The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Salesforce Connections 2024: So Far, So Fast

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The RSR team has been attending the Salesforce Connections User Conference since the days when the event was called Demandware Exchange, when the company was an independent Ecommerce provider (Salesforce acquired Demandware in 2016). Back in 2014, after attending that year’s event then-RSR partner Nikki Baird wrote, “If you’re still thinking of Demandware as the little eCommerce company that tends to run the websites of fashion retailers, you’d be wrong. Demandware appear(s) to be saying it (is) more than ready for the big leagues, and while that old image is a kind of heritage, it is only a piece of the company’s future.”

Those were prophetic words. The 2016 acquisition by Salesforce absolutely kicked Demandware into “the Big Leagues”, and the company has made major investments to define what a next-gen commerce platform should look like and be able to do. Since those early days, Salesforce has pushed the envelope in several important ways:

First, the company went big with the development of a customer order management feature that expanded the Commerce Cloud’s (Demandware’s Salesforce branding) capabilities just in time for the global pandemic. It should be noted that Demandware had acquired order fulfillment solution Mainstreet in 2014 to handle cross channel order fulfillment. But in 2019 the company announced what at the time it called it’s Lightning Order Management system, at around the same time it also announced its “Customer 360” agenda. Today, the company continues to add and refine order management capabilities, for example to use Einstein generative AI to identify products with high return rates and investigate why customers return them (more on Einstein below).

Secondly, Salesforce undertook a huge effort to integrate the Commerce Cloud platform with the Marketing and Service clouds, enabling a single view of all customer data across the services in real time. That vision has gone through several iterations (for example, there was a lot of debate about whether the single view concept was to be enabled by a centralized of a federated data model – the ultimate answer was “both”). Now in 2024, that vision is called “Data Cloud For Commerce” (available this summer), and its objective is to enable a “unified view of your shoppers across marketing, commerce, service, and sales—unleashing contextual, personalized experiences with keen data insights.”

Third, Salesforce integrated its Einstein AI capabilities into the breadth of the entire solution set. There’s a lot of talk today about the infusion of AI into the selling platforms, but “Salesforce did it first”, and it has unleashed enormous leaps in creativity and productivity. At the Connections 2024 event, Salesforce SVP & GM for Commerce Cloud Michael Affronti described Einstein’s role as a “co-pilot” for the Marketing and Commerce clouds, for example to create hyper-personalized offers to consumers that have been selected through “deep segmentation”.

Einstein’s capabilities go well beyond that, of course, but since all things “AI” get so over-hyped, speakers at the Connections 2024 event took pains to “keep it real”. For example, Gordon Evans, VP of Industries Marketing, highlighted use cases that show off AI’s ability to detect statistically meaningful trends in data and to model probable outcomes, as opposed to “Gen-AI”, which the company is using almost as a new user interface, for example to enable plain language conversational “co-pilots” for marketing professionals. The co-pilot concept has also implemented for Tableau, making it possible to use conversational language to “ask questions” of complex data.

Fourth, Salesforce reengineered its Commerce capabilities for “headless” implementations by building APIs to commerce services, to enable companies to “weave commerce into any touchpoint, from social media to in-store kiosks to B2B buyer portals and give you the power to take full control over the front-end.” I was thinking of a blue-sky futures session I was involved in many years ago when one of the participants opined that it would “be great if there was such a thing as ‘retail-as-a-service’, so that any functionality could be used anywhere.” That conversation happened over a decade ago – now Salesforce has made it real.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another important innovation that was discussed at the conference, the Salesforce zero-copy network. The company describes the initiative this way: “Zero copy enables organizations to easily connect and use all of their data within the Einstein 1 Platform without needing to move or copy data between platforms. Data Cloud enables companies to unify all their enterprise data on Salesforce… <and> gives companies the flexibility they need to access data between platforms to build AI-powered solutions.” This is a “no ETL” (‘extract / transform / load”) concept that allows users to access data wherever it is, and when source data changes, it’s immediately updated everywhere. The company’s partners in this endeavor are big technology providers like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Service, IBM, Google BigQuery, Snowflake, and Databricks.

At the Connections 2024 event, Salesforce gave a demo of the zero-copy network in action, where customer data from several different sources was pulled into a single view for a new car order (just to get everyone’s attention, the order was for an Aston Martin with a $300,000 price tag). The idea behind the demo was to show how consumer-generated data (reviews and comments from social media, for example), CRM data, proprietary automobile maintenance data, and new product data, could all be pulled together by an Einstein co-pilot to generate a personalized recommendation for a new automobile. As I was watching the demo, I was trying to imagine all the “plumbing” that would have been required in the past to develop something even remotely as slick as what I was looking at. Of course, the answer to that is that it would be impossible – the data was in too many “foreign” systems to even consider it.

The advantages to the zero-copy concept are many: fewer copies of data enable improved data security, less computer resources required, and vastly improved data synchronization.

Final Thoughts On Salesforce Connections 2024

At an analyst reception during the event, one of the Salesforce management team asked me what I like most about his company. First of all, I cannot remember a time when any host asked an industry analyst like me such a question – I suppose because the answer might not be what someone wants to hear. I had to think for a second, but my ultimate response was that “Salesforce doesn’t see barriers”. And I think that’s true – Salesforce asks itself “why not?” on a whole host of ideas. RSR talks to a lot of technology firms, and many times the conversation revolves around why something can’t be accomplished. Salesforce doesn’t seem to see all the reasons why not. I believe that comes straight from the top of the company, Marc Benioff, and his “can do” attitude permeates everything about the company.

When I delivered my response back to the person who asked me the question, he simply said, “Yeah, we’ve come so far, so fast!” And that’s the truth of it.

Newsletter Articles July 2, 2024