Thursday, August 31, 2017

Yet Another Dreamforce FAIL

I've posted about this quite a bit on Twitter, but I felt it was time to put together a longer synopsis of the great FAIL that is Dreamforce registration.

First, background. I've been eight Dreamforce events over the years. There are upsides and downsides to the conference, but if there is one overarching theme for Dreamforce, it's oversized crowds overwhelming insufficient resources. And it's been that way at every Dreamforce I've been to. Sometimes it is simply an annoyance -- like long lines or the inability to get into a session. At other times, like at last year's Dreamforce Gala, it's kind of surprising that people haven't gotten hurt.

When you look at the history of Dreamforce, you see aspects where things evolve to address the crowds. Aspects like multiple locations for lunches and conference sessions reflect thoughtful efforts to address the crowds and adapt. Even the one year where they brought in the cruise ship as an additional hotel, while it may have been a failed experiment, was a step to addressing the oversubscribed hotel market.

Last year was the first year when I actually saw Salesforce change the conference web site to say that the conference was sold out. This happened a couple of weeks prior to the event (it's possible that it may have happened in year's past, but I didn't see it). Practically speaking, the conference was sold out long before that time, as the available hotel space was essentially gone about a day after registration was opened.

Salesforce has known about the sold out hotel problem for several years (thus, the cruise ship), but when you're using (and selling out) all of the available space, broadly, across the region. there are actual commodity limits that you face. And this brings me to the core strategy that Salesforce has employed in an effort to address this. Their strategy is essentially this:
"Surprise, registration is open!"
Last year, Salesforce introduced a tool that would email you as soon as registration opened. As it happened, I was at San Jose airport waiting to board an early morning flight when I received the email (6:05am), and I jumped through hoops to register before my flight boarded. I was able to book the Hotel Nikko (my preferred hotel) that morning. I also reached out to my colleagues, but they didn't register until that afternoon and the nearest good hotel they could find was the Hilton Financial District.

This year, we'd been planning to send a larger group to Dreamforce and help build some sales manager / power user / evangelists (over the years, one thing that we've found is that when our staff attends Dreamforce, it really opens their eyes to the much broader potential of enterprise software). So, the morning that I received the email announcing that Dreamforce registration had started, the first thing that I did was email my colleagues.

It's worth noting that this year's announcement and registration opening came on the Thursday, June 29th, right before what was for most people in the states, a four-day fourth of July weekend. Many people take the entire week of the fourth off and quite a few leave before that weekend arrives. Not only was this true for our staff, I later learned that our Salesforce AE was also out on vacation at that time. Again, remember the strategy:
"Surprise, registration is open!"
By the time I'd emailed my colleagues and gotten through the registration screen, I couldn't find the Hotel Nikko on the list. Part of the problem is that they way that the Dreamforce registration portal shows available hotels, it can be difficult to sort them. As I searched through the list, it wasn't just the Nikko that was unavailable, all of the Marriott properties in the convention center area were gone. I opted for the Hilton, knowing that some of my colleagues were Hilton loyalists (I used to be, but having "lost" hundreds of thousands of Hilton points multiple times, they're no longer a preferred choice).

While dealing with my own registration, I decided to text one of my colleagues to see if she'd seen my email. She replied via text, asking me to register her as she only had her phone and poor network access. One of the great failures of the Dreamforce registration process is that there is no way to register multiple attendees at the same time. This is also true for their room reservation system. That means that, if you want to make reservations for your entire team so that they can stay at the same hotel, you are hosed. By the time I'd finished my colleagues reservation, the Hilton was no longer an option and I had to put her in the Parc 55.

As the minutes ticked away, I realized that, if my colleagues that I'd emailed hadn't started the registration process on their own already, they were hosed. And if they were on vacation, forget about it. Since some of our colleagues were coming from the east coast, they needed hotel rooms -- commuting wasn't an option. In short, any plans that we might have had for a bigger, more useful Dreamforce -- hosed.

The Aftermath of Registration
As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty frustrated with Salesforce that morning. To have registered twice in succession and not be able to have our team in the same hotel? What's worse, it just kept eating at me, particularly as it became clear that my colleagues hadn't seen my email, hadn't registered, and were probably on vacation. I decided to draft an email to our Salesforce AE with a CC to It was not a short email.

Of course, I didn't hear back from our AE until a week and half later, on Monday July 10. Like many of my colleagues, he was on vacation.

When it became clear that I wasn't going to get a quick response back from my AE, I turned to Twitter. I sent out my first tweet at 9:43 that morning. After numerous tweets that day, @Dreamforce began following my Twitter feed. I continued to post complaints about the process and my experience. On July 10th when our Salesforce AE replied, his only real response to the Dreamforce issue was, "Unfortunately, I have no control over the SF hotel market but I had clients last year that had success renting places on Airbnb or VRBO, so if you are still looking you could explore that as an option." 

I continued to post my issues about Dreamforce on and off again until, on Thursday July 27th, almost a month after registration opened, Salesforce's Twitter Customer Support team @asksalesforce replied to me asking if there was anything that they could do to help. They actually referred me to @Dreamforce, where they'd been following me the entire time (hats off to their team for actually trying to help).

But, in case you missed it -- or anyone at Salesforce is actually listening -- I'm still pissed off about the registration process. In this report card, you failed to meet expectations. To make it easy for you, here is a simple list of things that I think would make this better.
  • Why can't Salesforce Account Execs work with customers to understand their expectations and intentions for Dreamforce? Your internal team knows when registration will open. If they are intend to bring a block of users, why not create a select number of carve-outs for pre-registration and hotel booking? 
  • Why not let customers know when registration will open in advance of the date? That way, rather than being stuck with whatever situation you're in when registration opens, you can plan for it -- if it's important to you. Seriously, even concerts let you know in advance what day that tickets will go on sale.
  • Why not allow people to register and reserve rooms for up to four people? Dreamforce is better when it's groups of colleagues attending at the same time. And frankly, the idea that each user gets stuck with whatever hotel (as opposed to housing in groups) is just ridiculous.
  • The Promo code option in the registration on the first day is not helpful. I spent several minutes searching the Internet for a promo code to apply. If nothing else, allow people to apply one retroactively, since the housing block allocation is the problematic window.
  • There should be something like a waiting list for hotel rooms such that, if a reservation opens up at a hotel, you draw from the waiting list pool first. That way more people could have access to their preferred locations.
Frankly, I suspect that it's likely that Salesforce does provide carve-outs for their top tier customers. I'm sure that their sales teams also work closely with them to ensure that their needs for Dreamforce are met. What that says to me -- along with the "that's a bummer man. I don't control the San Francisco hotel market, so I can't do anything for you" response from our Salesforce AE -- is that there is a layer of customer lip service going on here. As customers, we matter in that way of "customers matter" slogans, but not in us, the guys who've been on the platform for over 10 years now, but who don't have hundreds or thousands of seat licenses. At Dreamforce last year, they gave us this 10 year customer award.

At the time, I couldn't help but notice the phallic shape of the award. It was probably the funniest aspect of Dreamforce last year, as I couldn't help but feel like it doubled as a reminder for all of the times I felt like I'd been screwed by Salesforce. But hey, I'm sure it wasn't intentional. 

Just for the record, it's now been over two months since registration opened. I'm still pissed off. And I still haven't heard anything from Salesforce except for the aforementioned contacts.

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