A long time ago in a data center far, far away there were IT departments performing painful CRM software upgrades. The entire department would be on “pins and needles” worrying what critical functionality may or may not be supported, or what customization would just not work anymore. A well-publicized Carnegie Mellon study showed average upgrade failure rates for enterprise software applications at 9%. To fix or avoid failures, IT departments would add more and more people to a project, in the process driving up costs. It was thought that on-premises delivery was the sole source of these expensive and time-consuming upgrades. However, as it turns out, there is more to the story than just the mechanism in which the software is delivered. Vendors who got their roots delivering CRM applications on-premises that now offer some semblance of a SaaS offering are still plagued with upgrade issues. Even with these vendors offering SaaS, customers still bore the burdens of re-implementing customizations and incurring lost productivity as they struggled to accommodate software changes that they often neither requested nor valued. Vendors thought if they associated the term “cloud computing” or “SaaS” to their CRM software, then they would also be able to claim seamless upgrades. As we have seen—even within the past year—this is not the case. Sources of pain persist due to poorly architected re-platforming of CRM solutions, or a lack of true commitment to customer success.
For the past 19 years, Salesforce has illustrated seamless upgrades are critical for customer success. Covering Salesforce as an analyst, I was always intrigued with how no one ever called me venting about an upgrade problem with Salesforce’s product. This was a far cry from the case for other vendors. Seamless upgrades were one of the key reasons why customers chose Salesforce, and a key feature behind why they are willing to pay a premium for Salesforce. Upgrades should not dictate how to run the business. The business should be able to continue to evolve with agility and innovation without worrying about taking two steps back because of a software upgrade issue.
For a vendor such as Salesforce to commit to seamless upgrades with confidence they need to:
Outsourcing infrastructure components such as hardware, database, etc. to a vendor enables IT departments the ability to focus on CRM business functionality. However, there are many flavors of SaaS and it is difficult for customers to distinguish between a vendor “white-washing” the term and actually delivering a scalable, performing cloud service. Vendors were started as a SaaS company and are pure in their delivery of SaaS have a better track record than those that don't. It is the classic innovators dilemma. Vendors who continue to have an on-premises install base are plagued with having to provide innovation to those customers. On-premises and SaaS have fundamentally different rates of upgrade adoption. Vendors who attempt to do both need to devote resources to supporting back releases of on-premises software while trying to remain competitive on a much faster SaaS delivery pace. This is a constant battle that never ends, and one of the key reasons pure SaaS vendors offer innovation more quickly without the burden of difficult upgrades. In Salesforce's case they have delivered 3 upgrades a year for 19 consecutive years without difficulty.
The school of thought a decade ago was that IT departments preferred adjusting detailed data tables to tweak applications. The idea was that more control provides greater flexibility. However, this granular control mechanism was the very source of upgrade problems. Alternatively, a meta-data approach abstracts the technical details of database, so administrators with much less technical depth can configure and manage the application less expensively, and with more agility to adapt to the needs of the business. It sounds like a no brainer, yet vendors who had their roots in on-premises didn't quite want to go all-in on the concept in fear of alienating their install base. Vendors who did not have to deal with a legacy on-premises install base were not plagued by these constraints and flourished with the success of their customer.
The second element of eliminating technical risk is a multi-tenant design. I used to get a kick out of a vendor telling me that they are multi-tenant just so they could “check the box”. It isn’t that easy to gain this label. The key objective of multi-tenancy is to get elastic economies of scale in supporting infrastructure through customer shared resources. With this scale, a vendor can add 1000's of customers with many users without any degradation in performance or reliability. The concept sounds great, but as we have seen in a recent vendor's attempt to change architectures this is easier said than done. Every customer is different. Each one has different load factors, data models, and application configurations. Yet these same customers expect and should get both quality and high performing application service that supports their business outcomes, despite the fact that customer A’s specifications may be different than company B. It should not matter if the customer is a small company with 10 users or a large enterprise with 10,000 users. The combination of delivering both a meta-data and multi-tenant architecture continues to be one of more challenging elements of delivering the seamless upgrade. The best way to measure this when evaluating a vendor is not to go through 10 PowerPoint slides that explains why they support this architecture. Rather, all that needs to be done is a simple look at the track record of the vendor and a conversation with their customers on how they have benefited.
Unlike the traditional on-premises software industry, Salesforce's pure SaaS model allows a complete focus on innovation and value. Salesforce gives all customers the benefits of running a single core version of the software, at any given time, in a well-defined production environment. Single core version does not mean that customers aren't able to configure their application to their needs. Rather, customers have considerable opportunities for differentiation through configuration of the service. This configuration occurs at the metadata level, rather than the kind of cost- and risk-intensive “customization” that muddles a vendor's out-of-the-box code (and hampers the customers' ability to take advantage of upgrades.
The non-SaaS pure vendors maintain back releases and patches, while Salesforce continues to offer innovation. Salesforce maintains backward capability with earlier released features even if these features are superseded by new functionality. For example, when Salesforce revamped their sales forecasting a few years ago, customers who wanted to take advantage of it opted in. This meant customers could stay on the existing sales forecasting functionality without any regression.
Vendors are always eager to share product road maps and promises of new features to come, but a commitment to customer success through a cadence of relevant innovation can only be reliably measured by past performance. It can be illuminating to look at the gaps between promise and delivery, in time and function versus vendors with a true cloud architecture that consistently deliver a superior customer experience, and supporting it with a culture of servicing rather than selling.
Salesforce was born in the Cloud and the company was built on the ability to deliver value at quick rate through three impactful releases a year without upgrade issues. The rapid pace of innovation is part of Salesforce's DNA since day 1, where as traditional on-premise vendors are locked into long planning and release cycles and struggle to deliver quality new innovations bi-annually. Salesforce also invests heavily in training with a revolutionary model, called Trailhead. With Trailhead, understanding the value of new capabilities in a release is always just a click away insuring when new features are launched users can get value on day one. For Salesforce, Customer Success are not a buzzwords it is an operational approach of doing business.
Salesforce has gone 19 years without any major release regression for customer upgrades. It is an impressive track record in a market where most vendors have not been able to go longer than three years without issues. Seamless upgrades have been a way of life for Salesforce customers, making expensive upgrades a relic of the past.