Salesforce.com Signals More Aggressive Customer-Service Push

Building on last month’s Multiforce initiative, Salesforce.com plans to branch out from its hosted CRM roots

For the past few years, Salesforce.com has struggled against type. As an outsourced-CRM provider, Salesforce.com has bent over backwards to recast itself as a CRM service that’s consumable by customers with significant investments in on-premise enterprise applications, too.

With its inaugural “Integrationforce Day” event, held last week in San Francisco, the CRM-as-a-service pioneer once again tried to reconcile the worlds of on-premise applications and outsourced-CRM services. Highlights of the event included a preview of its Sforce 6.0 integration platform, along with a new Sforce Partner Portal offering, both of which are slated to go live in Salesforce.com’s upcoming Summer ’05 release.

Reconciliation has been more difficult than Salesforce.com anticipated. The company built its business model on the promise of eliminating the most onerous and frustrating aspects of on-premise CRM implementation—deployment, integration, and ongoing maintenance and support.

At the same time, as Salesforce.com grew its customer base and tried to make its CRM-as-a-service offering all things to all potential customers, it ran smack up against a somewhat intractable problem: larger customers, and even many mid-size accounts, typically required significant integration between their back-end, on-premise applications and their CRM software. In such cases, the CRM-as-a-service pioneer often didn’t have a good story to tell.

At first, Salesforce.com tried to give customers a means to accomplish this using its proprietary XML-RPC interface. Many potential adopters balked at the significant investment in custom coding entailed by this API, however. Then, almost two years ago, Salesforce.com fared much better when it unveiled Sforce, an initiative that enabled companies to use the development tools and application architectures they were most comfortable with to tie the Salesforce.com CRM service with their on-premise applications. A Microsoft .NET shop could use Visual Studio to create .NET-managed code, just as an IBM WebSphere shop could use WebSphere Studio to produce J2EE code.

Enter Integrationforce Day, which Salesforce.com whipped up as a forum in which to trumpet its upcoming Sforce 6.0 platform and Sforce Partner Portal releases. Sforce 6.0, of course, is the latest iteration of Salesforce.com’s seminal integration platform, while Sforce Partner Portal is a Java-based Web application that lets companies create and expose a portal view—complete with leads, contacts, opportunities, and relevant documents—to partners.

To a large extent, analysts agree, Salesforce.com is mostly delivering on the promise of out-of-the-box integration that was part and parcel of the original Sforce vision. “[T]he company has been inexorably marching towards a complete set of CRM tools that will make it more competitive at the enterprise level,” says Joe Outlaw, a principal analyst for contact center and CRM solutions with consultancy Current Analysis Inc. In this respect, Outlaw notes, Salesforce.com’s integration strategy isn’t particularly complicated, but nevertheless addresses the needs of most potential users. “The company wants to make it easy for customers to integrate three main technology areas with its hosted service,” Outlaw explains, citing desktop tools such as Microsoft’s Office franchise, enterprise applications such as SAP, and Oracle, as well as development tools, including other integration-focused offerings such as BEA WebLogic and TIBCO.

The Integrationforce Day events built on top of the Multiforce release that Salesforce.com unveiled last month in New York. Also expected to go live with Summer ’05, Multiforce is an on-demand operating system that lets users switch—via single sign-on—between Salesforce, Supportforce, and any other on-demand application written for the Sforce platform. The upshot, Salesforce.com officials claim, is that companies can use the same data model, security system, and user interface for any on-demand application built by customers or partners with Customforce and for the Sforce platform.

Outlaw, for his part, says Multiforce could be a game-changing deliverable from Salesforce.com. “The most tantalizing bits of the announcement, however, were not what was explicitly talked about, but rather the implications inherent with the Multiforce environment,” he says. “Multiforce will make the service and support service, Supportforce, seem significantly more like a distinct application, rather than a few tabs tacked onto the current sales automation-heavy service.”

If Multiforce is any indication, Outlaw speculates, Salesforce.com plans to go full-tilt into the customer service application arena. “The company has already disclosed some of the areas that will see major refurbishment with the Summer ’05 release, including about ten pre-built style sheets for creating self-service portals and sample code to help administrators create a single sign on for service portals,” he concludes. “Multiforce will allow Salesforce.com to separate out Supportforce into a different screen from the currently dominant SFA features—users will simply choose which 'application' they want to see from a pick list.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.