How Salesforce Made “The Story of Sales," a Documentary All About Selling
June 15, 2020
At the beginning of 2016, Lynne Zaledonis, a Vice President of Product Marketing at Salesforce, set sail on a creative voyage to make the very first documentary about sales. For the next nine months, Zaledonis and her team (with the help of an external film studio) channeled their inner filmmaker and produced The Story of Sales.
Read on to learn how Salesforce tackled one of their most ambitious projects to date — a feature-length documentary that explores the history, evolution, and future of sales. Be sure to watch the trailer and learn more about the film!
The itch to try something new
Salesforce first hit the sales software scene in 1999 with its cloud-based CRM and later established its dominance in the space with their Sales Cloud product. Sales is in their DNA, and educating the sales community is something they’ve continued to be extremely passionate about over the past twenty years.
But while providing tactical and technical how-to advice for their audience and customers is their bread and butter, they were eager to do more. Namely, they wanted to create a piece of content that would resonate with the sales community on an emotional level.
“While providing tactical and technical how-to advice for their audience and customers is their bread and butter, they were eager to do more. They wanted to create content that would resonate with the sales community on an emotional level.”
“Our intent was really to take the time to educate people on what the sales profession is and what it takes to be a successful salesperson — hard work and genuine care about customers,” says Zaledonis. “We wanted to celebrate salespeople. We wanted them to identify with our content and feel good about their careers and jobs.”
In addition to pursuing a new creative direction, Zaledonis and her team also wanted to deliver their message in a unique format to engage people outside of their traditional funnel, so they decided to go with video. But, what started out as a short-form video series, eventually turned into something much, much bolder.
“Back in 2016, we found out that one out of nine people were in sales. And that got us thinking — here’s a huge population of people who we might not be engaging with. Maybe we could connect with them through some different mediums,” says Zaledonis. “And that’s when we came across the idea of creating some videos or maybe some little shorts. The next thing you know, the project evolved into a feature-length documentary.”
The Story of Sales was the first-ever feature-length documentary that Zaledonis and her team had ever worked on. Fortunately, Zaledonis and her team’s desire to honor salespeople fueled their motivation to tackle the documentary head-on.
“We had created video clips, demo videos, interviews, and videos, but we’d never done something of this magnitude. And to my knowledge, no one had ever made a documentary about selling,” says Zaledonis. “So, we felt like it was our obligation to do that. We also just wanted to see what would happen. The result ended up being really fantastic.”
Putting the team together
The product marketing team for the Sales Cloud product, which Zaledonis was Vice President of at the time, crafted The Story of Sales from first draft to final cut. While Zaledonis wasn’t involved in the filming of the documentary, she oversaw the project and assembled the team that executed the documentary’s creative direction.
The leader of this team was Jim Hopkins, one of Salesforce’s Senior Product Marketing Managers at the time and, luckily, a closet filmmaker. According to Zaledonis, he was the lifeblood of the project. “In his heart of hearts, Jim was super excited to be able to take this on,” says Zaledonis. “You really need that kind of person to stick with something this big and get it across the line.”
Zaledonis and her team also hired a production company called RockBridge to help produce the documentary. There were dozens of people who helped in other ways, too, like creating the soundtrack, finding people to interview, doing work behind the scenes, and writing blogs. “Like anything, it takes a village,” says Zaledonis.
Not your typical sales film
When Zaledonis and her team asked industry thought leaders and educational institutions, like the University of Texas, to participate in the documentary, they were more than happy to do so. But persuading actual sales practitioners, like Mercy Manning, who was the documentary’s lead character, to do the same was a bit more challenging — they didn’t want to be cast in a negative light. But Zaledonis and her team assured them that their documentary would not just be another Tommy Boy or Glengarry Glen Ross.
“I think there was some skepticism about how salespeople would be portrayed in the film, so we had to convince them that we truly were passionate about sales, know it to be an honorable profession, and would make sure to portray them in that light,” says Zaledonis. “And once we explained that to them, they were really eager to be a part of it.”
Another challenge Zaledonis and her team had to conquer was balancing the scales between the project’s artistic side and business side.
“We faced the obstacles that a typical production team would, like time and budget constraints, which were tough to overcome because we had to strike a balance between the project’s business side and artistic side,” says Zaledonis. “The artistic side says we need more time, we need to shoot this, and we need to redo that. But then the business side says we need to hit our deadline and work with what we have.”
In order to strike that balance, Zaledonis and her team decided to premiere The Story of Sales at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual conference. Setting this deadline, which was nine months, would force them to make the tough decisions required to finish the film within their budget and time constraints.
“Setting this deadline, which was nine months, would force them to make the tough decisions required to finish the film within their budget and time constraints.”
A red carpet premiere at Dreamforce
When Dreamforce finally arrived, Zaledonis and her team made sure The Story of Sales’ premiere was one to remember. They debuted the documentary at the beautiful Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where they had a red carpet, food, and a cocktail hour.
“It was such a great way to celebrate the film,” says Zaledonis. “We invited our Dreamforce attendees to the premiere, and it was really exciting to see people who are passionate about sales come watch the documentary.“
Once the documentary started, Zaledonis’ favorite part of the premiere wasn’t actually watching the final version of the film — she’d already done that enough during post-production. It was watching the audience’s reaction to it.
“I’ve probably seen the documentary 50 times, so to watch other people laugh at the parts I laughed at and be like, ’Oh good, they got that!' Or, conversely to be like, ’Really? They thought that was funny? I didn’t think that was funny at all,'” says Zaledonis. “The little things like that were really fulfilling.”
After Dreamforce, Salesforce made the screening of The Story of Sales available to several businesses and universities and hosted nationwide screening events that their account executives could invite customers to attend. The film was met with even more rave reviews at these screenings, so Salesforce decided to make the film available to anybody who requested it. Zaledonis even showed up to one private screening herself.
“I was in New York for a big conference, and somebody invited me to their sales organization’s showing of the documentary at their office,” says Zaledonis. “The film really resonated with them, which prompted a Q&A session after the film about the future of the sales profession. I ended up staying for a couple of hours.”
The documentary’s impact on the Salesforce brand
The Story of Sales was not only one of the best branded documentaries around but it also became a pillar piece of content for Salesforce. They could now cut up the documentary into additional pieces of content, such as webinars, to complement their brand awareness and lead generation efforts.
“We were able to chop up the documentary into a ton of additional content like blog posts, which opened up the door for a lot of conversations with our install base and our prospects,” says Zaledonis. “We also gated some of that additional content, so we were able to use these really inspirational and educational pieces to open even bigger conversations about their professional lives and the business challenges that they face every day. Gating the content generated a significant amount of leads, pipeline, and revenue, too.”
“We were able to use really inspirational and educational pieces to open even bigger conversations. Gating the content generated a significant amount of leads, pipeline, and revenue, too.”
Despite all the marketing and sales success that The Story of Sales is responsible for, Zaledonis believes the most valuable result it produced was the emotional bond it forged with the sales community.
“I think The Story of Sales raised a certain level of affinity or connection that we’ll never really be able to measure,” says Zaledonis. “That’s the funny thing about affinity. I think that there are people who we might’ve influenced to pursue a sales career or develop a connection with our brand, but we don’t know who they are. That still makes a difference, though. And I’m really proud of it. At the end of the day, creating an asset always serves a business purpose, but it’s nice when those soft benefits come out of it as well.“
As you can see, The Story of Sales had a huge impact on Salesforce’s brand. But its impact on the sales community as a whole is arguably even greater, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, as the documentary’s message is more relevant than ever.
Sales isn’t really about selling — it’s about helping people. And if the business world wants to revive the economy in the wake of a recession, adopting this mentality is the most important thing that the sales community can do. Because everyone will need help after this, and salespeople can play a crucial part in providing it.