even more impressed with the ability to push that knowledge out to a search engine. Using the same hypothetical Bluetooth pairing issue, the Service Cloud can populate a search engine's results. When a consumer anywhere types in a Google query that covers that particular combination of phone, headset and wireless carrier, the solution for pairing (possibly originally gleaned from a Facebook conversation) pops up as one of the search results. Service Cloud's foremost achievement could be recognizing that Google may well be the most prominent customer service channel in existence; actively using the search engine as a way to directly provide support to end users could mark a great leap forward in customer self-service.