Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Customer Portal: Zendesk Looks Promising

The latest candidate in my customer portal software search is Zendesk, and I must say, I like what I'm seeing. Essentially, Zendesk is a pretty straightforward customer support ticketing system with support for web, email, phone, chat, Twitter, and Facebook. It has self-service help, community help, forum, ideas, and knowledgebase functionality. It's cloud-based. It already has some pre-built integrations with Salesforce.com. But here's the best part -- instead of charging you for the number of customers that you have accessing your portal, Zendesk just charges you by the customer service agent seat.

Salesforce.com's closest offering is desk.com which provides similar (but appears to be more limited) functionality. However, desk.com caps your monthly customer page views. They also offer a flex agent seat, enabling you to allocate temporary agent status on a billable hour basis. And, while I like the potential flexibility that this offers, it's still difficult to shake the feeling that, rather than flexibility, this is a calculated move enabling them to keep one hand on my wallet.

So if you're looking for a customer portal solution, I still don't have a definitive suggestion for you. I can safely say that Salesforce.com's customer portal has priced itself out of the market in my book. Perhaps the only thing funnier was when I got pricing from Jive. With Jive, it seems like they dove into the madness pricing pool that Salesforce was swimming in and enjoyed it so much that they decided to jump back in.

Like CRM and many other enterprise software applications, many solutions claim to offer the same features, so realistically, it's best to work with your potential users to understand their requirements and then compare products with some hands-on time. That being said, I'm pretty impressed with my initial evaluation of Zendesk as a potential solution for my customer portal application.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Salesforce.com Customer Portal Pricing FAIL

Salesforce.com has a pricing problem. They do a great job of positioning the roadmap of their platform as social and engaged with the customer. They've got some great features for engaging with customers -- ideas, answers, knowledgebase, communities, sites and Chatter. But with all these cool features, and despite all of their talk about bridging this connection, they've built a giant wall between these features and you taking advantage of them -- pricing.

The inherent problem with most of these features is that, in order to make them available and meaningful for your customers, what you really need is Salesforce.com's Customer Portal product. Salesforce customer portal product has been around for a long time. It is as it sounds, a way for your customers to be able to log in to a Salesforce window and for you to share unique information with them.

Historically speaking, Salesforce's pricing model for this service is to treat those customers as users and those portal visitors as seat licenses. Perhaps their strategy was to protect the pricing on their full priced CRM seats from some aspect of license cheating using Portal, but the cost of a customer portal seat license was expensive. As their customer engagement offerings have expanded and features have started to eat into customer portal functionality, Salesforce has opened up a new method of pricing -- a shared pool of logins, kind of like a family plan. In this way, you essentially pay per login for your customers to access the special content that you want to share with them.

Ironically, their overall pricing model reminds me of the one that Oracle uses to calculate your annual service and support costs.

Here's the problem with this model. First, if your just dipping your toe into implementing a customer portal, there is a steep entry cost. You need to make some sort of guess as to how many customers will use your portal and pay for that. Imagine your traffic to low and you're pricing sucks. Imagine your traffic too high and you're saddled with a massive annual boat anchor. Customer portal -- it's an exciting way to engage with your customers, unless your customers include your own internal finance group.

Common sense tells you there must be a better way. Common sense tells you that, until you reach a certain threshold of visitors in your community (and that number should probably be a lot), you probably want to just pay for certain features. When you go to the salad bar, you don't want to pay for the salad you build leaf by leaf, you just want to have a salad. And if the salad bar was part of a bigger meal, you'd probably also expect to pay less the salad bar than for the other parts of your meal.

The Solution is Out There
There are paths to make the platform you envision work. After searching for a while, I've come across a number of different possible solutions. Depending upon your requirements, there probably is an alternative. Surprisingly, if your requirements are to spend even more money, there are solutions for that as well.

In this case though, my real take home message is my complete and utter disappointment in Salesforce.com. Ultimately, I feel like all of the stuff that they've been pitching on their community capability is kind of a bait and switch. I would love to be able to manage all of this functionality from a single, integrated platform, to manage my community from within Salesforce, but when doing that costs more than having my sales team work with customers, I call that a FAIL.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Facebook Advertising Should Really Work

A while back, Facebook's stock price got hammered by their recognition that they were struggling to monetize mobile. Not long after that, more news came out of Facebook that they were focusing more of their advertising on retargeting.

The retargeting story was an admission that letting advertisers target audiences based on their profiles was a rather ineffective method that delivered poor ROI. With retargeting, a technique that had been used elsewhere on the web for quite some time, Facebook was seeing doing a better job of delivering conversions and seeing better monetization of their traffic. Across the online advertising world, there was sort of a collective, "duh". Among the analyst community, there was a small howl of, "what happened to the best minds of our generation?"

Fundamentally, the real problem here is that for all of the "potential value" of Facebook's big data, its massive volume of user tracking data is disconnected from its advertising programs. Think about that, Target knows enough about its customers to be able to determine how pregnant a woman is based on what they've purchased, but Facebook's most intelligent answer for advertisers is whether the user has self-identified as male or female on their profile page.

This is the great Facebook illusion. On the one hand, they have this user interaction platform that's great for harvesting user data. It's something that everyone talks about. And yet, for all intents and purposes, they haven't come up with a way to bottle that stream and make it easy for any advertiser to get a good value from it.

Contrast that with Google and their Adwords program. With Adwords, they came up with a way for advertisers to benefit from the underlying value and functionality of their platform, to integrate ads with search.

This is the "Unified Theory" problem that Facebook needs to solve. Admittedly, there are a host of challenges to balance, not the least of which being privacy and utility, but if the can crack that nut, then Facebook will be worth something closer to the hype. Until then, it's not much more than an Internet broadcast network.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Winning, Voter Fraud, and the Ethics of Lawyering the Game

Back in 1993 when Magic: The Gathering first launched, it was a unique game. In some ways, it reminded me of those games that we used to make up using collectable sports trading cards when I was a kid -- taking your collection of trading cards and making up a game that you could 'play' using your team versus your friends. Because everyone had a different collection of cards, you never knew exactly how the game would work, but you set up a loosely structured set of rules in order to make the game work -- sort of a manifestation of Calvinball. These types of games work well until you get into nuanced situations where the scope of the rules don't provide a clear way to resolve an issue.

"I tap this card in order to do something bad to you..."
"Okay, so I tap this card."
"You can't tap that, because I tap this card to block it"
"You can't prevent it, because this is an interrupt and your's is an instant"

And so it would go. Arguing back and forth about the nuances of the rules, where victory became a combination of variable permutations that play to the narrow exceptions in the rules. Among my gaming friends, this aspect of gaming was referred to as "rules lawyering".

Winning on a Technicality Isn't a True Win
You can see one of those great moments in the mythology of competition during some of these cooking shows. In the rush to produce some dish, one competitor ruins an ingredient or some accident causes them a problem. Then, in a symbol of competitive solidarity, their opponent will help them -- providing the missing ingredient or assistance in finishing before the time requirement. Most will say something like, "I want to win based on my food" or something to that effect.

These are the winners that we revere, the heroes. These are the stories that we look for, that we want to see. It's part of the reason that coverage of the Olympics here in the states looks like it does -- because the stories are framed that way, regardless of what happened outside of the view of the lens.

Rules Lawyering in Real Life: The Win Justifies the Means
When established processes and players are disrupted, it's not uncommon for them to look for -- or attempt to create -- favorable rules that block the disruption. From patent infringements to banning alcohol purchases at self-checkout stations, aggressively using legal challenges to squelch competitive disruption is an important check and balance against more harmful business practices like copying. These new rules are seldom driven with a goal of fairness; instead, they are the desperate grasps of the failing.

One of the worst examples of this behavior is embodied in the 'Voter Fraud' and 'Voter ID' initiatives that have been increasingly pushed through during the past ten years. While supporters dance around their justification, their basic goal is to create disincentives to vote and disenfranchise a set of people.

This is not about the better ideas winning on a equal playing field, this is about reshaping the playing field in order to create an advantage. It's creating a system that can enable their ideas to win on a technicality.

Recently, there was a story about a court ruling in Ohio that blocked Republican attempts to shut down early voting on the weekend before election day. Throughout the media, the story was characterized as 'a win for Obama'. But this wasn't a win for Obama. It was a win for the democratic process, for equality, for fairness. It was a win for the game. It's too bad that the media couldn't see that story, but perhaps their part of the game has already been twisted and tweaked by artificial framework of technicalities. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lance Armstrong and the Myth of the Clean Sport

With the release of the USADA report on Lance Armstrong and the testimony of numerous pro cyclists coming to the surface, much of the media attention has been focused on Lance Armstrong and how this impacts his business interests. At the same time, there is another story here, one that the media seems unwilling to focus on.

In Levi Leipheimer's Wall Street Journal OpEd, Why I Doped, he states:
Until recently—or maybe even until today—when people thought about doping, they thought about a guy, by himself, using banned substances to get ahead. What people didn't realize—what I didn't realize until after I was already committed to this career—was that doping was organized and everywhere in the peloton. Doping wasn't the exception, it was the norm. 
and goes on to say:
I came to see cycling for what it was: a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level—perhaps without exception—used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams—who were competitors on the road—coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing. 
In the aftermath of this report, much of the focus has been on Lance Armstrong -- sponsorship deals canceled, stepping down from Live Strong, you name it. In many ways, the media narrative on this is a simple story of Lance Armstrong, bad guy druggy. Or maybe it's Lance Armstrong, cartel leader and his gang at Discovery/Postal. The media seems unwilling to wrestle with the larger issue at play here.

Broadly, what these riders have said is not just that these performance enhancing training programs were a one-off, but that they were endemic to sport. From doctors and coaches to infrastructures that they tapped into, this network nodes in this infrastructure run through the entire business. These aren't guys robbing pharmacies for Oxycontin. They aren't scraping around the dark sides of town for heroin or meth. These are managed programs with supply chains, bank transfers, and a very above board aspect to this hidden side of the business. Put in a different way, does anyone really believe that some cancer patient had to go without their needed EPO because professional cyclists were 'skimming' off their supply?

In that way, a somewhat hidden context of the USADA report is that, for all intents and purposes, their testing, the institutional testing program, didn't work. They make a case that many of the tests were avoided or circumvented. But fundamentally, the testing program didn't work. Put in a different way, with enough money and enough organization, a well-managed group can circumvent these testing programs. Yes, that means teams that participate in professional cycling. But the same holds true for governments and the Olympics or any sport where there is a convergence of money and endurance.

So, as all of this stuff boils to the surface, you see all of the sponsors walk away from Lance Armstrong. From a business and PR perspective, it's important for them to disconnect from the story of Lance Armstrong, doper. There business is selling to the spectator base and there will always be other athletes. If they treat it as the act of an unsavory individual instead of an aspect of the sport, then the whole thing doesn't come crumbling down. and they can bank on the market of future consumers buying into the illusion of a correlation between success and a sponsored product. What type of energy bar does Lance Armstrong eat when he's riding up a mountain? What type of cereal does Michael Phelps eat before he spends hours in the pool?

So what did USADA hope to accomplish with this? From my reading, I think that this was an effort to use Lance Armstrong as a rock, casting him at the 'Goliath' of professional cycling and the UCI. To quote from Levi''s OpEd again,
When Usada came to me and described a solution—where my admission could be part of a bigger plan that would make the positive changes we've seen in recent years permanent—I said "I need to be involved." I don't want today's 13 year olds to be discouraged by their parents from dreaming about one day riding the Tour de France.
USADA even made note that they had waived the rule on Statute of Limitations for some of their Lance Armstrong story because they felt circumstances justified it.

Did they hope to take down the professional cycling, UCI, or address some sort of systematic weakness that lived outside of their control? It's not really clear from available material that I've seen. At one point in their report, they do reference a warning to a rider to "watch out for USADA testers while in Europe because they were more likely to test." And yet, instead of casting a stone aimed at the broader body of cycling, their report fits neatly into the framework of Lance Armstrong managing a dastardly criminal organization. It's like they wroted a report saying that Lehman Brothers ran a derivatives-based securities trading cartel.

But even if they had noble goals, the industry surrounding organized sports is too big to fail. I think that they wanted to characterize this story as, "if the world would just follow our protocols, we can manage this". And yet, there is nothing in this report to suggest that there is a magic bullet. Instead, we're left with the reality of something kind of like a bad horror movie.

After the story resolves, after the chaos and the destruction of lives, the camera pans to the killer -- not Jason, nor Freddy, nor Michael Myers, but the mythical body of 'clean sport' -- laying on the ground, finally dispatched.

The camera pans back to USADA. "They thought they could get away with it," USADA says.

Then the camera pans back to the spot where the mythical body of clean sport lay dead, but the body is gone. Slowly, the camera pans back to a mirror with the reflection of USADA, but we notice something different. Instead of the anti-doping body, we see the mythical body of clean sport. It's mouth forms an evil smile and we know we're in for a long line of sequels.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Does The Ladders Use Bait & Switch Email Marketing

High on the list of things that offend my ethical sensibilities are those people and businesses that exploit people in their most desperate moments of need. While you could argue that charging extra for sunblock on the beach or sweatshirts to tourists in San Francisco is exploitative, I don't think that is equivalent to what I'm talking about. What I'm referring to are the businesses like those credit repair scams businesses that use false hope to take money from people who can't afford it. This aspect of profiting off of the despair of the most needy borders on criminal. 

The business of helping to find employment has always operated with a darker side, and there's a segment of that business that profits on desperation. Contrary to that conservative belief that a huge percentage of people out there that are lazy and don't want to work, most people around the world want to work and are desperate for jobs. Exploiting this desperation often hinges on leveraging the promise of a good job as an enticement for doing something that would otherwise be unreasonable.

For many out of work job seekers, the desperation exploiters are those recruiters or career coaches that ask for an up-front payment from the job seeker. It's a classic scheme, traditionally promoted by people pitching jobs and salaries that make the payoff seem worth the gamble. It's a reasonable market when they are selling upgrades and the recruiter's client-base all have existing jobs, but when they exploit the cash-strapped unemployed, they cross an ethical line in my book.

So here's what triggered this post. I received an email from The Ladders the other day. Essentially, it was one of those emails from a specific recruiter with a job that might be a good fit for you. Theoretically not a newsletter or a bulk job listing email, right? So I clicked through the email to look at the listing and, surprisingly, I was met with a login screen. I needed to upgrade to a paid, premium account in order to view the listing.

I'm not desperately seeking work right now, but imagine if I was. Imagine if this were my first glimmer of hope in a long dark night. This was a recruiter reaching out to me, or so it seemed. But no, it was actually a crafted marketing device aimed at the soft underbelly of my desperation.

Sorry guys, I'm not that desperate. I didn't want to pay for access to your site because many of your job listings were web site scrapes or things that I could find for free. But if you focus your list on unemployed, I'm sure you can boost your conversion rate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Speed of Hype: Facebook and the Social Media Economy

Three years ago, there was a lot of excitement in the air around here. The Social economy was booming and the untapped potential of the mobile market seemed like another gold mine that was ripe for harvesting. And yet, for all of the potential, for all of the dreams, we now find ourselves in a bit of a malaise.

Over the past year, we've seen the Facebook IPO and a number of exits and pivots by long-running start-ups. Many of the businesses that were so full of promise have struggled to deliver consistent earnings. What was once a thriving Web 2.0 ecosystem of interconnected APIs has deteriorated into a series of platform wars as many of those same businesses have built walls and and grasped for monetization. If all of this were an action movie, this might be that moment in the movie when everything looks darkest, the moment before the hero manages to perform that amazing feat that turns everything around.

History may look back and mark Steve Jobs' passing as the end of that golden era of innovation, but I think that the real defining moment was the Facebook IPO. While some may attribute some of the current malaise to the Nasdaq, computerized trading, or the other problems in the Facebook IPO, the underlying driver goes beyond that. Sure, if the Facebook IPO had been a glorious event and our friends were all telling stories of the epic fortunes that they made on Facebook stock, some percentage of the industry might feel better. But, realistically, the issue runs deeper than that.

Prior to their IPO, Facebook was a massive reservoir of potential energy. It had tremendous wealth was stored in the possibilities. It was the platform for the future, the platform for everything. It was a changing how software worked. It was the next Google, and everyone tied to it was going to make a fortune. It was like a newly discovered treasure map or Al Capone's unopened safe, the perfect candidate for drawing people in to place bets.

These aren't just bets on Facebook, their bets on a platform and the entire emerging market. They are bets on the ecosystem that is linked to Facebook, bets on businesses and technology that use 'social' to sell their ideas, or anyone riding the wave of Facebook hype to sell a dream of an untapped future.

This is technology at the speed of hype. It's selling the idea that, in the same way that Facebook has built a market around sharing personal information with your friends, that market remains undefined when it comes to sharing information with your coworkers about the office supplies that you use -- and that exploiting that segment is inevitable.

Facebook's IPO shifted all of that potential energy into an unmetered system to one with a real ruler. Not only was it an opportunity for all of those speculators to pull out of their bets on who would win that initial spot in Facebook's market, it was an actual measurement on what the market thought that it was all worth. Fifty billion dollars? Perhaps not. Even if the actual value of Facebook was substantial, with the IPO, the size of the hype balloon that carried the dreams of all of those others shrank.

Looking back, it's easy to see aspects of the market that were oversold and dreams that were built on a foundation of hype. But remember, it isn't just social. When we saw the green technology boom, the valley was swimming in solar equipment companies. Same with mobile apps. Or telecom and broadband technology companies back in the days when we were building out the Internet infrastructure. This is normal market behavior surrounding technology at the speed of hype.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why Google Should Not Do Tradeshows

Add this post to the long list of reasons why I'm not expecting a job from Google. As a general rule, unless you're a comic, anything that makes you look like an idiot is probably bad for your brand. 

As someone who still finds my way to an exhibition floor now and again, I've seen my share of tradeshow sights. From big booths to small booths and busy booths to empty booths, I've seen a range of booth behavior -- attentive, bored, obnoxious, and drunk. But one of the most disappointing and frustrating things to encounter at an event is a booth that ignores you, that can't answer your questions, or exudes arrogance. And that pretty much sums up my experience with Google at tradeshows.

If you've encountered a Google booth, see if this matches your experience. Rather than being involved with the show, the people in the booth seem to be participating in a party that none of us are invited to. It's like you've invaded the space of some clique gathered at the university center.

I can only remember three times that I've actually seen Google booth staff show some signs of engagement in the event that they were participating in.
  • The SMX Search Marketing Expo conference. This was sort of home court for the Google team and they actually sent people who could speak to their tools and products. And, while they weren't the most amazing booth staff that I've ever encountered, if you were grading Google booth staff on a curve, this was their dream team.
  • At OFC/NFOEC, the Google Fiber team was out, trying to recruit telecom engineers. In their talent search, they were trying to collect as many leads as possible. So, when it came to trying to hire people, they were pretty focused. 
  • I think I also remember them at one of the old MacWorld shows -- back in the day when Apple was still at the event and it was in Moscone South. At that time, I remember the Google booth guys running their charging station and talking about Google apps with people that walked up to the booth. I even remember one guy talking to some kid that was there with his mom. It's funny how that seems like such a contrast from my more common Google-tradeshow encounters.
But the worst part of the whole experience is that, even if you can suffer through be ignored and you stand around for long enough force an engagement, the people that they have staffing the booth appear to be unable to answer any questions related to the products featured at the event. It's like staffing a customer service desk, gathering a line of customers, and then proceeding to visibly ignore them.

When you create an exclusive work environment, your bound to build an air of elitism into the mix. But most people don't actually encounter real, live employees for Internet businesses like Facebook or Twitter. But what most retail B2C businesses understand -- something that's probably lost on the culture of the Internet business -- is that each employee is a brand ambassador and each encounter with the public is image-shaping moment. Most people will treat accidental encounters as just that, but an appearance at an event is a show. Do you really want ignorant, arrogant, and useless to be the adjectives describing your business?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Adventures in Using Airbnb

Dreamforce was huge this year, so huge that, not only were the all of the hotels in the city sold out, it was difficult to find a room in the east bay and down the peninsula. When even the crappy hotels in the city are asking $500-$600 per night, it's usually translates into an exhausting week of sucktastic commuting. But I was determined to see if I could find something. After a positive experience staying in Maui this summer that we booked using VRBO, I decided to try searching alternative housing engines. I landed at Airbnb.

In case you aren't familiar with it, Airbnb is an online engine that helps broker transactions between people who want to rent out their space and potential renters. Unlike VRBO which seems pretty focused on vacation rentals, on Airbnb you'll find listings ranging from whole properties down to somebody's couch.

I've been following Airbnb from their early start-up days and I'd considered using them on several trips in the past, so I welcomed the chance to try the service. My colleagues were feeling a bit less adventurous and expressed skepticism. But for me, one of the advantages of trying Airbnb on this trip was that the I'm pretty familiar with San Francisco, so it's a easier to have a sense of the neighborhood that you might be staying. And, if the entire experience was a failure, I could always fall back on commuting.

My Airbnb Experience
Airbnb makes searching for a place easy. You can select your destination and dates, then filter the results by a variety of factors: shared housing or complete residence, price, etc. Another aspect of Airbnb is that it runs on a social framework, so before you can communicate with a potential renter to verify availability, you need to sign up for an account and become part of their social network. When you sign up, you also have the option of linking your Airbnb profile to Facebook, simplifying account and profile creation. Since I was just exploring the functionality, I opted to create a separate profile.

Building the profile takes a bit of time. Basically what they attempt to do is collect information in order to help verify your identity and better ensure that you're a trustworthy tenant. Unfortunately, this aspect of the process is one area that I found a bit frustrating with Airbnb. As I went through the initial set-up, I had to provide a phone number that Airbnb validated. Then, during a later session, the software insisted that I add a photo before it would let me continue. The result was that, each time I dove in to look for a potential place, it seemed to hit me up for another piece of info. If I were looking for a vacation place or were less motivated by the prospect of the commute, I would have dropped the service at that point.

Another frustration with booking a space was the number of times that spaces appeared to be available, then after contacting the lister, told that their space wasn't available. Some of the unavailable listings even indicated that the calendar had been updated that day. Needless to say, it added to the frustration. Eventually, I wound up sending out what almost amounted to a mass email blast to the listed spaces.

But perhaps the most annoying thing was something else that I swear I noticed in my search. Because I was searching over the course of a couple of days, I ran searches multiple times. Sometimes I would leave the browser window open and put my computer to sleep. Once, I swear I saw the listed prices refresh -- and increase -- leaving me suspect as to how their pricing engine works. While it's not uncommon for airlines and hotels to use cookies to dynamically price based on the visitor's behavior, when you see it happen, it really pisses you off. Now it could be that those pricing changes were implemented by the lister, but I'm skeptical to believe that a lister would increase the price of a listing on a space that was unavailable.

Once I got a space sorted out though, everything proceeded in a pretty straightforward fashion. I opted for an entire apartment rather than a shared space -- the idea of stumbling into a shared place after an evening of after hours Dreamforce events just didn't seem like a good plan. In the period before your arrival, Airbnb sends out a house manual and several alerts to remind you that about your upcoming stay. They also give you some early warning before they process the deposit charge. In all, their transaction processing communications were clear and well done.

That Eerie Do-I-Belong-Here Feeling
There was one other aspect of the experience that I found a bit challenging. In searching for places, I found a couple of reviews of some other places that mentioned the guest being interrupted in mid-stay by someone associated with the property saying, "you aren't supposed to be here." And while that may be an isolated incident, it planted a seed of concern in my mind. Add to that the experience of staying in a place where the renter still has all of their personal items out, and you're left with this haunting feeling that, at any minute somebody is going pop in and ask, "what are you doing here?"

I think that part of the reason that this happens is that you're essentially renting a space that somebody lives in. Contrast that with a vacation condo rental where there is typically an owner's closet where they lock all of their personal stuff up. At the same time, it does add to the personal experience of your stay -- depending upon how you are, that could be good or bad.

All in all, would I use Airbnb again? Probably. Would I describe it as a cost-effective alternative for business travelers? No. I think it's a good solution for a vacation, when you are more flexible with check-in and check-out times. However, as a vacation option, Airbnb provides an awesome way to live like a local. In that way, my visit to San Francisco was a great reminder about just how awesome the city is once you escape the tourist areas. Airbnb and my host really made that happen.