SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff plays ‘what’s my metaphor?’


I attended the Salesforce event in New York City today, and I should have just watched the video stream and saved myself the trouble.

As had been hinted at in a recent interview (see SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff backing off social?), CEO Marc Benioff has reoriented the company’s positioning around ‘becoming a customer company’, and he’s dropping the former marketing messaging around social business. Strangely missing was any real recapitulation of the reasoning behind his efforts in the past around social business, including the company’s failed attempt to trademark that term. Also unmentioned is the widely known bad smell coming from the Buddy Media and Radian6 acquisitions. Maybe it soured his appreciation of social, or maybe he decided that too many other companies were using the term and — like marketers generally do — they were watering it down until it ceased to have meaning.

Marc’s story is that he spent some time last summer reading ‘everything’ he could find about where the modern business was heading. And specifically, he found some insight in an IBM report called Leading Through Connections, and this caught his eye:

For some time now, businesses have been refining and optimizing their networks of suppliers and partners. They’re streamlining supply chains, creating massive back-office efficiencies and perfecting everything from just-in-time inventory to predictive merchandising. But something just as meaningful has been happening in the marketplace — the sudden convergence of the digital, social and mobile spheres — connecting customers, employees and partners in new ways to organizations and to each other.

Benioff and company now think of social as a force — principally arising in the ‘consumer’ or personal sphere — so that various user experience motifs are changing how we think about communication. But in the new schematics he offered in his presentation, social is on a par with mobile, touch, and local, not as the end goal of company-wide transformation. The purpose of business is now to become a customer company, by which he means putting the customer at the center of everything, involved as that prime mover in all activities.

I think this is mostly sizzle and not much steak. Yes, companies are beset by a long list of challenges (mostly having to do with coping with a radically changed economy and wildly accelerating and changeable markets), and there are a short list of new disruptive technologies — including mobile, social, etc. — that offer opportunities to counter the challenges and exploit these technologies to move the company forward. But I don’t think customer obsession is the central theme of what we will see companies doing in the near term. I am still betting on innovation around business operations, based on the transition from business process to social networks for communication, collaboration, and  coordination. We’ll have to see — as Salesforce rolls out more information over the course of the year, leading up to DreamForce — whether this vision is more process or network. At this point, it’s not clear.

One aside: I think at one point in a demo I saw a SalesForce-to-SalesForce communication. I am going to track someone down to find out if I was seeing things because that, no matter what metaphor is being waved about, would be very, very interesting.

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