Salesforce.com's President Explains How It Wins Big Customers And Learns From Startups

Salesforce.com CRM +0.24% hosted its Connections conference in New York City last week to debut improvements to its marketing cloud and Wave applications product. Forbes ventured into the bowels of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to speak with Salesforce president Keith Block about the announcements and how Salesforce sees the market today, from landing more million-dollar customers to the cloud startups learning–and chasing–Marc Benioff and co.
The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Forbes: What’s the significance of the product news coming out of this week, and this event overall, to Salesforce?
Keith Block: When you talk to customers, they want a customer journey. To be able to expand that across the platform to include sales and service is very powerful. It’s a continuation of the move to the intimacy of a customer-centric world and customer-first strategy. This is not just a signal to our customers, but a signal to our ecosystem about building analytic apps for our partners. We have a message that is resonating for our customers that this company’s agenda is growth.
F: Recent announcements like a partnership with big data vendors seem to be expanding what Wave analytics can do. But it’s almost like what was announced at Dreamforce in October was unfinished. How mature is Wave now as a product suite?
Block: When we announced Wave, it was early days. But within two weeks we were signing up some nice deals, which was great. But it’s only been a few months. So there’s a lot of focus, a lot of attention, a lot of interest. I have a whole floor organization who walk around and use it on their phone, and that becomes like an elevator pitch. I was with a financial service company and the entire C-level suite was there except the CEO, and we were talking about them transforming and getting insights from their customer base. So I pulled out my phone, attached it to the screen and said, let me show you how I run my business.
F: What’s been the feedback you’ve been getting from customers about Wave, Lightning and other recent products?
Block: The consistent feedback is that customers are viewing us differently. Instead of us being more transactional, they are seeing us be more strategic, more relevant and gain more mindshare. We want to be in the position of trusted advisor. The CEO of ABB [a $50 billion market cap Swiss multinational corporation] and I will come together in 10 days and we will continue our ongoing dialog about how they can transform their company. This is basically the GE of Europe and they’re coming to us to talk about innovation and transformation. They’re not going to whom you might expect [consulting firms]. And that’s across all industries.
F: What is Salesforce doing differently that’s allowing it to land record numbers of seven-figure deals each quarter?
Block: It’s about speaking the language of consumers. We have this great technology, the best in the world, and a killer CRM [customer relationship management] suite of applications. But what was missing historically was applying it to a business problem. We’d come at it from a product-centric sales cycle as opposed to, what does a customer want? They want you to solve a business problem. They want you to grow. It was understanding the customer’s business problem and going to that meeting with a point of view.
[Block later cited growth in Asia and strong partnerships as additional drivers of growth.] F: How do you keep an eye on younger startups in areas close to Salesforce?
Block: We consider ourselves to be a younger company. We are very mature in many regards, but when you think about the fabric of the company, it’s innovation. It fuels our energy and our culture. Marc [Benioff, Salesforce founder and CEO] and I do regular dinners with CEOs of startups. You want to listen to these ideas, you want to talk. Transparency and collaboration with startup companies is very healthy.
F: A recent ‘State of the Cloud’ report suggested that cloud businesses in the public markets are undervalued relative to the private ones. Does that affect Salesforce, perhaps as a home for startups that will need an exit?
Block: I’m not an expert on valuations public or private. But I don’t think that’d be unique to the cloud. That’s the way the tech industry has always been. If you look at the legacy vendors, when they stop innovating and the industry stops growing, there’s a consolidation play. And you can go back to 1945 and the automotive industry and you still see it today.
F: Will Salesforce compete more with companies like Workday over time as it expands into adjacent market opportunities?
Block: We are focused on customer success, that is really our strike zone. There are natural adjacencies, without getting into any speculation. But at the end of the day what makes us so successful with our customers is that we do not dilute our focus. I don’t how you can be thinking about customer engagement, back-office ERP, and servers and storage, and plumbing. I don’t know how that works. I think we stick to what we are great on.
F: What’s the most misunderstood thing about Salesforce?
Block: We are the sixth largest software company worldwide and we will soon be the fifth, at some point we will be the third. We are the fastest to where we are in terms of billion dollars. We will be the fastest to $10 billion in revenue. I think that’s something people underestimate, particularly our competition.

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