The remark came in early 2014, six months after Benioff hired Block away from Oracle — where Benioff himself got started — and made him COO. At the time, Benioff said he'd been trying to hire Block for 10 years.
Benioff is not prone to understatement, but his respect for Block has been borne out.
Since Block started, Salesforce's revenue has approximately tripled, from $4.1 billion in the fiscal year ended in January 2014 to an expected $12.5 billion for the year ending in January 2019. Its share price has jumped more than 160 percent during his tenure, giving Salesforce a market value of over $75 billion.
That makes Salesforce the rare counterexample to the dominance of the "Big Five" — Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook — which have added a total of over $1 trillion in value this year.
In particular, Salesforce has managed to stay one step ahead of Microsoft, a competitor in the space where Salesforce made its name: Customer relationship management software.
While CRM is what sales organizations use to keep track of customer interactions, Salesforce has expanded into adjacent markets like marketing, and has deftly signed partnership agreements with enterprise giants that include IBM, Amazon and even Alphabet's Google.
As Block explained to CNBC during the company's massive Dreamforce conference last week, the way to compete with giants is not to worry about the competition.
"We are laser-focused on the customer. We're not worried about ERP, we're not worried about consumer electronics, we're not worried about servers, storage," he said.
"Some of those five that you're referring to, that's their world — that's not our world. And I think that world largely represents the past, and our world is about the future — It's about customer engagement and growth," Block added.
Salesforce does have a partner agreement with Microsoft to make it easier for customers to integrate its products with Microsoft's Office 365, among other things. The two companies cozied up to each other after Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, and Nadella was a major presence on stage at Dreamforce in 2015.
But the relationship has again soured. The two companies were in sharp competition to acquire LinkedIn last year, and the gloves came off after Microsoft won. Benioff has gone back to taking potshots in public.
Block stays out of that fight, letting his voluble boss do the honors. He prefers to focus on the business.
"If you go back to the origins of that relationship with Microsoft, that was in response to what's best for our customers," he said.
Here's a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: Can you give me an overview on how things have changed in the four and a half years since you've been there? What's improved?
Keith Block: If you go back to the roots of the company, [when] I started with the company -- it was about 4 billion in revenue at that particular point in time. We just gave our forward guid[ance] of 12 and a half billion, which means that the company will triple in five years, in terms of revenue, going from 4 to 12 and a half billion.
So we're all very, very excited about that. But the roots of the company were single cloud sales force automation. Largely selling into the SMB [small and mid-sized business] space. And since then, the company's gone through a transformation where we've moved very, very aggressively, both globally, in terms of our international expansion, as well as moving into the enterprise. And if you look at our business mix, you can see that the enterprise business has been on fire.
CNBC: Did you have to build up vertical expertise in the sales team?
Block: Yes, so all the go-to-market organizations today are very deliberately moving towards more vertical market selling and services expertise. We released vertical products for the first time last year. Financial Services Cloud, which was focused on the wealth management business, and Health Cloud, which is the relationship between the patient and the provider. A couple weeks ago we announced the retail bank solution. So we have deep industry expertise, deep industry knowledge. Our customer-facing teams are focused by industry. We've released products specific to those two industries.
CNBC: As you guys were trying to move up market and go into the enterprise, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Block: In certain cases, there's a market awareness challenge, historically, because some companies thought we were just in sales force automation and clearly we're not; we are a customer success platform. And there's a cultural change, even inside the company, to think differently about the life cycle, the relationship, the strategic nature of going after those customers. The international expansion is very important because if you are going into the enterprise, these are global companies. So you need to be able to service them all over the world.
CNBC: As an outsider, it's sometimes a little hard to get a read on Saleforce because you typically don't have a huge product release every few years. How do you guys think about that kind of rolling product development and how do you work with company IT departments to get them comfortable with that?
Block: The days of, "We are gonna work years, and then there's going to be a big release," is -- it's over. That is the thinking of the past. You know, big upgrades, big bang, wait years for innovation. It's done. I lived in that world for a very long time. Part of the challenge with that it, if you wait three years for anything, the technology changes -- certainly nowadays, because we've seen this accelerated technology -- but your business changed.
So the whole market can change underneath you, while you're trying to figure out what to do for three years. So I think increasingly, customers are embracing the notion of agile, very quick. You know, you hear the expression of "scrum teams," that's very, very new to engineering.
CNBC: Do you need more of a high-touch, constant-touch sales and communication process because of that? Again, from the outside, I'm unsure whether to treat Salesforce as more of a software company or more of a services company or consulting company. You're kind of neither; you're kind of both. How do you look at that?
Block: We're a transformational company. We're a solutions company. And, you know, specific to the enterprise, we have offerings that we provide called ITCs -- "innovation technology centers" -- where we'll put a cadre of people who are on site and they're driving adoption. And even if you don't use an ITC, that's part of our regular success services. So when you buy something from us, no matter what, you automatically are connected with a journey and somebody who's going to support you and shepherd you through this transformation.
CNBC: Do you find other companies in the enterprise space mimicking that approach more so than they were four years ago?
Block: I think that if you're a legacy technology company that has been doing business for a very, very long time, it's no different than any other company in any other industry that is facing market dynamics around, "you must transform," because your market is being disrupted. And I think those legacy technology companies — it's like turning an aircraft carrier in pre-stormy seas. It's hard.
CNBC: The big talk in tech these days is how five companies really dominate —The New York Times, for example, talks about the "Frightful Five." And in the enterprise space, the most talked about frightful five is Microsoft. The perception is, if you're not one of those five, you have no chance. Salesforce has conclusively disproved that. How much do you concern yourself with the really huge players at the top? And as you move up into the enterprise, who do you run into and what kind of tactics are you running into where they try to block your progress?
Block: It's very interesting the way that's been positioned. Here's what I would tell you: Number one, all we care about is our customer success; everything that we do is about the customer. We are laser-focused on the customer. We're not worried about ERP, we're not worried about consumer electronics, we're not worried about servers, storage. Some of those five that you're referring to, that's their world -- that's not our world. And I think that world largely represents the past, and our world is about the future -- It's about customer engagement and growth. That's our vision, that's our mission. It's aligned with the CEOs in the world. If you look at the market statistics, we're the number one in CRM. We're the number one in sales, we're the number one in service, we're the number one in marketing. The beat goes on. So we're playing our game, we're laser-focused, 20,000 employees -- that's all we do.