Salesforce says this new platform service will enable instant access to consistent, reconciled data whenever engaging with a customer. For example, a customer service agent dealing with an issue can instantly view that customer's purchase history, or a customer can receive personalized marketing promotions after abandoning an e-commerce purchase.
While this may sound like an all-too-familiar story from a CRM vendor, the way that Customer 360 ties data together is quite different from traditional master data management (MDM) or integration systems. It's new in two ways. First of all, the data stays in its original system. Customer 360 simply maintains a unique ID for each individual customer along with some core profile information, and then links out to all records relating to that customer wherever they are stored. Crucially, this means it always retrieves to up-to-date data.
Managed by Salesforce administrators
Secondly, and more uniquely, the mapping and reconciliation between different data sources is managed by Salesforce administrators, not by IT people. Bringing the data management directly into the Salesforce application environment in this way means that Customer 360 is very different than a traditional IT-led approach to data management, explains Ron Pereira, Senior Director Product Marketing:
The beauty of having it in close proximity to our system is that we're looking at making it much more of an admin-driven tool. We want to make it much more of a partnership with the business and IT, around customer data management.
By putting some of the customer data management in close proximity to the mapping and the system of engagement, you're eliminating some of the [overhead] that often taints MDM projects.
But be warned, this isn't something that you can just switch on and start getting these results right away. There's quite a long road to travel before these outcomes start to become possible — not least because Customer 360 isn't even generally available until well into 2019.
Preparing for Customer 360
The long lead time is in part because organizations will have to set up new processes, train up staff, and perhaps create specific roles to manage their data, says Pereira:
One of the reasons we're talking about this now, well ahead of general availability, is that we want to get organizations up to speed on the challenges they're going to face — because they haven't dealt with data in this way before.
The aim of the exercise is to match each of the separate records in each system to a single canonical record in Customer 360 for every individual customer. This is particularly challenging when dealing with consumer records, where a customer may identify themselves differently depending on the channel they're interacting with — a name for an ecommerce system, an email or social media handle in different marketing systems, a phone number for a mobile app.
Customer 360 is managed from a point-and-click admin console, which provides secure connectivity across all of an organization's Salesforce applications. The first step is to set up connections and then begin to map and reconcile data across the various Salesforce clouds. Since the data model of each cloud is a known quantity, much of this process is automated. The hard work comes when dealing with the exceptions and inconsistencies that inevitably come up when reconciling data from different systems. Pereira says the notion is emerging of a new role of 'data steward' to take responsibility for this task.
Building connected experiences
For each individual customer, the system creates a unique identifier that is associated with each of the separate records for that customer in the different clouds. Records in external systems can be linked too, by connecting to APIs via the MuleSoft AnyPoint platform. Alongside that identifier, Customer 360 also holds a short profile containing a core set of reconciled information that uniquely describes the customer. All other data is retrieved as needed from the applications that maintain it. This avoids the overhead of maintaining duplicate centralized datasets that traditional data management systems use.
The final step is to build connected experiences across these interlinked customer records. Salesforce is introducing a set of pre-built packages for common use cases when connecting across its different clouds. These offer pre-built connectivity to Customer 360 from Service Cloud components, pre-built journey and email templates in Marketing Cloud that contain content and data sourced directly from Customer 360, and distribution of data and events from Commerce Cloud to every system connected to Customer 360. Admins will also be able to follow guidance in the Trailhead interactive learning system for using Customer 360 to achieve specific goals, says Pereira.
When Salesforce bought ExactTarget in 2013 to become the core of its Marketing Cloud, it acquired a platform with a very different data model and set of objectives than its core Sales and Service Clouds, which have always shared a single data model. The acquisitions of DemandWare, and more recently CloudCraze, to form its Commerce Cloud, added further data models with a new set of objectives. The prospect of ever fusing these disparate clouds as tightly as the original two was always remote. With the launch of Customer 360, Salesforce has effectively declared that course of action a non-starter, and has come up with a new plan to connect across its clouds.
This has become a priority as Salesforce's customers increasingly demand cross-cloud solutions, driven by their own customers' insistence on a joined-up, consistent experience across all channels. This was a key theme of Salesforce Chief Product Officer Bret Taylor's remarks earlier this year on product direction.
With those channels becoming more and more diverse, extending into IoT and infused with ever more AI, stopping to rebuild the underlying platform isn't an option. It makes more sense to find ways of opening it up to interconnection. To that end, the mechanics that comprise Customer 360 look like an elegant solution.
However, as the apocryphal Irish villager said to the traveler asking for directions, 'If I were you, I wouldn't start from here.' The historic baggage of all the disconnected customer data that enterprises have collected over the years will take a lot of sorting out. An important priority for anyone implementing Customer 360 will be to make sure that new insertions get that unique customer ID from the get-go, so that at least the problem gets no worse before it starts to get better.
Salesforce is not alone in its need to fix this problem, though. What it's trying to achieve here is very similar to what Microsoft is attempting to do with its Common Data Service, and has elements in common with the harmonization of metadata across applications in SAP Cloud Platform. As we've observed recently, this is a necessary rearchitecting of the enterprise applications infrastructure for a connected digital world.
One standout feature of Customer 360 is the ambition of putting data stewardship in the hands of Salesforce administrators. That's an interesting move and one that, if successful, will eliminate many of the bottlenecks that have constrained earlier attempts to harmonize enterprise customer data.