Salesforce Connections 2018 - takeaways from the Salesforce B2B Commerce announcement

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 13, 2018
At Salesforce Connections 2018, B2B Commerce was officially announced. I asked Salesforce executives why this announcement matters, and gut checked it with customers. Here's what I learned.

CPO Bret Taylor in post-keynote press chat

Today at Salesforce Connections 2018 in Chicago, Salesforce officially announced Salesforce B2B Commerce, billed as the solution that "meets the complex needs of the B2B buyer."

This announcement stems back to the least surprising acquisition in enterprise software this year, when Salesforce acquired B2B commerce platform partner CloudCraze in March 2018.

But from where I sit, the most interesting part is not the addition of B2B capabilities to the Commerce Cloud. It's the profound influence of consumerization on B2B companies and how they go to market. Does Salesforce agree?

And is this announcement, in part, a play for a new cloud market category - the so-called "middle office," as my colleague Phil Wainewright has pondered? Yesterday, I sat down with Gordon Evans, Salesforce VP Product Marketing and Ray Grady, President and Chief Customer Officer at CloudCraze, a Salesforce company, and dug into these questions. Here's a few takeaways.

Consumer-grade experiences are differentiators in B2B

B2B companies raise the bar for commerce vendors. No matter how complex the transaction, B2B buyers now expect that same intuitive UX they are used to on the B2C side. As Grady put it:

Our expectations are being set [on the consumer side], with one click buys, and rich content. Then we go to work, and we've got a green screen system. There's no up-sell or cross-sell; there's no promotion. There's no engaging UI. The consumer side is forcing change, so we always have to bring that to bear.

B2B must achieve UX simplicity despite back-end complexity

An intuitive user experience (UX) must still encompass the complicated. B2B transactions have a level of complexity beyond the scope of consumer e-commerce systems, including the Commerce Cloud prior to the CloudCraze acquisition. Grady:

There's complexities in B2B that we don't always see in B2C. If you're a consumer, you're probably going to add two, three, or four items to your cart. If you're Ralph Lauren, or if you're Adidas, you're going to do your entire pre-order for fall, winter, spring, or summer. And then we're talking thousands of items, right? And those items will have probably have a negotiated price.

The B2B Commerce announcement recognizes that B2B buyers have distinct needs

The B2B Commerce announcement is Salesforce's acknowledgement that B2B buyers have distinct needs, which must be served up in a modern way. Evans:

The launch of B2B Commerce is about how consumerized the B2B purchasing process has become. With what Ray's team has built, it's all about streamlining that, making it as easy and as efficient as possible. If you have to buy millions of engine parts, you've got to get those in as fast as possible. You might have a shop floor full of half-built engines that you need to ship. So it's all about creating as much efficiency and ease for the B2B buyer as possible.

Many B2B companies want to open up marketplaces directly to consumers

And, Salesforce contends, they want to do it without the friction of integrating different platforms. Grady:

I talked to a large brand last Friday, and they historically made a consumer product that they sold through independent retail outlets. Now all of a sudden you have digital natives that have come in. They've raised a bunch of money and they're going direct to consumer, with something that wasn't typically a online purchase and they're saying, "Oh my goodness, how are we going to handle that? Do we create our own online-only brand?"

You may or may not have to create a new brand, but Salesforce believes you do have to empower retailers with data, get it to them faster, and help them to engage with the consumer in a different way. If you don't do it, your competitor (or an industry upstart) will.

And, as Evans says, B2Bs don't want a data integration hassle when they launch a consumer channel:

The B2B and B2C lines are blurred. When you [launch a consumer channel], you may have a portal for these customers to go. They want all their product specs. I want that to inform my call center rep. So if someone calls in, they can see it. But [many customers] have this big mess of an infrastructure on the back-end, old disparate ERP systems.

Does this mean there will ultimately be one Salesforce Commerce offering with completely integrated B2B and B2C capabilities?

Short answer: looks like yes, though Salesforce hasn't formally announced this. Nor have they announced a timeframe for when that total integration will be complete.

During the Connections keynote, we got a feel for how the divide between B2C and B2B commerce is breaking down during a demo for Salesforce customer Adidas. In this demo, a B2B transaction took place alongside several B2C activities:


My take

I asked Evans and Grady if this move could be interpreted as a play for the so-called "middle office," the internal processes that tie directly to customer interactions and sales, such as configuring, pricing and quoting a proposal (CPQ) and contract lifecycle management (CLM). Evans and Grady agreed, but only to a point. Evans doesn't see the middle office as a distinct segment. He sees it as part of what customer-facing software should encompass.

In our press Q/A after today's announcement, Salesforce CPO Bret Taylor was asked to comment on the B2B Commerce play, and the reasons for Salesforce's growth in general. Citing Adidas' blend of B2B and B2C, he said, in part:

Adidas is also engaging in these channels with B2B Commerce. With their distributors, all of a sudden you have salespeople involved. And almost every product we have is used to create that for Adidas... I don't think people want this just as a marketing tool. They want the customer experience.

When our most sophisticated customers are coming to us, they're not coming in to buy a product that has this feature; they're saying, "We want to transform the experience of our customers across all these different channels," touching a lot of these different product lines.

You won't be surprised to hear that Salesforce sees plenty of opportunities for Einstein AI here. I disagreed with Taylor, however, when he answered a question about "content is king" by contending that the hard part is sending the right content to the right person at the right time.

Yes, it makes sense for Salesforce to focus on intelligence and personalization. Investing in deep learning and embedding that into personalization engines is certainly beyond the scope of what most of their customers could do on their own.

But making truly engaging corporate content is pretty darn hard also. Most corporate content is inadequate to engage the attention of consumers. Without better content assets, personalization fails, and engagement is flat. No matter how much "AI" you throw at it.

I conducted multiple customer interviews that will flesh out these issues - and how Salesforce customers are working through them. As Salesforce would say, it's about giving customers a "unified experience" across every process and touchpoint. Agreed. That's the real purpose behind the omni-channel, and we're not there yet.

But this "unified view of the customer" from U.S. bank, displayed during the keynote, is about bringing that goal closer, with the help of the new Mulesoft-powered Integration Cloud:


(The customer rep would have access to this unified view while prepping for a customer meeting about their banking needs - apologies for the suboptimal screen photo).

None of the Salesforce customers I spoke with claimed omni-channel perfection. But their progress is notable, and well worth writing about. Watch this space.

Image credit - Photo of Salesforce CPO Bret Taylor by Jon Reed. Keynote screen shots by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Salesforce paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Salesforce Connections. Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner.

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