Thoughts from Dreamforce (Salesforce Developer Conference 2008)

Sunday night Dreamforce reception

Image by Mountjoy via Flickr

Last week I was at the Salesforce developer conference, Dreamforce 2008.  Most of the significant news (linked below) to emerge from the Moscone Center was tied to the theme of ‘Cloud Computing‘.  This included announcements related to the availability of Facebook integration, the ability for customers to host their websites on the Salesforce ‘Cloud’ (a service known as Sites), and the continued expansion of the force.com platform into areas far and wide (verticalization).  Companies usually wait for major conferences to make major announcements, and most of the new news created the appropriate level of buzz in the hall, and on the web.  Clearly Salesforce sees their existing SaaS model extending beyond hosted enterprise software, and deeper into other parts of the infrastructure business as well.  In general, Dreamforce was full of optimism at a time, and in a market, that is in need of such excitement.  Some even ventured to call it the ‘Cloud Computing Woodstock‘, perhaps inspired by the presence of Neil Young.  On a more serious note, beyond the major introductions made, there were other important vibes to groove to.  Here are some thoughts.

Salesforce Adds Robust Knowledge Management to Customer Service and Support

This was also, I believe, the first major event for Salesforce after their acquisition of Instranet, the European based knowledge management application company.  Throughout the three day conference, Salesforce Knowledge Management (SKM) – as Instranet has now been relabeled – played an important role in many of the presentations that I attended, and reflects the growing importance of the customer service and support (CS&S) space for Salesforce.  In the last year or so, I’ve noticed an increased presence of Salesforce in the CS&S space.  With SKM Salesforce closes a major hole in their CS&S product offering.  Based on the the demonstrations that I saw of the SKM product, they are now poised to make a major play for CS&S mindshare in the U.S.  Instranet has been a big player on the European scene, with a significant share of the incumbent Telcos and other high volume, low complexity call centers in the Old World.

SKM approaches CS&S knowledge management differently than the traditional KM vendors in CS&S.  It is a much lighter application to deploy than the established players in CS&S knowledge management.  By light, I mean that SKM does not need a lot of administrative tweeking or constant management of ontological or taxonomic layers.  The added flexibility allows for customers to ‘hard code’ processes around SKM, which is critical in many high volume call centers.  By baking in processes, these large call centers effectively reduce training time.  For Salesforce, adding a ‘light’ application to their solution stack makes a whole lot of sense as it plays to the core sales proposition of their entire suite of applications, which is to provide rapid deployment that, in return, begins to pay benefits (ROI) immediately.  Light doesn’t necessarily mean lightweight, as I have heard that SKM is working its way through the Consortium for Service Innovation’s Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) verification process.  When verified, Salesforce will be one of the few KCS verified companies that will have an integrated incident management, knowledge management solution.

Multi-Tenant Integration may lead to  real rewards for Customer Service and Support (and product management)

Recently, Salesforce has enabled seamless Salesforce to Salesforce (StoS) integration which allows two Salesforce hosted instances to be integrated by application administrators, and doesn’t require complex coding.  This multi-tenant integration was demonstrated on the second day in the lead-up to Michael Dell‘s Keynote.  The demo focused on how, through multi-tenant integration, Dell was effectively building an opportunity supply chain through which downstream distributors, and Dell, could coordinate sales activities.  In this instance, the integration allowed for a tighter relationship than traditional partner management systems did.  The demo got me thinking about how this type of integration could be used to enhance customer service and support.

A major challenge that I’ve seen many call centers, and help desks, deal with is managing customer exceptions on products developed by other companies (think wireless telcos reselling handsets, for example).  Many manufacturers today incorporate OEM solutions into their final product.  When these products encounter exceptions, the manufacturer often has to deal with both their own product issues and those of the OEM embedded product.  I’ve visit some call centers where that OEM exception rate can be upwards of 80%!  Basically this means that those call centers are spending more time handling someone eleses exceptions than their own.  This has two major implications.  First, the overhead of dealing with downstream exceptions skews the cost of running the call center.  Second, the downstream OEM manufacturer, usually, never receives a detailed understanding of how – and how many – exceptions are caused by their product.  In one instance that I observed several years ago, the OEM product was not only causing a high level of exceptions, but the final product manufacturer was overlooking a performance guarantee from the OEM because the exception handling wasn’t fully understood.  In an integrated CS&S ‘supply chain’, two critical elements could be easily addressed.

Some of this is totally speculation on my part, but I’m assuming that Salesforce will eventually expose CS&S to CS&S integration.  If so, two way CS&S relationships could be enabled to enhance both the support agent experience and the overall product experience.  First, integrated analytics could be exposed to OEM support agents which would allow them to be more proactive in dealing with upstream support issues.  Second, OEM product management would have a greater insight into product exceptions, and this insight would be faster delivered than traditional modes.  Third, knowledge sharing relationships could be created whereby the combined knowledge-base, through the SKM product, would reflect a broader understanding of both the final product and the OEM product.

Of course, this is all predicated on all the companies involved using Salesforce as their CS&S solution.  For Dell, their sheer size must play a key role in their ability to influence their partners’ choice of SFA applications.

Final Thoughts

I attended Dreamforce on behalf of a non-profit, Silk Screen, that I’m actively involved with.  At Silk Screen we have been very grateful for Salesforce’s Foundation donation of seat licenses.  It makes our management of resources more efficient, and most importantly, lets us apply our funding to the central cause of the organization.  What pleasantly surprised me at Dreamforce was how central the Foundation’s activities are in the corporate culture.  I learned quite a lot from the sessions I attended on the non-profit front as well.

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