Dreamforce16 - Brexit, trailblazing and co-opetition - catching up with Keith Block

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 6, 2016
Salesforce's COO weighs in on Dreamforce, Brexit, field service and CEO trailblazers

Keith Block

What makes us different is that in our product portfolio, everything rotates around the customer.

That’s the response from Salesforce Chief Operating Officer Keith Block when asked about the ever-expanding nature of his firm’s cloud offerings, this week fleshed out further with office productivity and AI solutions.

It’s a far cry from the early days of the company when the line-up had a certain purity. Block says:

It was all about  single cloud of sales force automation 17 years ago when the company started. Then we added service cloud and so on, all the way through to Einstein. But as I’ve said before, the wall between the likes of sales and service and marketing have come down. Everyone sells ,everyone does analytics and so on.

We’re not like certain other legacy providers - you know who I mean -  who are in the storage business or the legacy business or whatever, who have an enormous portfolio of products, but there’s no theme to it. With Salesforce, it all rotates around the customer.

It’s a theme that resonates at the highest levels, he adds. Dreamforce plays host to senior executives at the their own dedicated summit and Block’s been spending time with such people this week:

I’ve just been in a roundtable session with ten CEOs and it felt like the World Economic Forum. It’s a different level of engagement. We get into a lot of conversations around this idae of the Age of Customer. At this roundtable we had the CEO of a healthcare firm, a financial services firm, a big consulting firm and so on and we were talking about the implications of that idea.

Those sorts of conversations at that level of the organisational heirarchy inevitably center on ideas of disruption and transformation and the pursuit of innovation. CEO Marc Benioff has raised the idea of some customers being wary of innovation overtaking adoption, so I wondered how Block saw striking the balance between the ‘vision thing’ and the current reality:

We are a company that puts a premium on innovation. We innovate organically or inorganically. When we sit down in front of customers we talk about transformation. It is important for our customers to move on and do something. Everyone one talks about Uber and disruption and you can see that they are now not just about taxis and limos, but logistics. There are enough proof points around innovation and disruption.

On the other hand, we don’t want to be so far ahead in terms of innovation that customers can’t see or derive the value. You do need to strike a balance, but you never want to halt the pace of transformation.

Making this work is made easier with the support of the most senior executives, he adds:

We talk about trailblazers. Who will be the trailblazers in your organization? Who will be the champion for the cause? The most successful engagement comes when the CEO takes on the mantra of being the Chief Transformation Officer.

Benioff has expressed some concern this week about some of the trailblazing messaging of this year’s Dreamforce perhaps not being entirely atuned to his perception of the community nature of the customer base. Block suggests:

A trailblazer is someone leading from the front, someone who can lead and organisation or can lead a community. We use the word collective. It does take a team, but a trailblazer can be someone who inspires in different ways.


On the subject of inspiration, the themes of equality and diversity have run through Dreamforce this week, with emphasis on gender, racial and sexual equality. I’ve commented in the past that this is an admirable stance on Salesforce’s part, but one that surely runs the risk of alienating tranches of the customer base who, for example, don’t believe in gay marriage or transgendered individuals using the ‘wrong’ bathroom.

Block however insists that there has been no pushback at all, quite the contrary:

The positions that we took in Indiana and Georgia and North Carolina [on LGBTQ discrimination] strengthened our community. I didn’t think this, but you can see how it would be natural to some people to say there’s a concern about taking such a stand. But what attracts world class talent is trust and equality. That’s important both to our own people and to our customers.

Just this morning I opened up a session on equality and diversity where we talked about the importance of this within the boardroom. It just makes us a better place if we can make an impact on this.

Since I last met up with Block, the UK has voted to Brexit the European Union, something which adversely affected the exchange rate between the pound and the US dollar and gave Salesforce some headwinds to deal with. Given the one of Block’s flagship strategies when he joined Salesforce was to expand the international footprint, I wondered how this was affected by the Brexit decision? 

Not a lot so far, is the answer, with no slowing down of pipeline to date:

EMEA is our fastest growing region and we’ve put all sorts of resources there, including data centers of course. We keep growing in EMEA. It’s a great proof point. We do revisit our strategy regularly. We have a rigorous process to constantly prioritise what we are going to do. We plan our business the best we can. We have a very strong team in the UK and we spend a lot of time talking to customers.  So we do try to mitigage risk, but we have a very healthy pipeline.

As someone on the sales frontline, Block identifies field service management as being an area of particular interest in Europe at present. That raised the opportunity to ask about Salesforce’s expanding footprint into market sectors that were previously left to third party ecosystem partners, field service being a prime example.

Block says that such functional expansion is customer-led:

When we go into a space or make an acquisition, we listen to our customers. It is them who inspire us. We bought SteelBrick because our customers said, ‘We think you should do CPQ’. There are always customers who want to have a one stop shop. We don’t just enter a market to compete.

Block adds that Salesforce tries to have a level of transparency with partners in the ecosystem that may result in co-opetition, but not conflict:

We want to have an ecosystem where there’s room for everyone. If we look at our vertical industries focus, we have created clouds in Financial Services and in Healthcare, the two biggest sectors for us. We couldn’t also do telcos, so we created a relationship with Vlocity. Similarly we have a relationship with Accenture where not only do they run on us, they are now an ISV in the consumer packaged goods sector. That’s a wonderful opportunity for us both.

My take

I always enjoy catching up with Block who's refreshingly direct and down-to-earth in his responses. As I've said before, he and Benioff make a very good balanced double act that serves Salesforce well.