“Salesforce is just for selling stuff”

It was about 10 months ago that I first contemplated the idea of adapting Salesforce as our application development platform.  At the time, my decision was based on what I knew about Salesforce from a few encounters I had with the platform in years past.  The idea of having a maintenance-light platform which allows for maximum flexibility and expedited solution delivery seemed like a no-brainer for the challenges I observed during my one year stint as an embedded IT consultant within the MBA program office.

Since that time, I spent countless hours expounding on the benefits of the platform to all willing, or not so willing, listeners.  I encountered a number of different objections, ranging from “you don’t know what they do with our data” to “Salesforce is just for selling stuff”.  Now that I feel I reached a kind of a milestone in my evangelism (I can come up to virtually any executive within the school, start talking Salesforce, and receive a favorable response without launching into half an hour explanation of what and why), I have to start working on the business unit leaders and middle managers and I can use the lessons I learned to try and make this stage smoother.

Lesson 1 – The main attraction is Force.com, using the name Salesforce can be counter-productive

Whenever I start my Salesforce conversations, I inevitably run into what the above-mentioned business unit leader summarized in the quote I used to title my post: “Salesforce is just for selling stuff.”  Yes, it is true that Salesforce as a company is known by the name of the first product built upon its powerful platform and the name recognition is tremendous.  But as tremendous as it is, it is also superficial as not many people know what it is beyond what it sounds like. Or to phrase it a little more fairly, there are people who know what can be done on the platform, there are people who know what they did on it, there are people who heard of it, and then there are those who never heard of it.  Three out of four groups will automatically establish defensive stance against “corporatizing institution of higher learning.”

So the next stage of my journey begins with retraining those who already know that we’re in the process of implementing Force.com platform (made by Salesforce, btw), and “selling” Force.com as the direction to the new audience, not Salesforce.  Where before I Salesforcifying our school, I am not Forcedotcoming it.  While within IT, I still refer to it as Salesforce, I began using Force.com in all my official presentations and hallway conversations.

This approach also has the added benefit of actually being far closer to what we’re actually doing: we’re adapting Force.com platform to build applications.  Plain and simple, and oh by the way, Force.com is made by Salesforce.

Lesson 2- Use the power of community as Salesforce is not very good (yet) at marketing to higher ed institutions.

Every presentation I ever saw from Salesforce about what it can do for higher ed always listed the full student lifecycle in its diagrams but always focused on application process and donor management.  To me, that always represented misunderstanding of what is important to our sector and tacitly played towards the perception of it being just a tool to sell stuff.

Yes, a school needs to be able to recruit students, and yes, we’d like for our alumni to donate to the school.  But a prospect spends maybe 9 months in the application process without much interaction with the school.  They then spend the next two to five years (or more) as students where services delivered to that student make the application process a child’s play.

And yes, collecting donations and keeping track of who donated what and when is important, but that is such a miniscule part of what alumni relations teams do.  The services they typically offer, again, make the process of donations management child’s play.

Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the application process and donor management, but our school’s needs far exceed those two areas and if the strength of the platform is to be fully realized, we need to look at all those other areas that Salesforce used to just briefly mention in their literature and presentations.

So very early on, I decided to not show much of what Salesforce puts out and rely strictly on peer school feedback and lessons learned.  While I just began reaching out to the wider Salesforce in Higher Ed community with the help of wonderful Kathy Leuckeman, I have been in contact with various members of our peer schools IT departments since I began this process.  And so when I encountered the inevitable question of: “what can this do for us”, saying “well, Tuck does this and that with it” has been tremendously helpful.

As I move to spread the word to different units within the school, I now attempt to get as much information as possible about who is doing what within our industry before I go in for that all important first talk.

Lesson 3 – talk really is cheap and early win is everything

As I went about the school with my message of hope, I found myself constantly defending against roughly same objections and answering same questions, and at one point, it occurred to me that if I already had a working implementation within the school that I could point to, I wouldn’t have to sell as hard and be as ineffective at it (or it wouldn’t have been as long and hard road as it was).  So I changed my strategy and decided to find allies within the business units whom I can wholly migrate to Salesforce and then use as a tool to show the viability of the platform.

I only had three requirements:

  • I had to have an ally within the business unit who was supportive of the migration and would apply the necessary pressure while providing the necessary support from within while I worked on the outside
  • The unit either had to be important enough to where it was a high visibility while still not being complex to implement, OR it had to be a micro representation of a larger unit where it was easy to extrapolate the successes
  • The integration with other systems (college and university) was minimal and I could conceivably incorporate all of the business processes of the unit into Salesforce

I was lucky enough to find two units within the college that satisfied all three of the requirements – Executive Education for its visibility and our summer high school student program for its micro-representation.  Going forward, I intend to show, not tell, or more accurately, show more and tell less.

Anyone had any other lessons in selling the sales tool as being great at other things than just selling?


About Vadim

I'd like to have something really impressive to say here, but it's just not in the cards. Maybe later.
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