London calling! Salesforce UKI CEO Zahra Bahrololoumi on AI, new buying cycles and what to spend $4 billion on

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 30, 2023
Why the UK remains a priority market for Salesforce - and how AI is powering a whole new buying cycle...

Zahra Bahrololoumi
CEO Zahra Bahrololoumi CBE

There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that generative AI will change everything. This is the technology of our lifetime and it is coming at us faster than anything we've ever seen before.

It can have come as no surprise to anyone that the London leg of the Salesforce World Tour event series would be dominated by the topic du jour. Indeed, the gig had been essentially relabelled AI Day 2, the European iteration of the big AI gathering in New York earlier this month

So it was that Salesforce’s UKI CEO Zahra Bahrololoumi kicked off the gathering in London’s ExCel center with talk of “a new cycle of innovation” facing everyone in the audience:

We now all need to be thinking AI-first. Every business needs an AI strategy. I talk to so many leaders and they're all so excited. They're excited. They can see the benefits. They can see the horizon. They can see the future. But guess what? They're cautious. Very cautious. And why is that? Well, because there is an AI trust gap. Every company wants to embrace [AI]. In fact, for many it is the number one priority. But your customers are not so eager, and that's because less than half of them trust companies with their data.

Herein lies the challenge, she went on:

Data is the foundation of AI. When we talk about things like privacy, hallucinations, data, control, bias, toxicity, I'm not talking about a night out in London; I am talking about real technical things that are happening within these Large Language Models. We all want to move forward, we all want to embrace the productivity gains, the benefits, but we have to do so with trust.

AI, AI, oh! 

Speaking later, Bahrololoumi doubled down on Salesforce’s own AI reinvention:

If I told you that, we've pivoted the whole company to be an AI-first company, that's not an exaggeration. That really is not an exaggeration. What we see in the market is every customer, every CEO, every C-Suite member that I talk to, is asking about AI. They genuinely are excited. And it's not just them. It's the board members. Board members are asking the CEOs in the C-Suite, 'What's our plan for AI? What are we going to do? How are we going to incorporate this? What is this?'.

That in turn has triggered a whole new buying cycle in the UK as well as elsewhere, she argued:

Before this explosion of generative AI, digital transformation was still at the top of every customer agenda. The reasons for it shifted and pivoted. Pre-pandemic, it was about growth, fueling growth and survival. Through the pandemic, it was about productivity and automation and simplification. And now we're on this wave of AI and generative AI. All of a sudden we're going through an innovation cycle.

Accompanying this is a need to focus on what Bahrololoumi refers to as ‘the value tree’. In Salesforce’s case, this centers around the firm’s use of the V2MOM goal-setting model. (V2MOM stands for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and Measures.) Bahrololoumi explained:

We think very simplistically about the value tree. When we think about defining and targeting value, whenever we talk with a customer and whenever we work with a customer, we lay out what we call V2MOM - vision to values to methods - and we articulate the outcome that needs to be generated. Our mission is always to make that a balanced picture.

There is however something new involved in this revitalized buying cycle and that’s a lot more people to please, according to Bahrololoumi:

Previously, products lent themselves to targeting a specific buyer and what they cared about -  the CMO, the CRO etc. Now with the buying cycles and the new innovation cycle, we're seeing a full spread of stakeholders, at one point, at the same time, that we need to engage. So, yes, we might be talking to the CEO or we'll be talking to a CRO, but you can be as sure as dammit that we have to talk to a CFO and make sure that (a) we've targeted the value and (b) been very clear about the return on investment and (c) we're talking about the timeline to that return on investment - and there is not a lot of patience, I can tell you.

Ethical considerations

Going back to the question of trust that she cited in her keynote, Bahrololoumi also emphasized the importance of the ethical use of AI. This needs to be a daily consideration, not just a once-in-a-while policy review consideration, she advocated:

Have, on a daily basis, real time interaction with business - that's going to be absolutely crucial . We have an obligation to make sure that the transparency of decision-making logic is clear and open and available to people…We [at Salesforce] have had the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology for a while now. That's really governed how our customers use our technology, how we are implementing and driving our technology, and how it's applied. When it comes to AI, we've got our principles that guide our responsible development.

You reap what you sow was the underlying message as she went on:

I'm a firm believer that we get the AI we deserve. My call to business would be to ensure that just as we try to - and we do - incorporate diversity into the teams that create and develop AI and this technology so that we can cater for the widest ranges of use cases and scenarios, that we apply that diversity lens to the data that we curate and we feed to the AI. And then ensure that there's a human in the loop!

Spending plans

The other big news from the London event was a commitment by Salesforce to the UK to the tune  of $4 billion over the next five years. This picks up from an earlier five year plan that involved $2.3 billion of inward investment. That’s a lot of financial promise and inevitably raises the question of what it will be spent on. “AI innovation” was the high-level generalization during the keynote, but there’s clearly a lot to be decided in more specific terms around how it will be allocated. Bahrololoumi said:

It's hot off the press and I'm really excited about it because we got that level of investment, which is which is great. But if I take a step back for a moment, and we think about people, we think about our infrastructure, we think about our buildings, we think about education and re-skilling, and, of course, customer success, we’ve got a lot to focus on.

We were talking this morning about how can we be a bit more articulate around the specifics? I'd love to be more specific about numbers, but that's where we are at the moment. We're focused on the fact that we got it. I'm just incredibly excited - and believe me, we won't have trouble spending it! When I think about, the commitments we made back in 2018, where we are now, and, of course, this new innovation cycle, I'm really confident we're going to burn through that pretty quickly.

My take

That $4 billion commitment is undoubtedly good news for Salesforce in the UK. As with so many US tech firms, expansion to the UK and Ireland was the first overseas venture for the firm in its younger days, long before the Heron Tower in the City of London became the Salesforce Tower of today.

It’s good news too for Brexit Britain, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s retweeting of the news made clear. With a strong presence in Dublin, safely within the EU, some commentators have pondered in recent times as to whether the UK’s standing might be diminished on the Salesforce map of the world. But far from it, it seems. As Bahrololoumi put it:

I just want to reiterate that, from a UK perspective, we are a tech hub to be well-considered. We are a tech hub. We are a priority market for Salesforce.

Onwards to Dreamforce! 

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