I like to watch software company videos, the more enterprise the better. At worst they’re hilarious, and at best I might learn something — usually a little of both. This hourlong one from SAP is representative: It starts with a gentle voiceover and slow-motion shots and people in wheat fields, and it’s basically incomprehensible.
If you’ve ever watched an Apple launch event, with lots of bright screens and cool products, enterprise software videos are the opposite. They bludgeon you with brand identity, stock photography, and corporate-speak until you’re reduced to a crouched, paranoid state, ordering Seeing Like a State off bookshop.org and planning your move to Taos. Why do they do this? Well, they had the budget. And it’s impossible to watch these without remembering the Veridian Dynamics commercials from the TV show Better Off Ted.
Enterprise software companies produce thousands of videos a year, almost all bad. So why subject myself? It’s good to know what the big players are doing, because as Postlight grows, we’re being pulled in on more proposals and competing with much, much larger companies.
In those proposals, someone will basically list all the features of Salesforce, then cross out the word “Salesforce” and ask us what solution we’d recommend.
“We’d suggest…Salesforce?” we say. “Exactly!” says the buyer, right before they throw our very pretty and carefully produced proposal in the trash in order to go with a Salesforce Silver Certified Global Cloud Partner (or whatever) that has 80 or 800 times the number of employees we have, 10% of whom are Official Salesforce Cloud Ninjas. This way they can tell their boss: “We considered a custom solution, but ultimately it made more sense to go with Salesforce…again.”
Enterprise software sales is a wonderful business. But also as we grow, we’re learning not to pitch where the odds are stacked against us. We implement using Salesforce at Postlight when our clients want us to.
My personal, nerd take on Salesforce is that it’s the object-relational revolution of the 1990s taken to its most implausible conclusion. Essentially, they start with CRM, add some fields, and call it a cloud. Have a lot of cows? Salesforce Cow Cloud. Cars? Car Cloud. Tracking weather conditions? Salesforce Cloud Cloud. A combination of seat licenses, enterprise inertia, platform lock-in, and being close to revenue means this thing absolutely prints money, so they can buy dozens of younger companies like Tableau and Slack. I respect it, and fear it, and find that the people who work there are basically as happy as anyone working inside a mega-corporation can be.
The big problem is that whenever I meet anyone on the other side of a Salesforce implementation who isn’t focused on customer service — literally, neighbors and friends over to chat — they are often reduced to inchoate rage by the delta between what was promised and what was delivered. As we come out of the pandemic, I’ll be mindful to invite my enterprise software friends and my NGO/case-management friends to different parties. I don’t want violence.
Values, success, product
So this particular video. Even given what I just said above — given that it’s 80 minutes long, even though Salesforce is a colossal pain for smaller firms like ours, even though it gets misapplied in a lot of contexts — this is a very good video. They know exactly what they’re doing. I watched the whole thing and took notes. I walked around for a long time and thought about it. And ultimately I boiled it down to three words: values, success, product, in that order.
First of all, it’s raining really hard and they’re on the roof of a hotel (COVID-19), and it’s always inspiring to watch people barrel through in spite of the elements. We learn that people in the audience are Salesforce Trailblazers — a sort of generic term for “people who do things with Salesforce” — especially admins, business analysts, and people who have entered the software industry via Salesforce.
You’d expect them to show you some software, right? That’s what I’d expect. The emcee, a director of marketing named Jon Moore, is warm and on top of his material. What he’s doing — emceeing an enterprise software marketing event and making it seem positive and natural, not cheesy — is incredibly difficult. Turtleneck/blazer is a great combo too; business and casual.
What the emcee does is drive home values, over and over. How does he do that? With lots of statements like, “We believe in doing well and doing good…because businesses are very powerful platforms for social change.” You can roll your eyes, but he doesn’t.
Salesforce acknowledges Equal Pay Day, makes a public commitment to equality, and talks about a lot of large donations — a million dollars for COVID vaccines, for example. There’s a video montage of Texas employees helping people hit by the recent power outages. And I think, in general, Salesforce acknowledges that it operates within a society. This is sadly unusual. Most companies at this scale, such as Facebook, simply assume that society should run like they do.
At around minute six — this is a long time to wait — you get to see…a video! It’s a montage about working remotely and “customer delight.” It’s a genial, positive, and progressive messaging video. Then, Marc Benioff, one of the richest men in the world, comes out holding an umbrella, and look, I have a lot of love for tall beefy dudes in software wearing comfortable clothes. If you’ve ever seen me you’ll know why.
Benioff simply cheers for everyone. Gives thanks to everyone. Thanks first responders. Keeps going and going, talking about all the good each group is doing. It’s not about him, not a bit. At minute 11 we’re still on values, and they put up a plaque with their four core values:
- Customer Success
Why do I keep watching? Well, I want to see the product. I want to see what happens next. I want to understand this thing.
Benioff is incredibly excited about Salesforce’s values. He’s excited about everything. But they aren’t just Salesforce values; they’re “our” values. Over and over: “It comes from you, our customers.” (They also say the word “amazing” roughly 500,000 times.)
He talks about growth, revenue, and definitely success, and then he brings up a “Trailblazer” — a charmingly nervous, well-prepared woman who became a business analyst in order to be a better provider for her family. She tells a story of growing her career with Salesforce. They give her a “golden hoodie” and a Salesforce doll. Benioff obviously loves this part. The guy likes making jobs with software. He says: “Help other people.” He says: “Marshall McLuhan once said ‘the medium is the message.’ That’s the message right here at this event! We have to change!”
Look, a CEO has to be able to say incredibly simple things with enthusiasm over and over again, without any irony, and this person is good at it. There’s just a lot of earnest strategy here. And underneath all of this, there’s a specific rhythm: Lead with values, move to success, then back to values. Over and over.
The event is entitled “Success From Anywhere World Tour.” We’re at 22 minutes, hearing about how it’s been an amazing year, and the presentation flips between a slide of Salesforce philanthropy to a slide about cloud products. Describe your values and demonstrate the success that you can achieve with the platform.
At minute 25: You can hear the rain coming down, and now, finally, we are talking about software. Benioff hands it off to Bret Taylor, the COO. And I have to admit: I’m kind of enjoying this? These people appear to have met each other before. They speak like people. They’re incredibly wealthy but keep going to work every day. That’s pretty good in enterprise.
So now we see the product, right? Nope. Instead, Taylor starts talking about Salesforce as a suite of products, and how it’s enabling remote work during the pandemic. We see charts of the ecosystem, how all these enormous pieces fit together.
At 30 minutes we see a mocked-up screenshot of the “Sales Hub” — 30 minutes until screenshot! My god! Finally!
But no — Benioff returns! And we meet Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications for New York City. For her, Salesforce has put together a vaccination scheduling platform for NYC (I used it, it had issues; nonetheless, I got vaccinated and went back to the office). She talks about their partnerships. We still don’t see screens. Friends, I am losing it.
In fact, it takes until the 45-minute mark, three quarters of an hour, when we finally see Lynne Zaledonis, an EVP, who warmly walks us through the full user journey of a person who is going to be vaccinated and all the touch points that connect them to Salesforce. We actually see the technology: how it feels, how it’s built, and how all the different pieces (like Tableau, Mulesoft, Einstein) work together. It’s called…Salesforce Vaccine Cloud. “Amazing,” says Benioff. My brain basically starts leaking out of my ears at this point. I keep watching.
And fine, from there on it’s more of the same. We see more videos, more demos, and the inspiring story of how Honeywell uses Salesforce, which is sort of like hearing about how Germany sells a lot of optical equipment to France. Interesting, but what does it have to do with me?
More and more in this ilk. Eventually it wraps up, and they bring out Sara Bareilles on a baby grand piano. She sings “Love Song,” and says some nice words about Salesforce. Later she does “Brave.” She has a great voice.
The anti-demo demo
For two weeks I cannot stop thinking about this goofy video. I’ve never done anything half as compelling. I’ve got to give it to them. I ended up watching an 80-minute ad, and then ended up writing about it. What I finally figured out is that the algorithm here is very simple:
- Describe your values and how you give back to different communities.
- Talk about the success of the people who work with your tools, connecting the values to the success.
- Repeat until you’ve described everything that is not a product.
- Demo the product.
Or rather: values, success, product. In that order. And take your time.
I’ve started to think a lot about this segmentation in a lot of my own communication inside and outside of Postlight. I mean, we’re a values-led firm. We give away a lot of money on behalf of our employees, support employee resource groups as part of our DE&I effort, and try to advocate for careers. And we see it as our job to advocate for client success — at some level, when you engage an agency, you’re hiring us to move your own career forward. And we love to build products, for our clients and ourselves. We’re building a new SaaS product right now, in fact. Can’t wait to show it to you. It’s solid.
But I’m now convinced I’ve been coming at it from the wrong direction. What I like to do is show people a product, explain how it created success for the people involved, and then, if I have time, explain how it connects back to values.
Think about how Apple events go, with a huge, shiny object gleaming on screen, so that everyone watching thinks, Now this is for me. This is demo culture. It’s a huge part of how the software industry talks about itself. Lead with product, describe success, sprinkle some values on top.
But Salesforce here is anti-demo. And it works because it builds up the case for why their entire ecosystem works, why it’s good for you, and why you should invest your time and energy and build your career around these technologies. Frankly, if my daughter came home and said, “I want to be a business analyst specializing in Salesforce and learn to program in Apex (the official language of Salesforce),” I’d breathe an enormous sigh of relief, because right now she shows a lot of signs of wanting to write fiction. Of course, she’s nine. Still.
Community over individual empowerment
The classic software demo, the kind that Steve Jobs excelled at, was about individual empowerment. Use this thing and enjoy absolute superpowers. Isn’t that great? But this was less about individual empowerment and more about community. The product here is your success as a Trailblazer. Not some new cloud technology, not the software, not even ease or simplicity. Instead of Isn’t that great? it’s Aren’t you great? Aren’t we great?
Values, success, product. I came ready to mock and left impressed. I’m going to communicate in this sequence forevermore. Values, success, product. And I do wish my friends wouldn’t come over to my house and complain about Salesforce as a product. But then again, that company gives away a lot of money and it is worth $212 billion. You can’t have everything.