‘Big mouth’ strikes again

20 Oct 2004

What do you say to a guy who started a company in California in 1999 that today has 12,000 businesses as customers and was one of the hottest initial public offerings on the NYSE last summer?

What do you say to a bloke that is pals with Oracle’s Larry Ellison, wears a badge on his jacket heralding “the end of software”, dubbed in a magazine article “the biggest mouth in Silicon Valley” and has been selected by the World Economic Forum as a “Global CEO of Tomorrow?” Not much actually because as I enter the room Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, has his back to me and is immersed in trying to get a video conference machine working. Even when the interview begins, Benioff is distractedly immersed in trying to download email before catching his flight; no doubt aware of Dublin’s notorious gridlock.

Named by Fortune as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs To Watch and notorious amongst journalists as a larger-than-life character with an ego to match and famous for off-the-cuff remarks, it is clear that since floating his company on the NYSE last summer Benioff has learned to be careful around journalists and actually comes across as subdued (especially since an on-the-record interview with the New York Times prior to flotation landed him in hot water). Benioff is a 25-year veteran of the technology business having worked at Apple, founded his own business Liberty Software and spent 13 years at database giant Oracle in a variety of roles such as sales, marketing and product development prior to starting up Salesforce.com.

He recalls: “I was at Oracle and we all decided that on-demand was the Next Big Thing. Larry [Ellison] funded a couple of us to try it out. I put some money into it too and off we went.” It is understood that Ellison has a 4pc stake in Salesforce.com, which provides e-business applications to businesses over the internet in a hosted fashion – from a data centre in San Francisco – for a monthly fee. The company employs 60 people at its European HQ in Sandyford, Co Dublin, which has expanded consistently and has gained 11,000 individual users across Europe as customers.

Today Salesforce.com is regarded as one of the few concrete dotcom success stories and its flagship on-demand customer relationship management (CRM) technology is regarded as a saving force in the e-business world, driven by a belief that on-demand applications can democratise CRM by delivering immediate benefits to companies of all sizes at reduced risks and costs. Already more than 12,000 businesses, from small office home office operations to giant blue-chip multinationals such as Cisco have signed up for the service. Total paying subscriber numbers on the service mounts up to 185,000 who each pay €70 for the service. Irish customers include Am-Beo, Cape Clear and Jurys Doyle Hotel Group.

In many ways, Benioff’s on-demand technology – essentially users can enjoy secure CRM technology over the internet on PCs and mobile devices without having to spend a fortune on software licenses or hardware – is being viewed as having cannibalised the traditional CRM market dominated by players such as Siebel. Benioff is nonchalant about efforts of competitors trying to replicate his on-demand services. “They just don’t have the competitive traction that we have. We always ask our competitors how many customers and subscribers they have. They won’t tell us … it’s a little bit odd,” he deadpans.

Benioff is planning to replicate his success with Salesforce.com in the customer support business of call centres, contact centres and helpdesks with a new technology called Supportforce.com. It is understood that the new Supportforce.com technology will be available to subscribers for at least €70 per month and will be initially targeted at existing Salesforce.com users. Capable of being integrated into Salesforce.com, Supportforce.com features a multi-channel web services interface to provide a unified, 360-degree view of customer interactions across all channels. Supportforce.com also includes complete customer support and helpdesk functionality, knowledge management capabilities, web self-service and performance metrics to enable companies to easily manage and share customer information.

Benioff explains that the company has signed major technology alliances with Alcatel, Aspect, Avaya, Cisco and Genesys to deploy the technology. Between them, these four companies control 70pc of the global contact centre marketplace. “This technology contains everything a company needs to be competitive.

“Basically we are doing for sales customer support what we have done for sales force automation. This is something we would sell to existing customers who manage sales organisations and are looking to manage customer service organisations as well. We are starting to see traction on a worldwide basis of companies who want a system like this,” he adds.

Benioff wouldn’t be drawn on the potential for Salesforce.com to offer other work suites covering human resources and supply chains — in turn facing up against enterprise software giants SAP, PeopleSoft and even Oracle — perhaps due to the fact that Oracle, as well as being a shareholder and alma mater, is also the technology platform upon which Salesforce.com is built.

Not flustered by awkward questions, Benioff returns to the subject with his signature single-minded drive: “As a CEO, I want to know what’s happening at all times in my company. Supportforce.com can be integrated into Salesforce.com for a complete 360-degree view of the customer experience. As a CEO I can see everything and can manage customer information, customer support, contracts, customer history, invoices and I can customise everything.

“For a monthly fee I can give businesses best-of-breed CRM and have a real-time knowledge of what’s going on in my company.”

Asked whether Supportforce.com could be as big a success as Salesforce.com, Benioff shrugs off the question: “It’s hard to say how big this could be, just like it was hard to know how big Salesforce.com was going to be when we started off. One thing for sure though is that this is something customers have been asking for and it’s exciting for us to get it out there.”

And with that Benioff is off to catch his flight; less worried about shaking the traditional software business to its very core but more concerned about getting through Dublin’s rush-hour traffic.

Software’s grim reaper, Marc Benioff, is pushing the on-demand message with a new customer support product strategy