What All Sales Organizations Need to Know: An Up-close-and-personal Discussion with Blackboard and Salesforce.com

By now, the Dreamforce dust has settled. The speakers have packed up their presentation notes, industry analysts have moved on to the next exciting event, Metallica is back on the road, and sales leaders have returned to their posts across the country.

As you can well imagine, there was a lot to be seen (and heard) at Dreamforce 2011, including one very important announcement.

While plans of the partnership surfaced at Dreamforce 2010 last December, all the corporate world learned about the Saleforce.com–Blackboard partnership when it was officially announced and launched at the Dreamforce 2011 event on August 30th.

About Blackboard Learn for Sales

If you weren’t able to attend the conference but want to know more about the partnership between these two industry leaders and the new Blackboard Learn™ for Sales product, continue reading. If you’re an existing Blackboard or Salesforce.com customer, you’ll want to know how this partnership may affect your organization.

To get to the bottom of this new partnering, fellow research analyst Gabriel Gheorghiu and I spoke with Mike Rosenbaum, Vice President of Operations for Force.com, and Tim Hill, President of Blackboard Professional Education (ProEd), to learn about the strategies behind Blackboard Learn for Sales and how the Salesforce.com and Blackboard partnership came to be.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

TEC: Did Blackboard’s product development team ever think about developing a sales-driven learning application in the cloud (an organically grown application), or was it waiting for the right opportunity to come along to partner with a sales-focused vendor with an existing cloud strategy?

Tim (Blackboard): We are always looking for ways to enhance Blackboard Learn—our ProEd core corporate learning application. Our ProEd division has already enjoyed success in the market with clients using our platform for sales training. When Salesforce.com approached us about a partnership and developing a sales training app on their Force.com platform, it was a natural fit. Blackboard ProEd and Salesforce.com share a common strategy of providing engaging and collaborative learning programs that positively impact business.

We have made it easy for sales teams to access the training and development tools they need in a place they’re already spending a lot of time. Both Blackboard and Salesforce.com recognized that bringing training and employee education into the cloud—and bridging the gap between learning engagement and sales metrics—was a win-win situation. Why separate training from the activity it is intended to impact?

TEC: How has this partnership with Salesforce.com changed Blackboard’s focus (or has it)? Will there be a greater focus on the corporate and government sectors going forward?

Tim (Blackboard): Our ProEd business is directly focused on these market sectors and we have experienced significant growth since our division was formed four and a half years ago. ProEd now serves over 300 clients and millions of users in North America. And we have seen great response to our platform in the corporate and government sectors, particularly in how it leverages social learning. We are committed to these markets more than ever and are now in an enviable position to accelerate our efforts with this unique offering and our partnership with Salesforce.com.

TEC: What was the driving force behind the decision to partner with a learning management vendor? Why Blackboard?

Mike (Salesforce): For the last 10 years Blackboard has been the leading learning management system (LMS) software provider in the industry. More than 25 million students and sales professionals use its solution daily. Quite simply, creating a relationship where the leader in sales meets the leader in learning was an easy decision to make.

TEC: Was this partnership a natural progression for Salesforce.com?

Mike (Salesforce): The Blackboard app highlights the value of Force.com, Salesforce.com’s social enterprise platform for employee social apps, and Salesforce Chatter to create a social learning environment. It makes sense that companies will want a cloud-based LMS that lets them measure the success of their employees and sales training methods.

TEC: With Blackboard’s focus predominantly on the higher education sector, how do you think the partnership with Salesforce.com and the addition of Blackboard Learn for Sales will affect sales in your ProEd division?

Tim (Blackboard): We expect positive returns and continued growth in our ProEd business, and the Salesforce.com partnership will only strengthen that trend. Businesses and government agencies are increasingly looking for solutions that are quick to deploy, cost-effective, and leverage real opportunities in social learning. Blackboard ProEd has seen impressive year-over-year growth in sales since we formed this team four and a half years ago, and we are confident that our partnership with Salesforce.com and the launch of Blackboard Learn for Sales will help contribute to this trend.

TEC: What about the impact on Salesforce’s sales within the higher education division?

Mike (Salesforce): Salesforce.com does not break this out.

TEC: Can clients currently using Blackboard Learn easily migrate to the Force.com platform to take advantage of the Blackboard Learn for Sales application? If so, at what additional cost?

Tim (Blackboard): Absolutely! The migration to the Blackboard Learn for Sales platform is easy and fast for current Blackboard clients. In fact, through the cloud-based model, clients can even pilot the application with a select group of users before full implementation. And, there is no additional cost for current clients to leverage the application unless they are adding users or require customization.

TEC: What type of response have you gotten through channels such as AppExchange and online surveys (both prior to and since the partnership announcement) from current and prospective clients regarding Blackboard Learn for Sales?

Mike (Salesforce): Blackboard has seen an incredible amount of interest from the Salesforce.com customer base population—receiving more than 1,000 leads since the partnership was announced in December 2010. Blackboard has also signed many global customers as early adopters. 

TEC: We see that there is no particular marketing on the Force.com or Salesforce.com Web sites mentioning the Blackboard Learn for Sales product (except through AppExchange). Is there a reason for that?

Mike (Salesforce): Salesforce.com does not promote third-party offerings on Salesforce.com. We drive customers to the AppExchange to connect with partner applications they are looking for to extend their Salesforce implementations.

TEC: Is the Blackboard Learn for Sales product dedicated only to customers using Salesforce’s customer relationship management (CRM) product, or can it be used by any Blackboard Learn customer using other CRM applications?

Tim (Blackboard): Blackboard Learn for Sales is only available to Blackboard and Salesforce.com customers. That said, customers can readily integrate their current non-Salesforce CRM or human resource information systems (HRIS) with our Learn platform. Our ProEd Consulting team can help clients integrate easily, leveraging Blackboard’s Building Block (API) technology.

Analyst Commentary

Sherry: Sales training can be a major challenge for sales managers and training managers. Companies are selling increasingly complex products and need to train new sales staff quickly and effectively.

The availability on the market of a learning product targeted specifically at training and measuring the performance of the sales force of an organization has been a long time coming. Certainly other LMS and LCMS vendors have offered course content around sales, and have offered mobile versions of their products—allowing salespeople (on the road) to learn on the fly. But in my opinion, none have done so in the manner in which Blackboard has with its new Blackboard Learn for Sales.

With Blackboard Learn for Sales, salespeople can still do all the things they did before with Blackboard Learn, but sales managers now have the necessary tools to measure sales staff performance against training time. They also have the ability to assign the appropriate training to their sales staff based on their skill gaps.

Gabriel: Training and learning is important for sales and marketing people because they need to be on the same page and use the same methodologies when approaching and dealing with customers—and also because changes in customer behavior and new technologies require constant re-learning. The best strategies and business processes for attracting and retaining customers will be less efficient if the employees who are supposed to put them into practice are not properly trained. In the same way, both formal and informal learning helps sales, marketing, and customer service people by providing not only valuable and accurate feedback to the staff, but also prompt and useful solutions for dealing with customers.

From a technical perspective, integrating learning and training tools into CRM systems to deliver courses in the same application is nice to have, but the most important feature is to integrate the management of the courses in the workflows already defined for the sales, marketing, and customer service departments.

Even though training for sales is not new, integration with CRM is, and we will surely see more HR/LMS vendors creating integrations with CRM systems as well as more CRM solutions with add-ons for training and learning in the future.

The Bottom Line

If you’re an organization (of any size), looking for a comprehensive training tool for your sales force and an intelligence-based performance measurement tool for your sales leaders, Blackboard Learn for Sales just may be the product you’re looking for.

Built on the Force.com platform and integrated with Salesforce CRM, Blackboard’s new joint sales training application can help businesses improve employee knowledge and skills through online sales training, while at the same time allowing these organizations to more closely align employee learning with key corporate initiatives.

About Blackboard
Founded in 1997, Blackboard Inc. (headquartered in Washington, D.C.), is a global leader in enterprise technology and innovative solutions that improve the experience of millions of students and learners around the world every day. Blackboard's solutions allow thousands of higher education, K-12, professional, corporate, and government organizations to extend teaching and learning online, facilitate campus commerce and security, and communicate more effectively with their communities.

In addition to its product line, the company offers a variety of professional services, including strategic consulting, project management, custom application development, and training.

About Salesforce.com
With over 100,000 customers, Salesforce.com is one of the largest enterprise cloud computing companies leading the shift to the social enterprise and helping companies connect to customers and employees in new and innovative ways. Founded in 1999 by two brothers, Salesforce.com has topped the Forbes “World’s Most Innovative Companies” list. Its cloud apps include Chatter, Radian6, AppExchange, Force.com, and Sales Cloud—among others.

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