Chatter Communities service Salesforce.com announced Tuesday extends the enterprise social software previously positioned for use within a company to also support public communities for customers and partners.
Companies that use Chatter for internal social networking will be able to define additional networks that are exposed to the public for marketing purposes or customer support or extended to a partner or categories of partners. Employees will be able to toggle back and forth between different communities and can forward posts from a public community to a private one. Because Chatter users tend to also be users of Salesforce.com CRM, a key advantage will be the ability to create sales opportunities or support tickets based on an interaction in a customer or partner community.
Salesforce customers now can "really extend the social front office, through sales, service, and marketing," said Doug Bewsher, SVP of marketing for Salesforce Chatter.
The product is being released for beta testing and isn't scheduled to be generally available until the middle of next year, but Salesforce already is proclaiming it to be a vast improvement over existing products for customer and partner communities such as those from Lithium Technologies and Jive Software. Most customer support forum products "are really just colonies, not communities," because they aren't connected with core business processes, Bewsher said. Meanwhile, "legacy" companies such as SAP and Oracle provide partner extranet products with deeper business functionality "but there's no social layer there," he said.
Salesforce already can point to a live example, which is GE Capital's Access GE community, which Salesforce helped launch as a test of the product. In a (video), GE Capital promotes the social capabilities of its portal to allow members of different constituencies to network with each other. For example, auto dealers who rely on GE Capital financing can come into one of these communities to network and discuss sales tactics. "Or, it could be a certain set of franchisees who share common problems and want to work together," Bewsher said.
For GE Capital, this is "a way for them to transform from just being a transactional company to having deeper relationships," Bewsher said. More than 50 of these communities already have been formed, he said.
In the case of a customer support community, Chatter can be added to a portal that also includes other support mechanisms, such as searching a knowledge base. When customers can't find an answer on their own, they can ask for help and get feedback from other members of the community as well as company support staff. Dave King, a senior director of product marketing for Chatter, said the social environment can be configured so that if a customer doesn't get an answer to his question, the inquiry can automatically be escalated into a Salesforce.com support case.
A customer accessing the community sees a consolidated list of messages, including public messages from the community as well as private responses from a support agent to the customer, King said.
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