Sep
18
2018
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Microsoft launches new AI applications for customer service and sales

Like virtually every other major tech company, Microsoft is currently on a mission to bring machine learning to all of its applications. It’s no surprise then that it’s also bringing ‘AI’ to its highly profitable Dynamics 365 CRM products. A year ago, the company introduced its first Dynamics 365 AI solutions and today it’s expanding this portfolio with the launch of three new products: Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, Customer Service and Market Insights.

“Many people, when they talk about CRM, or ERP of old, they referred to them as systems of oppression, they captured data,” said Alysa Taylor, Microsoft corporate VP for business applications and industry. “But they didn’t provide any value back to the end user — and what that end user really needs is a system of empowerment, not oppression.”

It’s no secret that few people love their CRM systems (except for maybe a handful of Dreamforce attendees), but ‘system of oppression’ is far from the ideal choice of words here. Yet Taylor is right that early systems often kept data siloed. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft argues that Dynamics 365 does not do that, allowing it to now use all of this data to build machine learning-driven experiences for specific tasks.

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, unsurprisingly, is meant to help sales teams get deeper insights into their prospects using sentiment analysis. That’s obviously among the most basic of machine learning applications these days, but AI for Sales also helps these salespeople understand what actions they should take next and which prospects to prioritize. It’ll also help managers coach their individual sellers on the actions they should take.

Similarly, the Customer Service app focuses on using natural language understanding to understand and predict customer service problems and leverage virtual agents to lower costs. Taylor used this part of the announcement to throw some shade at Microsoft’s competitor Salesforce. “Many, many vendors offer this, but they offer it in a way that is very cumbersome for organizations to adopt,” she said. “Again, it requires a large services engagement, Salesforce partners with IBM Watson to be able to deliver on this. We are now out of the box.”

Finally, Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights does just what the name implies: it provides teams with data about social sentiment, but this, too, goes a bit deeper. “This allows organizations to harness the vast amounts of social sentiment, be able to analyze it, and then take action on how to use these insights to increase brand loyalty, as well as understand what newsworthy events will help provide different brand affinities across an organization,” Taylor said. So the next time you see a company try to gin up some news, maybe it did so based on recommendations from Office 365 AI for Market Insights.

Sep
10
2018
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Zendesk expands into CRM with Base acquisition

Zendesk has mostly confined itself to customer service scenarios, but it seems that’s not enough anymore. If you want to truly know the customer behind the interaction, you need a customer system of record to go with the customer service component. To fill that need, Zendesk announced it was acquiring Base, a startup that has raised over $50 million.

The companies did not share the purchase price, but Zendesk did report that the acquisition should not have a significant impact on revenue.

While Base might not be as well known as Salesforce, Microsoft or Oracle in the CRM game, it has created a sophisticated sales force automation platform, complete with its own artificial intelligence underpinnings. CEO Uzi Shmilovici claimed his company’s AI could compete with its more well-heeled competitors when it was released in 2016 to provide salespeople with meaningful prescriptive advice on how to be more successful.

Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane certainly sees the value of adding a company like Base to his platform. “We want to do for sales what Zendesk has already done for customer service: give salespeople tools built around them and the customers they serve,” he said in a statement.

If the core of customer data includes customer service, CRM and marketing, Base gives Zendesk one more of those missing components, says Brent Leary, owner at CRM Essentials, a firm that keeps close watch on this market.

“Zendesk has a great position in customer service, but now to strengthen their position with midmarket/enterprise customers looking for integrated platforms, Base adds a strong mobile sales force automation piece to their puzzle,” Leary told TechCrunch.

As he points out, we have seen HubSpot make a similar move with HubSpot Apps, while SugarCRM, which was recently sold to Accel-KKR, could be shopping too, with its new owner’s deeper pockets. “This is almost like a CRM enterprise software Hunger Games going on,” he joked. But he indicates that we should be expecting more consolidation here as these companies try to acquire missing pieces of their platforms to offer more complete solutions.

Matt Price, who previously had the title of senior vice president for product portfolio at Zendesk will lead the Base team moving forward.

Base was founded in 2009 and boasts more than 5,000 customers. It’s worth pointing out that Base was already available for sale in the company app marketplace, so there was some overlap here, but the company intends to try to move existing customers to Base, of course.

Zendesk has indicated it will continue to support all Base customers. In addition, Base’s 125 employees have been invited to join Zendesk, so there will be no blood-letting here.

Aug
02
2018
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Arm acquires data management service Treasure Data to bolster its IoT platform

Arm, the semiconductor firm you probably still remember as ARM, today announced that it has acquired Treasure Data, a data management platform for large enterprise customers. The companies didn’t announce the financial details of the transaction, but earlier reporting by Bloomberg pegged the price at $600 million.

This move strengthens Arm’s IoT nascent play, given that Treasure Data’s specialty is dealing with the large streams of data that these systems produce (as well as data from CRM, e-commerce systems and other third-party services).

This move follows Arm’s recent acquisition of Stream and indeed, the company calls the acquisition of Treasure Data “the final piece” of its “IoT enablement puzzle.” The result of this completed puzzle is the Arm Pelion IoT Platform, which combines Stream, Treasure Data and the existing Arm Mbed Cloud into a single solution for connecting and managing IoT devices and the data they produce.

Arm says Treasure Data will continue to operate as before and continue to serve new clients as well as its existing users. “It will remain an important part of industry IoT enablement, providing the ability to harness new, complex edge and device data within a comprehensive customer profile to personalize their products and improve their experiences,” the company says.

Jun
05
2018
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SAP gives CRM another shot with with new cloud-based suite

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a mature market with a clear market leader in Salesforce. It has a bunch other enterprise players like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP vying for position. SAP decided to take another shot today when it released a new business products suite called SAP C/4HANA. (Ya, catchy I know.)

SAP C/4HANA pulls together several acquisitions from the last several years. It started in 2013 when it bought Hybris for around a billion dollars. That gave them a logistics tracking piece. Then last year it got Gigya for $350 million, giving them a way to track customer identity. This year it bought the final piece when it paid $2.4 billion for CallidusCloud for a configure, price quote (CPQ) piece.

SAP has taken these three pieces and packaged them together into a customer relationship management package. They see this term much more broadly than simply tracking a database of names and vital information on customers. They hope with these products to give their customers a way to provide consumer data protection, marketing, commerce, sales and customer service.

They see this approach as different, but it’s really more of what the other players are doing by packaging sales, service and marketing into a single platform. “The legacy CRM systems are all about sales; SAP C/4HANA is all about the consumer. We recognize that every part of a business needs to be focused on a single view of the consumer. When you connect all SAP applications together in an intelligent cloud suite, the demand chain directly fuels the behaviors of the supply chain,” CEO Bill McDermott said in a statement.

It’s interesting that McDermott goes after legacy CRM tools because his company has offered its share of them over the years, but its market share has been headed in the wrong direction. This new cloud-based package is designed to change that. If you can’t build it, you can buy it, and that’s what SAP has done here.

Brent Leary, owner at CRM Essentials, who has been watching this market for many years says that while SAP has a big back-office customer base in ERP, it’s going to be tough to pull customers back to SAP as a CRM provider. “I think their huge base of ERP customers provides them with an opportunity to begin making inroads, but it will be tough as mindshare for CRM/Customer Engagement has moved away from SAP,” he told TechCrunch.

He says that it will be important with this new product to find its niche in a defined market. “It will be imperative going forward for SAP find spots to “own” in the minds of corporate buyers in order to optimize their chances of success against their main competitors,” he said.

It’s obviously not going to be easy, but SAP has used its cash to buy some companies and give it another shot. Time will tell if it was money well spent.

May
30
2018
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Salesforce keeps revenue pedal to the metal with another mammoth quarter

Salesforce just keeps on growing revenue. In another remarkable quarter, the company announced 3.01 billion in revenue for Q1 2019 with no signs of slowing down. That puts the CRM giant on a run rate of over $12 billion with the company’s most optimistic projections suggesting it could go even higher. It’s also the first time they have surpassed $3 billion in revenue for a quarter.

As you might expect Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff was over the moon about the results in the earnings call with analyst yesterday afternoon. “Revenue for the quarter rose to more than $3 billion, up 25%, putting us on $12 billion revenue run rate that was just amazing. And we now have $20.4 billion of future revenues under contract, which is the remaining transaction price, that’s up 36% from a year ago. Based on these strong results, we’re raising our full year top line revenue guidance to $13.125 billion at the high end of our range, 25% growth for this year,” Benioff told analysts.

Brent Leary, an analyst who has been watching the CRM industry for many years, says CRM in general is a hot area and Salesforce has been able to take advantage. “With CRM becoming the biggest and fastest growing business software category last year according to Gartner, it’s easy to see with these number that Salesforce is leading the way forward. And they are in position to keep moving themselves and the category forward for years to come as their acquisitions should continue to pay off for them,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Bringing Mulesoft into the fold

Further Benioff rightly boasted that the company would be the fastest software company ever to $13 billion and it continued on the road towards its previously stated $20 billion goal. The $6.5 billion acquisition of Mulesoft earlier this year should help fuel that growth. “And this month, we closed our acquisition of MuleSoft, giving us the industry’s leading integration platform as well. Well, integration has never been more strategic,” Benioff stated.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff Photo: TechCrunch

Bret Taylor, the company’s president and chief product officer, says the integration really ties in nicely with another of the company’s strategic initiatives, artificial intelligence, which they call Einstein. “[Customers] know that their AI is only as powerful as data it has access to. And so when you think of MuleSoft, think unlocking data. The data is trapped in all these isolated systems on-premises, private cloud, public cloud, and MuleSoft, they can unlock this data and make it available to Einstein and make a smarter customer facing system,” Taylor explained.

Leary thinks there’s one other reason the company has done so well, one that’s hard to quantify in pure dollars, but perhaps an approach other companies should be paying attention to. “One of the more undercovered aspects of what Salesforce is doing is how their social responsibility and corporate culture is attracting a lot of positive attention,” he said. “That may be hard to boil down into revenue and profit numbers, but it has to be part of the reason why Salesforce continues to grow at the pace they have,” he added.

Keep on rolling

All of this has been adding up to incredible numbers. It’s easy to take revenue like this for granted because the company has been on such a sustained growth rate for such a long period of time, but just becoming a billion dollar company has been a challenge for most Software as a Service providers up until now. A $13 billion run rate is in an entirely different stratosphere and it could be lifting the entire category says Jason Lemkin, founder at SaasStr, a firm that invests in SaaS startups.

“SaaS companies crossing $1B in ARR will soon become commonplace, as shocking as that might have sounded in say 2011. Atlassian, Box, Hubspot, and Zendesk are all well on their way there. The best SaaS companies are growing faster after $100m ARR, which is propelling them there,” Lemkin explained.

Salesforce is leading the way. Perhaps that’s because it has the same first-to-market advantage that Amazon has had in the cloud infrastructure market. It has gained such substantial momentum by being early, starting way back in 1999 before Software as a Service was seen as a viable business. In fact, Benioff told a story earlier this year that when he first started, he did the rounds of the venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and every single one turned him down.

You can bet that those companies have some deep regrets now, as the company’s revenue and stock price continues to soar.  As of publication this morning, the stock was sitting at $130.90, up over 3 percent. All this company does is consistently make money, and that’s pretty much all you can ask from any organization. As Leary aptly put it, “Yea, they’re really killing it.”

Mar
12
2018
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Twilio launches Flex, a fully programmable contact center

Earlier this year we reported that Twilio was going to launch a full contact center solution called Flex on March 12 — lo and behold, today is March 12 and Twilio today announced the launch of Flex at the Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando. Flex brings together virtually every part of the existing Twilio infrastructure and platform for developers that already power nearly 40 billion interactions a year and bundles it with a rather slick user interface for companies that want to set up an out-of-the-box contact center or update their existing deployments.

Twilio’s expertise has long been in providing backend communications services and its design expertise is mostly in building APIs, not user interfaces. With this move, though, the company is giving enterprises (and this product is meant for the kind of companies that have hundreds or thousands of people in a contact center) a full stack contact center with a full graphical user interface.

As the company’s head of its contact center business Al Cook told me, though, the main design philosophy behind Flex is to give users maximum flexibility. He argues that business today have to choose between going with products that they can’t customize themselves, so that they have to rely on expensive outside vendors that will do the customization for them (which also tends to take a lot of time), or a SaaS contact center that can be quickly deployed but is hard to scale and lacks customization options. “Think of Flex as an application platform,” Cook told me. It takes its cues from Twilio’s experience in working with developers and gives enterprises an easy API interface for customizing the service to their liking, but also provides all of the necessary tools out of the box.

“The reason why APIs were very transformative to the industry is because you are unconstrained in what you can do,” Cook explained. “Once you put a user interface on that, you constrain users.” So for Flex, the team had to ask itself some new questions. “How do you build user interfaces in a fundamentally different way that gives people the best features they want without constraining them?”

Out of the box, Flex supports all of the standard messaging channels that contact centers are now expected to support. These include Voice, video, text, picture messaging, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, LINE and WeChat. The service also supports screen sharing and co-browsing. Twilio is also integrating its own intelligent TaskRouter service into Flex to automatically route questions to the right agent. A single Flex deployment can support up to 50,000 agents.

Cook argues that getting started with Flex is a one-click affair, though once it’s up and running, most users will surely need to customize the service a bit for their own needs and embed chat widgets and other functions on their websites and into their apps (think click-to-call, for example). Some of the more in-depth customization can be done in Twilio Studio, the company’s drag and drop application builder, too.

Most large enterprises already have contact centers, though, so it’s maybe no surprise that some of the thinking behind making Flex as… well… flexible as possible is about giving those users the ability to mix and match features from Flex with their existing tools to allow for a slow and steady migration.

As we reported last month, Flex will also integrate with all the standard CRM tools like Salesforce and Zendesk, as well as workforce management and optimization tools that are currently in use in most contact centers.

Before launching the product today, Twilio already worked with ING, Zillow, National Debt Relief and RealPage to test Flex. In addition, it lined up a number of tech and consulting partners to support new users.

Mar
12
2018
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Dropbox sets IPO range $16-18, valuing it below $10B, as Salesforce ponies up $100M

After announcing an IPO in February, today Dropbox updated its S-1 filing with pricing. The cloud services and storage company said that it expects to price its IPO at between $16 and $18 per share when it sells 36,000,000 shares to raise $648 million as “DBX” on the Nasdaq exchange.

In addition to that, Dropbox announced that it will be selling $100 million in stock to Salesforce — its new integration partner — right after the IPO, “at a price per share equal to the initial offering price.”

A specific date has not yet been set for Dropbox’s listing later this month.

The IPO pricing values the company at between $7 billion and nearly $8 billion when you factor in restricted stock units — making it the biggest tech IPO since Snap last year, but still falling well below the $10 billion valuation that Dropbox crept up to back in 2014 when it raised $350 million in venture funding.

Many will be watching Dropbox’s IPO to see if it stands up longer term and becomes a bellwether for the fortunes and fates of many other outsized “startups” that many have also expecting to list, including those that have already filed to go public like Spotify, as well as those that have yet to make any official pronouncements, like Airbnb.

Some might argue that it’s illogical to compare a company whose business model is built around cloud storage with a travel and accommodation business, or a music streaming platform. Perhaps especially now: at a time when people are still wincing from Snap’s drastic drop — the company is trading more than 30 percent down from its IPO debut — Dropbox presents a challenging picture.

On the plus side, the company has helped bring the concept of cloud storage services to the masses. Riding on the wave of mobile devices, lightweight apps, and faster internet connections, it has changed the conversation about how many conceive of handling their data and offloading it off of their devices. Today, Dropbox has more than 500 million users in more than 180 countries.

On the minus side, only around 11 million of those customers are paying users. The company reported around $1.1 billion in revenues in 2017, representing a rise on $845 million in 2016 and $604 million in 2015. But it’s unprofitable, reporting a loss of $112 million in 2017.

Again, that’s a large improvement when you compare Dropbox’s 2016 loss of $210 million in 2016 and $326 million in 2015. But it does raise more pressing questions: Does Dropbox have a big plan for how to convert more people into paying users? And will its investors have the patience to watch its business models play out?

In that regard, the Salesforce investment and integration, and its timing of being announced alongside the sober IPO range, is a notable vote of confidence in Dropbox. Salesforce has staked its whole business model around cloud services — its ticker may be “CRM,” but its logo is its name inside a cloud — and it’s passed into the pantheon of tech giants with flying colors.

Having Salesforce buy into Dropbox not only shows how it’s bolstering its new partner Dropbox in the next phase, but I’d argue also gives Dropbox one potential exit strategy. Salesforce, after all, has been interested in playing more directly in this space for years at this point.

Jan
29
2018
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SuperPhone is building a Salesforce for texting

 The address book is the last, worst default app you rely on. It’s time it got as smart as the rest of our phones. That’s the idea behind SuperPhone. Email isn’t how you build relationships anymore. Yet most business software sanctifies the spammy inbox when it’s the immediacy of text messaging that keeps people in touch today. Musician Ryan Leslie learned that when… Read More

Jan
17
2018
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Google and Salesforce unveil first elements of partnership

 Last fall at Dreamforce, Google and Salesforce announced a partnership. Today, the two companies unveiled the first pieces of that agreement. For starters, Google Analytics 360 users can now import data from the Salesforce CRM tool such as leads and opportunities, among other pieces. This could allow marketers to have a more complete view of the customer journey from first contact to sale… Read More

Nov
06
2017
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Salesforce to offer more customized AI with myEinstein

 It’s been just over a year since Salesforce introduced Einstein, a set of artificial intelligence technologies that are designed to underlie and enhance the Salesforce product set. Today, at Dreamforce, the company’s enormous customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco, it announced myEinstein, a package of tools it created to help developers and Salesforce… Read More

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