The Essential Communication Skills Marc Benioff Used to Build Salesforce

Salesforce founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, took a big step last week to grow his company’s influence in cloud computing with an agreement to buy Slack for $27 billion.

Today Benioff makes news as a prominent voice in business, but 21 years ago, when he co-founded Salesforce, Benioff was trying to build buzz for his little-known startup.

I spoke to Benioff several years ago about how communication and storytelling attracted much-needed attention to build the Salesforce name. Benioff’s insights are valuable for any entrepreneur or small business owner who wants to stand out from the crowd.

1. Make communication a priority.

“Communication is the most essential part of my job,” Benioff told me.

Benioff started Salesforce in the spare bedroom of a San Francisco apartment. It took ten years for the company to reach its first $1 billion in revenue (this year it made $17 billion).

During those ten years of growth, Benioff knew that reporters and bloggers could help him spread the gospel of cloud computing.

Benioff always responded quickly and directly to anyone who requested an interview or even a comment on a business topic, whether or not the topic was directly related to his company.

Benioff often fielded requests directly (I know firsthand because he unfailingly returned my e-mails when I was working as a business reporter). “Journalists immediately think of me as a resource for a quote or a comment because they know that I will be available to offer fresh insight and to meet their deadlines.”

Position yourself as a thought leader to build buzz for your business. Just remember, a thought leader must be willing to share their thoughts on a wide range of topics. 

2. Use metaphors to simplify complex ideas. 

In the late 90s, companies bought enterprise software that they installed on their own servers. The software was complex, hard to use, and made upgrading a very slow process. Salesforce would deliver software from something called ‘the cloud,’ which most people didn’t understand that well.

The buzzwords that Benioff used when he started Salesforce were unfamiliar to most people: SAAS (software as a service), cloud computing, on-demand software. 

Benioff created a handy metaphor. He described his product as “Amazon meets Siebel Systems.” The comparison may not make sense to you today, but it did to big enterprise customers back then. Siebel was the giant in CRM (customer relationship management) software while Salesforce was the upstart that would make CRM software as easy as buying a product online from Amazon. 

Benioff thought about metaphors and analogies carefully because it’s the way people think. When we encounter a new idea, we look for something familiar to compare it to. 

Don’t wait for people to come up with their own comparison for your idea or product. Create it for them. 

3. Hire and train for presentation skills.

“Presentation skills are key,” Benioff told me.

“People who work for you represent your brand. You want them to present themselves–and represent you–in a certain way. 

Presentation skills were so critical to many positions at Salesforce, job candidates were often required to give a short presentation in addition to answering traditional interview questions.

Once hired, Benioff made sure that everyone was aligned on the same message. In the early days he created a laminated “cheat sheet” with one sentence on the front and supporting messages on the back. The front simply read: The End of Software. 

Make sure that all customer-facing employees or team members have good presentation skills. In many cases, they won’t get a second chance to leave a strong impression. 

Benioff had an early advantage in learning communication skills. He got to witness the best in the business–Steve Jobs. Benioff once worked as an intern for Jobs in Apple’s Macintosh division. Jobs later became a mentor to Benioff. 

“There would be no Salesforce without Steve Jobs,” Benioff later said.

You can learn from the best, too. Entrepreneurs like Jobs and Benioff placed a premium on articulating their ideas in a way the average person could understand. Take a page from their playbooks to stir excitement for your business. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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