Dreamforce 2012: Dream a Little Dream of (with) Me: Part 1

Dreamforce 2012, a.k.a. Dreamforce X, the annual nodal point and Hollywood(like) bash run by salesforce.com was bigger and better this year than ever. Thing is, that isn't just a comment on its coolness - though it was that, without any doubt at all. Without a single super-dramatic announcement, this may have been the most dramatic and most important Dreamforce ever.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Watch this video. Its called "Manyla and Sam kickin' it at #DF12" (thank you Jack C. Crawford for taking it and posting it on YouTube.

Know why I’m asking you to do take a look, other than I think it’s really cool and spontaneous? It is because it is a direct reflection, a metaphor and a mirror of the facets that make salesforce.com, a company that is unique in the software world.  You could argue there are plenty of cool companies out there, but salesforce’s coolness is both a reflection of the personality of its CEO and a well-considered calculation. That calculation addresses the fact that the requirements for 21st century business culture are not the same as the 20th century’s requirements.  Apparently, they have been the ones, so far, that have figured that out.

Before I get into the reasons for that, I need to qualify this blog post.  I’m going to focus on the right brained side here. If you’re looking for a technology dissertation on salesforce, look elsewhere (see the end of Part 2 for some good posts from other influencers on that). My interest is to dissect why and how salesforce’s vision is their true value proposition and it drives the choices they make for their technology ecosystem and their relationships with their customers and employees. It is also a calculated but somewhat risky approach that they have pulled off because of their knowledge of human behavior as much as or more than their knowledge of business’ technical requirements.  Forgive me if you find this either pretentious or just too much to bear.   I need to do this, because salesforce.com has become the “company to beat.” I think that is acknowledged throughout the industry and beyond.  But there is a price that comes with that and some risks that are a bit dangerous and even a hole or two in the narrative that is required to make the vision complete. 

I won’t ignore the products but they will be set in the context of their vision and the salesforce.com view of the future.

Starting with Pontification (Mine)

There are two tenets that that I’d like to present to you to begin this – both of them truly obvious.

Tenet #1: Companies are made up of human beings

Companies are entities. They are entities that are formed by human beings for a specific purpose – the furtherance of commerce.  In fact, take a look at the Wikipedia definition and the origin of the term “company”(hyperlinks and footnotes are Wikipedia’s):

“A company is a business organization. It is an association or collection of individual real persons and/or other companies, who each provide some form of capital. This group has a common purpose or focus and an aim of gaining profits. This collection, group or association of persons can be made to exist in law and then a company is itself considered a "legal person". The name company arose because, at least originally, it represented or was owned by more than one real or legal person.

A company can be defined as an "artificial person", invisible, intangible, created by or under Law, with a discrete legal entityperpetual succession and a common seal. It is not affected by the death, insanity or insolvency of an individual member.

The English word has its origins in the Old French military term compaignie (first recorded in 1150), meaning a "body of soldiers",[4] originally taken from the Late Latin word companio "companion, one who eats bread with you", first attested in the Lex Salica as a calque of the Germanic expression *gahlaibo (literally, "with bread"), related to Old High German galeipo "companion" and Gothic gahlaiba "messmate".”

Or a legal definition from 1856 of a company:

An association of a number of individuals for the purpose of carrying on some legitimate business.

Look at the terms: “collection of individual real persons”; “collection, group, or association of persons”; “company is considered a legal person”; “artificial person”; origin is body of soldiers; companion; one who eats bread with you; messmate. 

What I hope is clear from this and any other definition of company is that it is made up of individual human beings who come together for some common purpose.

Tenet #2: Human beings are driven by emotions more than numbers

As individual human beings, we have singular lives and we take singular actions based on how we as individuals think and feel and on the metaphors that we use to accommodate our thought process and those actions.

But the one thing that unites us all (more or less) is that we all are ultimately looking for the same outcome in our life: to be happy with it.

Because we are complicated and complex discrete creatures, there are a myriad of things that satisfy each of our criteria for what makes us happy. It could be a successful career; it could be a well provided for family; maybe nights at a blues club with friends; or getting new technology toys; doing charitable work; great relationship with friends; or even Yankees World Series victories year after year. (Kidding. No. Really. I am kidding. Sort of.). The options are endless and rarely just one of them satisfies our happiness.

When it comes to the customer/company relationship, that feeling of happiness (along lines of woot! woot!) is furthered by four things (at least for the purposes of this post):

  1. The company has to provide the customer with the things they need to feel that sense of happiness or at least satisfaction (in the sense of the tryptophan driven feeling you get after a hearty meal that you thought was excellent - a comfortable “not bad”). Those “things” are products, services, tools and consumable experiences. Because, as people, we are self-interested, each of us as customers requires different combinations of things to be happy with the company.
  2. The company has to meet its own objectives, which are markedly different than the customers.  The business is not a charity (unless it is) and it has a different idea of value than the customer does. The company values profitability, revenue increases, market visibility; the meeting of KPIs of varying kinds, etc.  The customer values feeling valued. A good company customer relationship is one that ends up with the differences translated into mutual benefit – filling that left brained/right brained gap with a holistic set of strategies and programs that work for both “parties” (of the first part).
  3. The scale and complexities of the interrelationships among the customer base are another factor. The company could have millions of customers – at least if it’s a B2C company. Which means that you are on the hook for trying to meet the expectations of millions of individuals.
  4. Additionally, the culture of the company has to be able to sustain support for the programs that are needed to make those customers happy.  Given the constant changes in management/leadership at companies, and how key individuals shape that culture, that sustainability isn’t a given.  Think of it this way. What would salesforce.com be like if Marc Benioff called it quits?  You have no idea do you?  Nor do I.  Which is, of course, good and bad. The key is to institutionalize the practices that can supersede any individual’s tenure at a company and reflect the best interactions possible with their customers. Doing that creates the conditions for a “company like me,” which means buy-in from customers because that buy-in makes them generally happy to be involved.

So providing what the customer needs for a “happy experience” isn’t all that simple. Nor is it that easy to maintain and grow it once you have it in place.

There is an added factor when looking at salesforce specifically. The culture of salesforce is both customer-centric and sales-driven, which can conflict badly if not properly handled. I had a retail client for many years, that claimed to be customer-centric, but was in fact sales obsessed with high volume sales being at the core of its being. It manifested itself with a message of individualized boutique experience in stores that depended getting as many customers in and out of them as humanly possible in a day. Think about a company that would freak over weekly sales numbers. Uh oh. That created a situation where customer centric programs, messaging and services were unsustainable, because the need to get bodies into stores destroyed any possible one-on-one boutique-like customer experience.  Sales associates were compensated on order taking, not serving customers.

So, how does salesforce handle this apparent contradiction? 

On the sales side, start with the fact that Marc Benioff sees the company's future growth dependent on how many sales people he's able to hire. Which is true in part. There are only so many companies who will buy in to salesforce's vision - and typically, they use one or two of the products - especially SalesCloud or ServiceCloud, at least at the start. But buy in they do and they take the opportunity to do something with that buy in ranging from the practical value they get using the tools and services they bought to the marketing value of being a "social business" (a strategic position to take) or at least a "socially-enabled business" (a technology message).  Salesforce’s opportunity is to continue to expand their presence in these companies so that they become part of their customers’ very fabric.

This isn’t unlike what IBM used to do (and still may, though I don’t know that). They had a unit of account managers whose only job was to up- and cross-sell into accounts that they already had and expand their presence in the IT department. Because the 21st century is different, salesforce takes it to another level, even beyond the 21st century version of account managers - success managers. While IBM looked to expand their IT footprint inside of companies they were involved with, salesforce is trying to burrow directly into the DNA of the companies they are involved with and that includes not just the sales of more services, “not software” and other capabilities, but a framework built around the salesforce “social” vision.

The key to the resolving the tension between being sales-driven and a customer-centric culture in the case of salesforce.com is how they present their vision.  They rely on it more so than any other company I’ve ever seen in the information technology world.  How does that work?

The Vision and the Visionary

Marc Benioff's keynotes at salesforce conferences are unlike any other in the entire industry - with perhaps the exception of a John Chamber's keynote – at least in the past. He is focused on the salesforce vision and he presents it in the form of stories, of narratives, told by him, his customers, and some of his staff. But what he does, as a masterful speaker is make the vision something that anyone in the audience (obviously predisposed to salesforce already or they wouldn't be there) can actually picture themselves a part of. 

He does something that for many years has been the benchmark for me of all leadership - which is to successfully present your (the leaders/speaker/visionary/company rep) ideas in "their" (the audience live or imagined) metaphor. Here's what I mean (more pontificating):

Every human being on this planet is unique. They have different hopes, dreams, stresses, fears, ideas, and ideals. They will respond differently than someone else to a similar set of circumstances. Different things and combinations of things move them. Thus, each of us, as humans, thinks differently - and with metaphors that are suited to us as unique creatures.  The problem is how does a leader get across ideas that are likely to be interpreted differently by every single person who is hearing them or seeing them? The solution is to create what I call a "commonwealth of self-interest" - a set of ideas that resonate more generally based on the individual interests of the audience (not a general demographic swath) with the knowledge that there will simply always be people who don't "get" it.  And they are acceptable casualties.

However, this is easier said than done. It takes something that can personalize the imagination and provide some of the practical experience associated with the ideas so that more individuals than one (so to speak) can not only understand what that leader is saying but see how they could be involved in that idea, too.

That is how you make your vision real to someone who is listening to you.  

This storytelling, because that’s what it is, is perhaps the most important talent/skill that a visionary can have. In fact, Optify recently released a study on B2B marketing content trends that found that 81.5% of the respondents said that the most important part of B2B marketing is “engaging and compelling storytelling.”  Amen.

But vision isn’t an abstraction either. A business vision is a reflection of where you want your company to be and implies the direction that the company needs to take to get there. It is a story, a well crafted one, which when presented at its fullest is both inspirational but also seen as achievable.  Its not a fantasy, nor is it a peyote-induced hallucination. It’s a statement of the future to be realized.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, one of the world’s greatest and most disruptive companies, in Fast Company, said that Amazon’s success was largely crafted on being “stubborn on the vision and flexible on the details.”

That is precisely how salesforce.com thinks.

There is no question that they have been stubborn on the vision (as I have often said) for well over a decade. Stop me if you heard this already, but back in 2004, when the 3rd Edition of CRM at the Speed of Light came out, there was a paragraph (or two) in it that said:

“Tien Tzuo, chief marketing officer at salesforce.com, has a colorful way of putting it, ‘The network is the computer. That’s something that you’ve heard of for a long time. Software is something that needs to sit inside the network, not on individual desktops. We envision a scenario where everyone goes to work, fires up browsers, looks at Yahoo, does their personal stuff, fires up their applications, and its all inside the network.  We want to provide that service.

You’ve probably heard this one before…. but its like the movie The Matrix. The whole world works within the public network, available to you anytime anywhere for anything.’”

This is the precursor to Force.com and to the current social business framework that they are establishing. Critically, they haven’t wavered one iota on being the platform upon which businesses run all their applications.  Not for a second. The details have changed – Yahoo isn’t exactly in the equation anymore, the social business is now the foundation for that vision, not Larry Ellison’s “network is the computer,” but the vision is no different.  Salesforce says they provide you with the products, services, tools, frameworks, and platforms you need to run a business in the 21st century – or at least that’s what they’d like to do. They are utterly consistent.

In order for their vision to be ascertained as achievable, they have to do two things. First, get people to buy into it –meaning the people who work at their prospects and existing customers. Second, deliver on those products, frameworks, services, tools, platforms etc.  If those two things are taken care of, then the sales people can sell successfully. The bulk of salesforce.com’s sales people aren’t visionaries, but

  1. They don’t have to be. Their job is to sell the products and services. Marc’s job is to sell the vision.  He does it on a grand scale.
  2. They’ve already bought into the vision as most of salesforce’s employees (3500 in San Francisco alone) have done. I said Marc does it on a grand scale. That includes his own current and future employees. I spoke to a former Oracle management person who I know well and love to pieces at Dreamforce X and he was in awe of the difference between Oracle’s Open World (which I will be reporting on soon) and Dreamforce: “they are in the same venue but the energy, the passion and the vision are just so incredibly different. Its so exciting here.” 

Marc’s keynotes are crafted (and I do mean crafted in the most calculated way) to produce that energy and passion and to present an exciting attainable dream – one that is led by salesforce and stands in its fullest glory on the salesforce platform.  I don’t say this mockingly. There were 90,000 people (according to salesforce’s version of registered attendees) who believed in this.  What Marc did (and does) rather brilliantly is paint a big brush stroke picture of “the future as the present” – and then expect his company to catch up with the offerings that he said on the stage are here and now. But the buy-in he expects is not into the products or services, but salesforce as DNA down to the chromosomes.  He brought up senior management from customer after customer, Facebook’s CIO Tim Campos to Burberry’s CEO Angela Ahrendt to Activision’s CIO Richard Schmid to General Electric’s CIO Charlene Begley (and of course in a separate session with Colin Powell, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt) each of which was using the salesforce social business platform in a very different way. Each customer was associated with specific product announcements (more on this and what the announcements mean to salesforce a bit later) of one form or another. Each customer had a video and then each of the senior management folks got to talk about social business with Marc and establish themselves as contemporary thinkers in the business world who “get” the social customer.

But there was much more to this than that.  Again, the buy-in is to salesforce, not its products. So Marc has to make sure that the company is presented and presents itself during the conference in a way that makes it all seem so much bigger than a company selling different products. Not only are they selling products, but they are selling that achievable dream – a successful “revolution” that may not be generally led by salesforce, but when it comes to business – and technology associated with that business- they are the ones in which you will place your trust, if Marc does what he feels is his job.

Dreamforce is the where the interstices in that vision are filled.

The Conference and the Culture….

A little over a month ago, Eloqua did this survey of some industry thought leaders who they asked, “why do you go to Dreamforce?”   My response was multi-faceted – about 4 different reasons that I thought were important enough to make me want to attend year over year.  But only one of those got a ton of tweets and retweets. That was “it’s the closest to Hollywood that I’m going to get in the high tech industry.”

To get that feeling across – and, make no mistake about it, it is a feeling, not a balance sheet nor a look at revenue numbers – Benioff understands the principles that I outlined above: 

  1. You have to get across your idea in their metaphor.
  2. You have to create a commonwealth of self-interest.

That means he needs to find some universal touch points that will reach into the souls and hit the hearts of his audience. There are two that were in massive evidence at the conference.   That would be entertainment and philanthropy.

Let’s break here for a minute and think about this.  Because I need to be crystal clear on something here. Neither of these is being done cynically as manipulable emotional triggers. They are in both cases, sincere expressions of a genuine self-interest on Benioff’s part. He may have his self-aggrandizing moments, but he is a man with a very big and charitable heart, which I admire him for.  He also loves the entertainment world, and is almost like a kid getting to hang out with big name movie, TV and music celebrities. He takes his genuine passions for both his giving nature and for Hollywood, recognizes that they do touch millions of people and crafts a way of inculcating them into the cultural story around salesforce, so that when you think about the company, you think, Or “I’d LOVE to work for them” Or “Ain’t they cool.” Or “I want to be part of this.”

Everything about the conference from the keynotes on was crafted with the new version of their ecosystem and high-energy entertainment value in mind.  Not just at the Moscone Center but all around the area.  They had a Woodstock like atmosphere with large screens set up on artificial turf with benches, tables and chairs everywhere to sit around outside and still see the keynote. There were people on street corners within about a mile radius of the Moscone Center, wearing salesforce uniforms that were there to provide helpful instructions on how to get somewhere if you had to ask them. I heard, though this is unconfirmed, that salesforce hired primarily homeless people to be these street corner directors which underscores (if true) how deeply into their DNA, the philanthropy goes, and should serve as a model for all the vendors who hold conferences anywhere.  Kudos to them big time if this is true. To get a great visual of Dreamforce X, see Zoli Erdo’s “A Pictorial Tale of Two Conferences (and more) on the Enterprise Irregulars site.

Inside the conference hall, you had a largely very attractive group of young women and men who were greeters as you entered (see Manyla and Sam as examples. Now you know why I put that video at the top of this post). High-energy music was constant and omnipresent though it was never overwhelmingly loud; just loud enough to energize the crowds who were walking through to various sessions or the exhibition hall.

Glamor, Glitter, Good Works  

Hollywood was always lurking – from the music in the atmosphere to having MC Hammer come out and do his more famous numbers – e.g. Too Legit to Quit – and even the guy from Men’s Warehouse (a salesforce customer) – George Zimmerman who, at Marc’s urging said, “You’ll like using salesforce. I guarantee it” a variation on his commercials which are so ubiquitous that it got a delighted laugh of recognition from the crowd – all part of the narrative’s entertainment.

It didn’t stop with that. Witness a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert and a University of San Francisco Children’s Hospital benefit that starred cross-over country megastars Lady Antebellum. This one covered both philanthropy and entertainment – philanthropy in the style of Hollywood.  Glamor, glitter, good works.   

The philanthropy was more in evidence. There was the standard public speechifyin’ on the salesforce Foundation which has been a salesforce.com hallmark since its early days. It’s a wonderfully conceived model that’s founded on a 1/1/1 principle. That’s 1% product (free licenses to charities etc), 1% equity (dollars donated via grants etc) and 1% time (hours spent supporting the community).  They actively promote the model and many other companies have adopted it.  Employees give of their time and the company gives product and money to worthy organizations.  Benioff has personally given the USF Children’s Hospital $100 million. 

But they didn’t just talk about it. There were volunteer zones out on the faux-grass center of the Moscone Center that were set up so that attendees could volunteer time to support varying projects with time – usually to do the labor to put together kits ranging from earthquake preparedness to nite nite kits for homeless kids.   As I said earlier, there was a rumor that seemed to have some foundation though I couldn’t verify it, that the salesforce street greeters were homeless hired to help direct people to where they needed to be.

The Partner Pavilion

While still not approaching the scope of Oracle’s partner network, the salesforce partner pavilion was several magnitudes larger than it had been the year before.  This was interesting because, without going into detail here, I think salesforce still has a lot to learn when it comes to cooperative partner/channel programs – meaning the partners need to be treated more like members of an ecosystem, than future competitors (see brief discussion Part II on Chatterbox for a bit more detail). That said, salesforce has done one thing VERY right which is making its APIs easily available and open so that the technology companies who buy into salesforce and its platform have a pretty easy path to building the connectors and integrations needed to function within the salesforce channel.   They are the smartest at this, though Microsoft has a better partner program as a whole, thus becoming the integration of first choice and first effort for many smaller new players on the social or CRM scene. 

While same as last year, the traffic lanes for the Pavilion were too small and, thus elbow-to-elbow crowded, the electricity among the attendees and the excitement of the partners was evident.  I had the opportunity to see a couple of things that I’m going to be keeping an eye on though not in this post which was the Infor Inforce Marketing application – a very good marketing automation application integrated explicitly with salesforce.com’s Force.com platform; Thunderhead, whose specialty is specifically vertical customer experience solutions, and a personal favorite CRM Idol 2012 contestant, Demandbase, who are a smart mature company that is focused on the B2B space and in providing real time and near real time insights from a high volume of data.  (Here is their CRM Idol 2012 review).  

Even with the glitches, the partner pavilion provided a further piece of the holistic puzzle that salesforce was trying to finish via Dreamforce X (2012) as the place to expand on and support their vision to the world.

Analyst/Influencer Relations

Another facet, as I’ve often written about, is the need (he says self-aggrandizingly) to influence those who influence others – that would be analysts and influencers. Indicative of salesforce’s magnetism was their ability to draw the usually conference-reticent Gartner analysts in bulk. There had to be about a half dozen or more, maybe as many as 10 of them at Dreamforce, where other conferences, if one or two show up, that’s almost a miracle.  

If you really want to know why having influencers at these events is important, you can read Chapter 1 of my “Guide to Influence(rs)” which you can get here. No reason to reiterate it.   But what I want to say is thank you to the salesforce analyst/influencer relations team who are truly both professional in their approach to all this and good human beings. That would be John Taschek, SVP of Market Strategy who runs the team and his sidekick Steve Gillmor, VP of of Technical Media Strategy and the incredibly able team of Carolina Grimm, Stacey Ramskov, Brielle Nikaido, Sheridan Gaenger, Arti Narayanan, and Anne Chen. Each of them brings particular value to the program and also has that “good works” good nature that seems to be part of the salesforce DNA.  For example, Sheridan G, takes in barely born kittens (weeks old) from the ASPCA, two at a time and takes care of them until they are old enough to be adopted. A foster “parent” program for these tiny little creatures. I’ve seen many a picture and they make my day (I’m a notorious cat lover) and so does she for her good heart.  Each and all of them have something like that.  So I appreciate that about their program. It’s not only professional, it’s human and not afraid to show it. 

That’s it for Part I. In part II, we’ll look at:

  1. The product ecosystem, and discuss a few of the announced but not necessarily released products from Dreamforce
  2. A hole in their messaging around the ecosystem that has to be filled
  3. The outlook for salesforce in the coming months.
  4. Other posts and articles that are of interest and value. 

Til then, compadres. 

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