The launch of Salesforce Essentials at last week’s Dreamforce may prove one of the most important milestones in the vendor’s evolution of its SMB offerings. For the first time in several years, Salesforce has an entry-level offering that’s designed to appeal to small and mid-sized businesses, yet runs on exactly the same technology platform that Salesforce provides to its larger customers.
Priced at $25 per user per month, Sales Cloud Lightning Essentials not only encompasses contacts, accounts, leads and opportunities, it also includes a case management tab, Chatter for online messaging, and analytics in the form of reports and dashboards. All of this is delivered in the Lightning mobile-first user experience, augmented by Einstein artificial intelligence and supported with Trailhead interactive how-to guides. There’s also a wide range of third-party AppExchange apps that can be plugged in, such as HelloSign digital signatures. Finally, the package integrates with Google G-Suite email, calendar and online documents, included free-of-charge for the first three months.
This is all to be welcomed, because over the past few years I’ve had cause to question Salesforce’s commitment to the small business sector. This has frequently gotten me into trouble with the vendor, which prides itself on its reach across all segments, from the smallest of SMBs all the way through the mightiest global enterprise.
Commitment to SMBs
Trouble is, Salesforce had come up against a problem that many SaaS vendors have faced as their products have gradually grown more sophisticated. It was getting too difficult for a small business to get productive with the platform — especially those that lacked internal IT resources and were unwilling to pay large sums of money to an external consultant to help them get started.
This left it vulnerable to competitors coming in with simpler, lower-priced alternatives. Zoho has been especially aggressive in targeting Salesforce’s SMB market share. Other popular alternatives have included InSightly, which also integrates to G Suite (as well as Outlook), and social sales specialist Nimble.
Meanwhile, Salesforce was investing large sums in building up its sales to large enterprise customers. As I noted in 2014 in an article that got me into particularly hot water with Salesforce, the economics of these 7-, 8- and even 9-figure deals justify much higher spending. But that left the less lucrative and faster-churning SMB segment looking neglected. As I wrote at the time:
The financial metrics are clear enough — it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of dollars in acquiring customers that may only be around for a few years. But to me that’s an argument for investing in more automated ways of bringing them on board and servicing their needs — especially in reducing those somewhat high attrition rates.
At the time, Salesforce’s argument was that it was offering SMB-specific products, such as Desk.com for customer support and Work.com for sales. But these were not built on the same Salesforce platform as its mainstream products.
SMB specific or mainstream CRM?
That strategy of building out an SMB-specific architecture seemed to have been confirmed with the launch of SalesforceIQ for Small Business two years ago. This brought the benefits of artificial intelligence to SMB sales operations, and was prepackaged so that sales teams could get productive quickly. But it locked SMBs into a separate technology platform with no seamless upgrade route to the mainstream Sales Cloud for those whose business grew large enough to make the leap.
Finally, with Salesforce Essentials, we’re back on the mainstream CRM platform with a product that’s prepackaged to get immediately productive — the best of both worlds (though SalesforceIQ remains available for those who still prefer it). As SMB Group analyst and co-founder Laurie McCabe tells me:
Salesforce Essentials takes Salesforce back to its small business roots. Because it’s built on the same code base as Sales Cloud, I think it will be a much more successful and viable solution than SalesforceIQ. Salesforce Essentials focuses on the top things that our SMB Group research shows small businesses want — including being easy to set up and use.
Trailhead makes the difference
What’s made the difference — even more than the modern Lightning user interface and last year’s introduction of Einstein artificial intelligence capabilities — has been the development over the past three years of Trailhead, the Salesforce platform’s built-in, interactive education channel. Given that Salesforce seems determined to offer a product that SMBs can start using without having to bring in third-party help, that’s the key ingredient, as CRM Essentials analyst and co-founder Brent Leary concurs:
With the integration of Trailhead, Salesforce Essentials does a nice job of integrating some much needed guidance and best practices into the platform.
Even in 2017 a good number of small businesses are still new to CRM, having reached the point where they’ve outgrown spreadsheets and email applications to manage customer information. So they not only need a robust platform, but direction as to how to use it. This includes helping them understand where AI fits in and what parts of the CRM process they can see impact with quickly, as in lead scoring.
I think SalesforceIQ was missing the best practices that Trailhead brings to the table. When you’re aiming to serve the small business market, the best practices and guidance are just as important to success as the platform itself. Salesforce Essentials got it right with the Trailhead integration.
Sometimes it can take a while for all the pieces to fall into place when developing the right product. Getting the SMB offering back onto the core Salesforce platform needed Lightning fully rolled out, Trailhead proven, and Einstein at least offering the equivalent of the AI features in SalesforceIQ — plus a lot more in the pipeline.
It all now comes together in Salesforce Essentials to provide the ease-of-use and automation that makes it possible to deliver a product the SMB sector can actually pick up and start getting value from almost immediately.
This approach may still, as I mentioned when SalesforceIQ came out, be less attractive outside of the US, where SMBs mostly prefer to buy from the IT channel. But the return to Salesforce’s roots as a vendor whose single product spans the needs of every size of business is welcome, along with the harnessing of online education and AI-powered automation to remove barriers to adoption.
Although Salesforce has healthy CRM market share in the SMB segment, the vast majority of smaller businesses still use no CRM at all. They’re managing with spreadsheets, contact managers and other ad hoc solutions. Salesforce needs an offering that can compete with other vendors attempting to wean businesses off these workarounds. Salesforce Essentials looks like it will be a strong contender.
Image credit - Screengrab from Salesforce video
Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.