ANALYSIS: Corporate Case Study - From product to pitch, Salesforceputs its customers first

The suffix ".com

The suffix ".com

has been an albatross to many, but Salesforce.com has done it proud. Julia Hood tells how the company uses customer-driven PR, media savvy, and philanthropy to keep growing.

At Salesforce.com the customer is king, and the PR strategy reinforces that theme. Founded in 1999 by CEO Marc Benioff, a former Oracle SVP, the company markets a range of customer-relationship management (CRM) products that are touted as the efficient and cost-effective alternative to the software offerings of companies like Siebel.

In spite of a media that is cynical of the ".com

suffix, the company has kept its name, and is one of those rare organizations these days that retains some of that old internet swagger. One of Salesforce's enduring principles is the idea of "The End of Software

- a belief that there is fundamentally a better way of doing business that does not involve software.

But Salesforce.com is no start-up on the brink of extinction. "We'd like to think we are a great story, and thriving,

explains Kari Moe, director of corporate communications. "The numbers are the answer." Although the company is not publicly traded, and is not required to disclose its earnings, it freely does so in order to demonstrate its viability. In 2001, according to statements from the company, Salesforce's revenues were $6.8 million, and are projected to reach $23 million this year.

"They do things,

says Caryn Marooney, cofounder of Outcast, one of Salesforce's PR agencies. "The products are truly innovative and they have over 4,000 customers.

Marooney says that the company is action-oriented. "They don't shy away from taking a stand, and are not afraid of doing things that are seemingly bold."

Moe works closely with the marketing team, including Cary Fulbright, SVP of marketing and products, and Clarence So, senior director of product strategy. The company also retains two PR agencies, Outcast for the US and Lewis PR in Europe.

Customers tell the tale

In spite of the PR team's skill, no one conveys the real story better than its customers, and security testimonials from clients form the linchpin of Salesforce's strategy.

"As a private company with new technology, it is critical for us to be able to point to our customers, and give the press customers who will talk about their success with Salesforce.com,

Moe says.

"From a PR standpoint, you need customers or it's all vaporware,

agrees Sheryl Kingstone, an analyst with Yankee Group. Kingstone says the company's PR strategy seems to be working. "Salesforce.com also talks about their cash flow, which is key. What they are trying to do is eat away at any skepticism about their business model, which is under particular scrutiny."

A dedicated staff member works with the sales team to develop customer testimonials. "It's important to have that person in marketing so we can make sure customers are prepared to take the media calls,

Moe says.

The process of cultivating the right clients to offer testimony to the media is delicate. The company issues a release announcing all of its new clients - what it calls the "customer drumbeat program

and recent news involved the signing on of such customers as Seiko, Sagent, and Canon.

"You need to spend time with customers,

Moe says. "We need to set up a call with them and go through a series of questions, to test them and see how they would do in a press interview.

The company makes detailed notes on the clients, so if a reporter specifically wants to speak with organizations in a certain sector, they can be easily identified.

A key message for Salesforce's media push is the cost-effectiveness of the service, which is paid in a monthly fee, as opposed to requiring a huge layout of cash up front like some software programs. One of the most useful strategies for persuading clients to stump for the company is to offer evidence of how they have saved money by picking Salesforce.com as a vendor. "When they are able to say, 'I had this amazing ROI from this investment,' it does make them look as if they made a good investment,

Moe says.

Producing for the community

In February, Salesforce.com launched Enterprise Edition, a product geared towards medium-sized and large companies, long thought to be the domain of traditional software powers like PeopleSoft and Siebel. The launch was designed to coincide with a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, featuring David Bowie, and raising money for the charitable Tibet House.

Joining the launch and philanthropy together was not a PR stunt, but an extension of the philosophy the company has endorsed since it was founded. Benioff in particular espouses the virtue of good corporate citizenship, and the Salesforce.com Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, has been part of the fabric of the company since its inception.

"The mission is to institutionalize philanthropy in the early stages of the company's growth, so that as the company grows the foundation will grow,

Moe explains. "It's not an afterthought, it's part of the company.

The foundation currently builds technology centers for underprivileged youth in the Bay Area, and staff members are encouraged to donate personal and business time to work with young people in the area. Employees can also apply for grants to use towards charitable projects of their own.

Salesforce.com is looking to expand and has its European base in Ireland.

In order to foster a coordinated PR effort, conference calls with the whole team are held every two weeks. "It gives them all a chance to brainstorm, and it results in good national and international press for us,

Moe says.

The senior management is media savvy, according to Moe, and CEO Benioff is a frequent spokesperson. Fortune named Salesforce.com one of its "Cool Companies

for 2001, and Benioff was named a 2002 Computerworld Honors Laureate for promoting "business as service."

Chris Lewis, CEO of Lewis PR, claims Benioff is a "dream client

to work for. "The only challenge is in controlling his enthusiasm,

Lewis says. "He is very quick, likable, and charming. Plus, he's very experienced in dealing with the press, especially broadcast."

Occasionally, the company will encounter unwanted publicity. For example, it had to answer some difficult questions over the departure of its first CEO, John Dillon, in October 2001. Benioff, then chairman, told the press it was a "mutual decision.

The company also declined to engage in post-September 11 analyses of how companies were getting back on track.

There has been some coverage critical of the company's plan to attract big customers. To keep the post-launch momentum going, Salesforce.com is holding city tours of Enterprise Edition for customers and prospects to, as Moe puts it, "bring the product to life."

The PR strategy seems to mirror the company's strategy, with an energy that is clearly driven from the top. "Mark Benioff is a very dynamic individual, and he doesn't like to lose,

says Kingstone of Yankee Group.

"Add to that a very young team that goes after ever opportunity, and that's what it takes. They are a marketing engine."

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