When Gavin Patterson joined Salesforce nearly two years ago, back in the ‘old normal’, the way that the firm’s sales teams operated was very different to today, with an accepted norm that everything was done face-to-face. COVID put paid to that, but as it’s turned out, that’s not been the bad thing that pre-pandemic tech sector veterans might have assumed it would be.
Talking exclusively to diginomica at this week’s Dreamforce in San Francisco, Chief Revenue Officer Patterson says that there has in fact been a boost to business coming from the shift to virtual meetings and sales:
When we did a review of the data, we were getting twice as many meetings with senior people, senior decision-makers. From our own experience, customers were easier to get hold of. It was easier to pull together demonstrations and then making decisions faster.
This leads to an obvious conclusion:
We're not going back to everything being face-to-face, I'm sure of that. What I would say though, having started to do meetings again in the last few month, is that you can't beat a face-to-face meeting for certain jobs. It's your weapon of choice, I would say. It's being able to look at people's body language, being able to get context, 100% of their attention and being able to respond. It's the walk to the meeting, it's the walk from the meeting. It's the relationship building. We've been drawing on reserves in many cases for the last year, which is fine, but at some point those all need to be replenished.
The other relationship consideration is that which sales team members have with their colleagues in this new world. In common with so many today, Patterson has a lot of people working with him who he’s never met:
I would say probably a third of the people in the sales teams at Salesforce I've never met, because they've been hired in the last year. Culture is important in any company, but it is one of the sources of competitive advantage at Salesforce. Making sure that the new hires understand the culture and that it's passed down through human interaction and storytelling, that's much tougher in a virtual environment.
Learning to meet again
So when we do get back to some sort of normality, Patterson expects it to be a hybrid experience, both for customers and colleagues. For his part, he has been travelling between Europe and the US and has started to have face-to-face meetings, an experience that perhaps everyone is going to have to learn how to do again:
For the first meeting, coming together after being away for so long, people are wary. I think it does take a while to re-establish rapport and confidence and openness. And you realize that a digital environment has let some of that wither, to be honest. But once you do get back together and after you've overcome that initial wariness, it all comes back and you find that you just need to top it up, probably less frequently than you thought you'd have to.
This sense of ‘belonging’ is particularly important for for younger employees and new joiners in general, he adds:
When we look at the data, young people, before they have children if I can characterize it that way, they're the ones who want to come back into the office. They're the ones whose work and social lives are intertwined in so many different ways. Often they're living in environments where it's not conducive to trying to all do business, [such as] multiple people in a small apartment. The older people get, the more they've got families, bigger properties, they've got more space.
What it all comes [down to] is physical environment is important, but digital is probably even more important going forward, which is why this [Salesforce] concept of the digital HQ is so important. Regardless of where you are - home, office, your customers premises, in a coffee shop, wherever you are - being able to engage with your customers, engage with their data, engage with colleagues in one environment is absolutely key. And that I think is probably the single most important thing that we've got by bringing Slack and Salesforce together.
The physical question
All of this does raise the question that diginomica asked a few months back - if the future of work is remote or hybrid, what are the tech titans going to do with all those skyscrapers they’ve built (and Salesforce has considerable form on this front). Patterson points out that there has already been some real-estate rationalization set in motion at the firm, but adds:
I think the big towers, like Salesforce Tower here in San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Paris, they'll always have a role, but what that role is will change over time. If people aren't going in every day, we don't need as much space.
On the other hand, we are growing our engineering workforce and our sales workforce at 20% a year, so even if you are able to rationalize to some extent, you need to create space for the employee growth. We are 70,000 people now and I think when I joined it was less than 50,000, probably about 45,000 and that's two years ago. So it's a high quality problem to have and it fixes itself. We just need to adapt the space itself and make sure it reflects how people want to work when they do come into the office.
As to what challenges await ahead the events of the past 18 months must have taught everyone that there are no certainties. But for his part as Salesforce’s sales supremo, Patterson is confident of the overall direction of travel as the firm pursues its ambition of a $50 billion revenue rate by the end of fiscal 2026:
There are undoubtedly some products and services that will not necessarily be needed by customers over time. So vaccine management and contact tracing, the demand for those products I think over time will potentially wane. There's no immediate sign of that. In many cases, we're seeing a strong demand for some of the announcements we've been making over the last few months around Health Cloud, for example, and the things we're doing with the public sector, so I don't think it will go away too soon, but over ten years maybe it'll change.
But he concludes:
Let me put it this way - if I look at the markets we serve and if I look at our current pipeline and our prospects, we're feeling confident that there's no sign of it easing off at this point and the sort of growth rates we've been posting, we're going to see for the next few quarters, I think.