Dreamforce16 - Benioff - customers wouldn't miss me, they have each other

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 5, 2016
Salesforce CEO sees the customer community as his biggest asset.
Benioff as Barnum

Why do people come to Dreamforce? It’s a good question. I’ve been to 14 of these events now over the years, beginning with the very first one when 1300 people were able to fit into the ballroom of a downtown San Francisco hotel.

This year, and I’m quoting the official numbers here, there are 170,000 people registered for the conference and the expo, while sessions are spread across all three wings of the vast Moscone conference center and out into the network of hotels across the city. Oh, and if you’re trying to book a late hotel room - forget it!

So, a success it is. No doubt of that. Dreamforce has become the tech industry’s ‘Greatest Show On Earth’, a many-ringed circus with CEO Marc Benioff as the PT Barnum cracking the whip at the center of the whole thing and putting on a performance for his customers.

This week’s keynote address was a good case in point. Yes, there was some tech, yes, there were some product pitches. But then there was the Hawaiian blessing ceremony to kick things off; the sight of Benioff and co-founder Parker Harris goofing around live on stage with a CGI Einstein; and the Dreamforce-ubiquitous Will.I.Am making an impassioned plea for public education.

Then there is the presence of the US military veterans of VetForce and the salute to those in the audience who serve in third sector companies. This year there's also a powerful presence by the Red AIDS campaign, with a fundraising drive to raise $4 million over the week, and a group of Buddhist monks, who amusingly knocked Benioff off balance in the keynote by refusing to raise their hands when he declared that everybody in the room has a cellphone.

So all told, a mix of product sell and showmanship. Benioff himself, striding out on stage with a massive grin on his face, laid out his mission statement:

I’m here to entertain you and motivate you and inspire you.

So is that why people come from all around the globe to Dreamforce? For the show and the spectacle?  Maybe. But maybe,  Will.I.Am put his finger on it when he told the audience:

This community is the most powerful, most inspirational community on Earth today.

In other words, let's not forget the customers amid the dry ice and the special effects.

Misunderstood asset

Certainly away from the music and the lights and the audience, Benioff himself takes a more sober view of why so many people make the trip to San Francisco, stating bluntly:

The huge, misunderstood asset that we have in the company is our community.

He expands on his point, saying:

They’re here to be with each other. They don’t care about me, they care about each other, quite a bit. What’s made this company successful - and we didn’t do it and are somewhat removed from it - is that these people are propping us up. They have come together in some kind of collective. They have come together with us.

And while Dreamforce has become part-rock festival, part-spiritual event and part-business conference, headline acts like this year’s U2 are not the pull that brings the masses in, admits Benioff:

[The delegates] just want to be with each other. If we just left them alone in the Moscone for four days, that would be a success from their perspective. That we have U2 and all that is a nice to have, but it’s not why they’re here. They really don’t care. When we ask them and survey them on how important is the keynote or having entertainment in the keynote or celebrities in the keynote, none of those things rank.

The only thing that ranks is their desire to be together as a community. If you want to understand Salesforce and why we’re going to go to $20 billion, that’s the real and true answer. It’s not our products, it’s not our brand, it’s none of us and actually you could take me out of the equation and it really wouldn’t matter.

This is a rock solid community. I’ve never seen the likes of it in my career. We sort of had the beginnings of it at Oracle with the database administrators and Cisco had it for a time with the Cisco Network Engineers. We’re trying to call them the Trailblazers, but we don’t know actually what to call them. We probably should ask them what they want to be called.

Asking the customers

Talking to the customers and asking their view is something that leads to interesting revelations. This year’s theme on posters and marketing collateral around the conference is about trail-blazing, something which Benioff now views as somewhat patriarchal in tone.

Almost unnoticed, the title of his keynote presentation yesterday morphed to Our Path Together, a change made after the CEO did dry-runs of his keynote content for customers in cities all around the US. Benioff explains:

Over and over again, customers would say to me, ‘You have to understand that we are a deeply-connected community that is deeply invested in your success and the success of that community'. When one of them falls down or there’s a problem or an issue, they all go in and support each other.

It’s incredible to me what happens. The relationships that they have, even though they all work for other companies, is amazing. This is how buying decisions are being made. They’re being made by this collective. That’s what keeps propping us up [as Salesforce] and moving us forward.

This realization is likely to have a significant post-Dreamforce impact on the external messaging from Salesforce.

When I came back from the last tour, I said to our Chief Creative Officer, 'When we take photos of these customers [for posters] it’s them individually and a quote. That is not how they view themselves and it is artificial marketing on our part'.

If we did true marketing, then we’d have two or three customers on each slide and they’d be giving each other a hug or a high-five, because they are on the phone or emailing in the success community. They are deciding what products to buy. They’ll gang up against us if there’s a problem. They will ask for support from us, but they are their own entity. We have a great support team, but when they have a problem, they call each other first. They don’t call us.

As important as our board is and our management team is, these communities are what I’m truly grateful for, that they are there. After Dreamforce, we will shift our marketing dramatically to that.

Innovation fatigue?

Beyond Dreamforce itself, the pre-conference ‘road test road tour’ saw Benioff meeting one-to-one with over 200 customers around the US and provided some valuable insight into what customers are looking for from Salesforce - and what they’re concerned about.

Benioff admits to being shaken-up by the tour conversations:

Through this process we learned a lot about our company, our customers and where they are right now. They are in a very different place to where they were a year ago.

They are very focused on us doubling down on our core, especially Lightning technology. They have heard about Lightning for the past couple of years and are getting ready to implement Lightning. The number one request on the tour was Lightning. They want to make sure that we are absolutely focused on our core and committed to delivering Lightning. The number one message from our customers is that they want us to dedicate ourselves to the core.

But there is one concern that’s not unique to Salesforce. Last year the SAP UK and Ireland User Group fired a shot over the German company’s bows, warning that customers would only head to HANA at their own pace, not at the innovation roadmap pace set out by SAP.

It was a timely warning of what might be called innovation fatigue, whereby users tire of struggling with their current technology reality while being sold the future vision laid out on the PowerPoint slides from their vendor. It’s a similar scenario at Salesforce, says Benioff, who admits:

Customers are worried that innovation may be greater than adoption. That is, we have done a huge amount in the last year in innovation, not just in building in the core, but also our acquisition strategy has been unusually rich this year. This was something that we did not plan. But certain opportunities that emerged during the year, either for offensive reasons or defensive reasons, we had to execute on them.

[Customers] are very excited about some of them, but they’re very worried that, ‘Wow, this company is giving me so much, how am I going to bring it all into my company?’. We are very mindful of that issue.

My take

As I’ve seen over the years that I've known the man, there’s a interesting divide between Benioff as Barnum on show and Benioff the Businessman in quieter contemplation. The Benioff on show, giving the performance for his punters and striding through the audience with a quip and a bon mot up both sleeves, has redefined what a technology conference looks like and set a standard that others seek to - and in the main struggle to - emulate.

Behind the scenes, it’s a more thoughtful and considered Benioff that you encounter. Of course, the bold claims are still there and you're never left doubting his confidence and self-belief. But you become aware that as CEO of a subscription-based company, Benioff is conscious that keeping on top of what the customers want - and don’t want - from Salesforce is the single most important mission-critical responsibility that he has.

Yesterday's allusion to possible innovation fatigue - my term, not Benioff’s - among customers did take me by surprise. I’ve flippantly said in the past that Marc Benioff and Madonna have one thing in common - a need and ability to constantly re-invent and re-imagine. That’s a good thing, particularly when, as Salesforce has, you’re defining a new market sector.

But while the 'razzle dazzle 'em' is all part-and-parcel of the Dreamforce experience, it’s good to remember that customers have jobs to do and that Salesforce’s job - and that of all tech vendors - is to help them to do that better. The behind-the-scenes Benioff of this week is a man conspicuously aware of that and that can only be a good thing.