Attendees to San Francisco-based Inc.’s World Tour conference in Toronto earlier this month heard from Parker Harris, the company’s co-founder, as well as several financial and non-financial Salesforce customers about their efforts to transform their respective businesses through the deployment of technology. Although any vendor conference is apt to overstate the challenges and simplify the solutions, I believe we are at an inflection point in the business landscape.

Specifically, these speakers described the blurring of the physical and digital worlds and touted this fourth industrial revolution as the “Age of the Customer,” in which the most profound change is no longer happening in technology itself, but to the customer. Disruption and innovation are affecting every industry, but the great equalizers — technology, mobility and the Internet — have disrupted every industry and made customers smarter, faster, and more in control than ever before. The head of one large Canadian pension fund forewarned that it must change the way it deals with its members and pensioners, conceding that tomorrow’s customer will refuse to deal with the pension fund in the same way that today’s customer has had to.

As technology has become more complex and legacy systems more congested, most enterprises anxious to improve their customer service have discovered the quickest, most efficient and inexpensive way to do so is by accessing technology through cloud services. Eventually, every technology we can dream of will be enabled through the cloud.

Although this may sound simplistic, the financial services institution intent on improving its customer service model has only to look to the cloud. So, for financial advisors anxious to up their game and embrace the “Age of the Customer,” be mindful that as organizations strive to help you serve your customers with a variety of solutions and new tools, they may be challenged by your company’s own technology and legacy systems, information technology (IT) resource availability or other perceived constraints to implementing new technology. The following lexicon will help you understand the technologies available and designed to overcome the challenges faced by your IT, operations and compliance teams:

> Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), or a cloud application service, leverages the Internet to deliver applications that a third-party vendor manages and whose interface is accessed on the clients’ side, typically through web services. SaaS represents the largest and fastest growing cloud market of all and, according to International Data Corp., 27.8% of the worldwide enterprise applications market will be SaaS-based by 2018. Most SaaS applications run directly from a web browser without any downloads or installations required on users’ individual computers and, because of the web delivery model, it’s easy for companies to streamline their maintenance and support as vendors can manage everything behind the scenes, including applications, data, servers, storage and networking. Salesforce was an early pioneer in this space 17 years ago with its customer relationship management (CRM) SaaS offering.

> Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), or cloud platform services, are used by developers (your company’s own developers or those of a third party) for building applications. The benefit to developers using a PaaS is that it provides them a framework they can build upon to develop or customize applications, making the development, testing and deployment of applications quick, simple and cost effective. With this technology, the operations team within your company or a third-party provider can manage the servers, storage, networking, and the PaaS software itself while developers continue to manage the applications. For developers in the financial services sector, it means they can build and roll out advisor tools and applications very quickly. Salesforce and other vendors, such as Google Inc., have created a PaaS for developers, such as Force and App Engine, respectively.

> Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), or cloud infrastructure services, are self-service models for accessing, monitoring and managing remote datacenter infrastructures, storage and networking services such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and firewalls. Instead of having to purchase hardware outright, users can purchase IaaS based on consumption, similar to your mobile device or electricity billing. Hosting is a common IaaS and vendors such as Microsoft Corp. with its Azure service and Inc. with its Amazon Web Services, offer a variety of web services that allow companies to scale quickly. Any in-house IT department’s concerns around storage space, resource availability or bandwidth constraints to support customer-facing applications are alleviated.

At the end of the day, we should brace ourselves for the day of Everything-as-a-Service (EaaS) as virtually everything will be offered as a service online eventually. So, let’s acknowledge that financial services firms can best deliver on the promise of the “Age of the Customer” by leveraging cloud services — from vendors and IT departments alike.