CRM Relevant Products/Services-leader Salesforce Relevant Products/Services.com just unveiled a new way for enterprises to create private social communities to connect with customers and partners. With Salesforce Communities, the company believes it's meeting a felt need for stronger customer Relevant Products/Services-company connections.

The new tool combines social networking features such as profiles, real-time Relevant Products/Services feeds, trending topics, recommendations and influence measurement, with the business Relevant Products/Services information and processes in Salesforce. The communities are customized and branded and aim to drive collaboration Relevant Products/Services and productivity.

Mary Wardley, vice president, CRM and Enterprise Applications at IDC, is bullish on Salesforce.com's latest innovation. As she sees it, Salesforce Communities will enable companies to build stronger, more valuable relationships with customers, partners and employees through custom communities -- designed to address and support specific business needs.

"When delivered within the context of the business process of Salesforce, Communities has the potential to facilitate strategic collaboration across enterprises and with customers and partners above the capabilities of online peer communities, which have the tendency to be either entirely conversational or entirely transactional," she said.

Replacing Legacy Technology

Here's the Salesforce pitch: Legacy technology has failed to deliver on the promise of connecting companies with their customers and partners. Existing offerings are either entirely conversational, such as discussion forums or entirely transactional, such as portals, and so are disconnected from the business. Today, more than ever, Salesforce argues, enterprises need to connect with their customers and partners in meaningful ways to increase efficiency and productivity.

On the customer front, Salesforce Communities promises to help social enterprises combine knowledge-driven, peer-assisted and agent-assisted customer service communities into a single experience. Companies can create a variety of marketing communities around events, campaigns or even spin up focus groups on the fly.

On the partners front, companies, along with their partners, suppliers and distributors, can create custom communities to drive more sales through seamless deal registration, access to proven sales tools and collaboration with the right experts.

"Our goal was to build deeper relationships with our mid-size business partners across the world, and be seen as builders, not just bankers," said Ian Forrest, vice president of Global Marketing at GE Capital. "With Access GE built on Salesforce Communities, we have deployed more than 50 custom communities, leading to stronger partnerships with companies."

From Loyalty to Advocacy

Salesforce is pushing hard to sell the benefits of its new tool. The company points to the reality of social networking users surpassing e-mail users in number. Salesforce research also shows that nearly a quarter of all time spent online is spent on social networks like Facebook. Salesforce wants to be at the intersection of these technologies to help companies connect with customers.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group, told us Salesforce.com is correct in its assumption that legacy tools aren't enough to get the job done. As he sees it, companies need tools that open up dynamic dialogue with customers. Although Salesforce isn't the first to recognize the need, it's the biggest player to act on it.

"More companies are discovering that customer loyalty is incredibly important," Enderle said. "The cost of customer replacement is exceedingly high, so if you can engage those customers, keep them loyal and maybe move them to advocacy, not only does that enhance sales but it lowers your cost of customer retention and replacement."

Salesforce Communities is currently scheduled to be available in limited pilot in fall 2012 and generally available the second half of 2013. Pricing has not yet been announced.