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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kolodner

Spoiler Alert: AEs are Salespeople

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

[NOTE: This post has been edited from it's original publication to include some additional information.]

Freebie the puppy as a used car salesman.

I don't think this should surprise anyone: The account executive ("AE") from Salesforce who reaches out to you when you create a new trial instance or when your organization applies for the free [like a puppy] licenses or when your contract renewal arrives is paid to sell things. They may (emphasis on may) have expertise with nonprofits or education and be able to also serve as something of an advisor. But their job—the only job they get paid for—is to sell things. Never forget that.


It's not just the AE. That solution engineer who gave all kinds of interesting suggestions for how you might build your system? She's not actually going to build it for you. She's whetting your appetite so that you'll have a more ambitious implementation. The person who showed you a beautiful demo of the student portal that another university uses is not going to replicate that build for you. They're showing you what you could do if you added Experience Cloud to your contract.


I'm not writing to complain that this is a problem. (Well, OK, maybe a little... 😉)


Let's Be Realistic

We live in a capitalist system. Salesforce, as I have said before, is a capitalist enterprise, a business. Not just a business, ticker symbol CRM is a publicly traded company. Even if Marc Benioff wanted to turn Salesforce into some kind of social enterprise or a charity, he could not. The other shareholders expect profits and growth. (Full disclosure: I am one of those shareholders. A very small one.)

A screenshot of the CRM (Salesforce Inc.) stock price and chart.

I don't particularly love capitalism, much less the late-stage American-style capitalism that has produced so much misery and inequality. But this is the system we find ourselves in, the game we are forced to play. And no matter my feelings about it or yours, Marc Benioff actually seems to be quite fond of capitalism. Given that, I take it for granted that executives throughout Salesforce are also on board with capitalism, even if they work in the nonprofit-serving arm of the company.


The Incentives Are Wrong

Back to those AEs. Even AEs working for "Salesforce.org" are incentivized directly by profit motive. (I used those quotes around Salesforce.org because I want to remind you that there is only a single entity at this point. Salesforce.org is a division of Salesforce, not a separate organization. The name implies more separation than it should at this point.)


As a matter of fact, as far as I understand it, AE commissions are only based on new product sold. That means that when your org comes up for contract renewal, your AE makes no additional money when you simply renew your contract as a happy customer (even if you are continuing to pay for licenses beyond the 10 free ones). They only make money if you buy new licenses or add new products.


Stop and consider that for a moment. Your AE does not make money if you are simply a happy customer continuing to use Salesforce for another year. Your AE may be glad to hear that the system is making you more efficient and effective at your mission. They may be thrilled that you work with a wonderful consultant who has built you custom functionality that you love and that by supporting that consultant you grow the Salesforce economy. They may appreciate that you have hired your first full-time Salesforce admin and, therefore, have grown the workforce. Your AE might even enjoy hearing that you have purchased products from AppExchange partners, growing the Salesforce ecosystem. But when it comes to whether or not your AE has met their job goals, none of that matters. Their commission and their job performance is only evaluated based on whether you buy more licenses or add new Salesforce SKUs to your contract. If your spend doesn't rise, neither does their bank account.

A cartoon drawing of a stacks of cash.

Personally, I think that's a poor incentive structure. I realize that this is nothing more than my opinion—and that I have never worked in a sales environment, much less managed workers in one. But I think there should be room for AEs within Salesforce.org to earn recognition (including commission) for helping organizations that use Salesforce to thrive and to continue their use of the system.


No Illusions

Even if the incentives didn't deprioritize steady-state usage, I recognize that Salesforce and AEs would be more interested in the bigger nonprofits. Of course it's going to be better for the company to sell 100 full licenses and 500 community licenses to a larger nonprofit than to deal with a small organization that only uses the P10 grant or may someday purchase a single license. Of course it's going to make sense for the company to get in the door of a higher education institution than to spend time working to get or keep a tiny nonprofit customer.


There's probably no way within a capitalist structure that this wouldn't be the case. I'm resigned to the fact that there are structural reasons why Salesforce.org is going to focus on larger nonprofits and higher ed. That will skew how AEs do their job, how products are designed and built, and what voices are heard by executives within the division. I recognize this reality.


But those deals should still be structured ethically. AEs should not profit from selling unneeded products and services to nonprofits, draining scarce resources from their mission. Unfortunately, they do profit from this.


Not a Rare Problem

I regularly hear from consulting partners about deals where an organization was convinced to purchase all their licenses up front (even for an implementation that might take a year to build), or sold licenses for a Community ("Experience Cloud") that they would never need, or convinced to add a high-priced SKU to the deal, or sold Unlimited Edition licenses when their data volume would never justify the cost. I hear these stories too often for them to be rare—I'm just not that well plugged in to Salesforce partner gossip. If I hear about it as often as I do, it means the misplaced incentives are encouraging this to happen somewhat regularly.


Here is another major problem: Salesforce.org AEs are pushing Unlimited Edition ("UE") and talking up the Power of Us donated licenses (the "P10"). But if you go with UE, you do not get any free licenses. The P10 grant is only for Enterprise Edition. For more discussion of this, see this update.


Those are the egregious examples. But I also hear about small wastes of nonprofit money, like selling the 11th and future licenses after the P10 grant as "Lightning CRM Edition" (Sales + Service Cloud) for $576/year even though basically all nonprofits use "Lightning Enterprise Edition" ($432/year). Just a couple of weeks ago someone I know discovered that her client was paying $576 for all of their licenses, for absolutely no reason.


Once in a very long while there could be an organization that needs an extra Sales+Service license, but it's a vanishingly rare occurrence. Someone in management for the Salesforce.org sales team should notice when one of those is sold and ask, "Are you sure?" Not watching for that is simply taking money away from the mission of nonprofits because nobody at Salesforce.org cared to correct the mistaken overcharge.


Where are the Partners in this?

Unfortunately, the problem isn't just with Salesforce's sales team, it bleeds into partners as well. I am not accusing the partners of actual wrongdoing, but let's "follow the money," as they say.


If you are a consultancy that gets referrals from Salesforce (which is supposed to be the point of the partner program and is the lifeblood for larger consulting partners), then naturally you don't want to antagonize the company. If Salesforce sends you a deal that involves overcharges like excess licenses or SKUs, you're going to be put in a tough spot. By the time the partner gets that referred business the Salesforce contract has already been signed. Even if the partner wanted to counsel the client against the oversell, it's too late. And I can imagine it would be pretty awkward to start your new client relationship by telling them they've wasted money.


I know there are partners that have that difficult conversation with their new client. Sometimes they do it quietly, arming the client for dealing with Salesforce when renewal rolls around, or trying to help them claw back part of the deal. I think they most often do this secretively, telling the client what they need to know, but trying to cover their tracks so that Salesforce won't punish them with fewer deals. But I also suspect there are some partners that either turn a blind eye or even participate in unnecessary upcharges if they get a cut of the deal.


In fact, I edited the original publication of this post to include the paragraph in the previous section about Unlimited Edition not getting free licenses. (And this paragraph, obviously.) I added that because a friend that works for a medium-sized consultancy specifically asked if I could highlight that information. When I asked if I could identify them as my source, they asked that I publish this without their name. They were concerned for themself and their coworkers because an AE has already been upset with them for advising clients not to buy a product they don't really need.


Full Disclosure

I am a Salesforce Partner, at least on paper.


A couple of years ago they made it free to register as a consulting partner. Since it was free and came with some potential benefits, I figured it couldn't hurt to sign up. Unfortunately, something about my login never worked. After several back-and-forths with Support, I gave up.


Then, about a year ago, when the kerfuffle about new Nonprofit Cloud was breaking out, it became clear that there were conversations in the Partner Community that I might benefit from being a part of, particularly if I wanted to understand and interpret for my readers on this blog. And there are learning resources for partners that I couldn't access even as an MVP. So I put in the work with Support and finally become "officially" a partner.


As a matter of fact, at the time of this writing, I actually can't log into the partner portal once again. No idea why. I've filed another support case. So much for accessing those partner benefits. I'm getting notifications for posts in the partner community but I can't even access the rest of the thread.


Bottom line: I am a Salesforce Partner in name only. I have never gotten a deal referral from Salesforce and I do not register deals when I bring in a new client that is going to implement Salesforce. This is intentional. I want to maintain full independence to advocate for what I think is right for my clients, for nonprofits, and for the Salesforce community. I want to be able to say whatever I want on this blog without fear that someone could retaliate against me and hit me directly in the wallet.


Last full disclosure: I'm a member of the Salesforce community. I enjoy opportunities to speak at community organized and official events. I get tons of Salesforce swag, from stickers to sweatshirts. And I'm proud to be recognized as a Salesforce MVP Hall of Fame member, with all the official benefits and swag that entails. These things certainly make a dent in my thinking about the company and probably temper what I write here. So you can take what I say with that in mind. (But I believe it's a far cry from relying on Salesforce to actually support my book of business.)


Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

So take what I say with full knowledge of my situation.


But more importantly, keep in mind when someone has a financial incentive undergirding what they are telling you. And that goes doubly when you're talking with an AE who is literally trying to sell you something.


All I can do is remind every Salesforce admin to scrutinize your contract. Check the price guides, including the crowdsourced one that I maintain. Know what a product is before you agree to purchase it. And take a very skeptical look at anything new being suggested.

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