Need to build a customer community? This new Salesforce tool can help

Lightning Bolt aims to jump-start the process of building customer-facing communities, portals, and websites

Engaging customers is an ongoing challenge for companies large and small, but Salesforce has been working to make it easier. On Thursday, the CRM giant took its efforts a big step further with the launch of Lightning Bolt, a new product designed to jump-start the process of building customer communities, portals, and websites.

Last year, Salesforce introduced Lightning Templates for Community Cloud, enabling companies to create customized communities for their customers, partners, and employees. Lightning Bolt takes the template concept up another notch.

Now, any developer or partner in the Salesforce ecosystem can use the Lightning Bolt framework to build industry-specific offerings such as portals for B2B e-commerce, partner relationship management, or patient care. The resulting creations are not only fully integrated with Salesforce CRM but also incorporate industry best practices and business logic, Salesforce said.

Accenture, Cognizant, and Deloitte are among the partners that have already created Lightning Bolt offerings for a variety of specific industries. Targeting insurance companies, for example, Accenture built one that equips agents with new self-service capabilities, data-rich dashboard features, and sales productivity tools in a mobile-friendly portal, Salesforce said.

A new Lightning Bolt category on the Salesforce AppExchange will allow partners in the Salesforce ecosystem to sell products they build using the tool.

"To capture and hold customers into the future, we need better ways of understanding their moments of truth -- themes when a customer can reasonably expect a vendor contribution over an issue that might affect the brand, product, or company," said Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group and author of the book Solve for the Customer. "Naturally it's very hard to know what your business's moments of truth are, but with fast communities and powerful analytics -- two things Salesforce has been making a lot of noise over lately -- they come into focus."

Last year's introduction of Lightning Templates was a good step in the right direction, but "with this announcement we're seeing them taking complexity and effort out of the community experience," Pombriant said.

One result might be to make companies more willing to customize templates to better fit their specific needs, he added.

With predefined features and themes for specific purposes and industries, the new templates for Community Cloud provide "a great starting point" for setting up communities, said Alan Lepofsky, a vice president and principal analyst with Constellation Research.

That can save both time and money as well as provide a consistent experience, "often without the need for any customized development," he added.

The Lightning Bolt framework will be generally available in October as part of the Community Cloud license, and customers will be able to begin deploying creations built using the tool starting at the same time. Developers will be able to distribute resulting products via the AppExchange starting in early 2017.

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