Salesforce’s IdeaExchange gets a customer-centric revamp


Salesforce’s Jenny Sacks recommends that companies embrace customers’ negative feedback and frustrations. During the recent update of Salesforce’s IdeaExchange, the community’s input was critical.

Salesforce’s IdeaExchange gets a customer-centric revamp
Salesforce’s Jenny Sacks recommends that companies embrace customers’ negative feedback and frustrations. During the recent update of Salesforce’s IdeaExchange, the community’s input was critical.

At Dreamforce 2019 in San Francisco, TechRepublic’s Bill Detwiler spoke with Jenny Sacks, senior director of customer and market insights at Salesforce, about the company’s IdeaExchange. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Bill Detwiler: When it comes to designing products, it’s always important for companies to put the customer at the center of that process. I’m excited to be here and talk to Salesforce’s Jenny Sacks. Tell me a little bit about your role in developing IdeaExchange–what IdeaExchange is–and then we’ll talk about what you’re doing with IdeaExchange in the future. 

Jenny Sacks: Customer Market Insights is really just a fancy way of saying voice of the customer. My entire job is to listen to our customers, to the market, to make sure that we are bringing all of that information into how we make decisions. The goal is to give a customer a seat at the table in every decision, big and small.

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One of the big ways that we listen is the Salesforce ID Exchange, which launched 12 years ago. The vision for it was pretty simple. We wanted a way for our customers to tell us what they wanted to see in the product. Anybody with a Salesforce login could come to the site, could say, ‘Here’s what I want to see,’ and the community would crowdsource votes. Over time, we got a sense of what was most important to our community by watching how voting changed, how ideas were logged. 

But–there’s always a but in these stories–we saw a massive amount of growth. Salesforce was smaller 12 years ago–we’re now big, thankfully–and we now had 65,000 ideas logged. We have hundreds of product managers; hundreds of thousands of customers have been added to our ecosystem. Over the years we’ve really struggled to scale that experience. The last year has really been, how do we reimagine the IdeaExchange to allow our community to have more of that dialogue about our roadmap and where we’re going, and to really see how they’re influencing and shaping Salesforce. 

Bill Detwiler: That’s something that’s a little bit of a criticism. Whenever any company–not just Salesforce–puts a program like this out there, people who are providing ideas–I don’t know whether they have realistic expectations about how long it will take before those ideas are implemented. How do you manage that with IdeaExchange? How do you set those expectations? Say, ‘We got all these great ideas, but there’s only so many people. We can’t get to things all of the time.’ How do you manage those expectations? 

Jenny Sacks: I don’t think we’ve always done a great job of setting expectations to be honest, and that was really evident last year when one of our oldest community members–his name is Steve Moelis–logged an idea on the IdeaExchange and essentially said, ‘I have some ideas for how you need to improve this thing. And it feels a little bit like a black hole. I’m not sure where my feedback is going. I’m not sure what you’re doing with it. I don’t know what the expectations are for engagement from the community and from Salesforce on these ideas.’

That idea picked up a lot of steam, got our co-CEO Marc Benioff’s attention, and he basically said, ‘What are we doing here?’ We had to have a long conversation with ourselves about do we want to continue to invest here? What does that look like, and how do we rebuild trust with our community? We had to start by saying hard truth: it’s broken, and we need to fix it. We want to reinvest. That’s really, really important to us, but we don’t necessarily know how to do that. 

Rather than coming up with our own expectations and setting them with the community, we decided to ask them for help in deciding what it should look like going forward. We went out on the road–we did 22 cities, four continents, nine countries–to talk to our community. We went out with some ideas for IdeaExchange, get very meta, and we said, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about doing. What do you think?’ What we heard from our community was, ‘We want you to build the things that we want you to build.’

We started to look at the IdeaExchange and how it was set up, and logging ideas and voting doesn’t really tell us what’s most important to the community. We needed to build a mechanism that would allow them to put their product manager hat on and go through the trade offs and prioritize what was going to be built in the release. We decided to build an experience for them to do that. 

Bill Detwiler: What was some of that feedback that you got specifically? What were those ideas that people wanted you to incorporate into IdeaExchange? Like those mechanisms to help set those expectations, so that they can give you the feedback, they could understand where it’s going. Talk me through that process. 

Jenny Sacks: First, we had to sort of get over the frustration. We had to get through the, ‘You stopped listening,’ and that was really valuable to hear. I would rather a customer be mad at me than not talking to me at all, so it was really great for them to engage with us in that dialogue. Once we got past that, we realized that IdeaExchange wasn’t nearing our product planning process. Ideas are coming in, and people are logging comments and adding feedback, and the feedback pile is growing. We only do release planning three times a year, and when we make decisions for a release, that’s locked. We moved to the next one; that gets locked, and so on. We weren’t bringing our customers along on that journey with us. 

They were sort of saying, ‘We know that you do this thing, but we’re not really part of it.’ We needed to connect the dots more directly there. Now, what we’re doing is we open a two-week window every release cycle, just like our product managers do. We say to the community, here are the top 10 to 15 ideas from the IdeaExchange; you have a budget which represents the resources that our engineers have, and you get to allocate your budget to what you’re most excited about. Whatever wins that cycle–we call it the prioritization cycle–we will build in our product.

We gave them that direct line from your feedback through to what we deliver. We’ve been piloting it for the last four releases. We just did it manually before we had the product to support it, and it’s been great; it’s great exercise. We tested it; we figured out what worked and didn’t work and were able to fine tune it. The product we’re launching–the new IdeaExchange we’re launching tomorrow–is reflective of all that feedback. It’s kind of not a splashy surprise release. It’s a, ‘here’s the thing we built together, ready for you to now take out and continue to provide us feedback.’

Bill Detwiler: Was that a difficult process internally? You talk about sometimes it’s difficult to take that negative feedback and do something constructive with it. Talk a little bit about that, so that people who are doing that in their own companies maybe can learn from what Salesforce went through during that process. 

Jenny Sacks: A big piece of advice I would give is don’t be afraid of the bad feedback. As I said, I would rather a customer yell and be mad–because at least they’re engaged in the dialogue–than to not have them talk to us at all. If they’re talking to somebody else about their problems, then there’s no opportunity for us to fix it. What we did was really try to channel their energy, their frustration, into helping us make the solution. 

Internally, it was a tough couple of months where we felt like, first we let our customers down, and that’s a yucky feeling. We have a long road to go, but ultimately–for me–it’s been my favorite year at Salesforce. I’ve been at the company for nine years, and it’s been awesome to turn the ship from sort of a negative to a positive and to really see our community be part of that and feel like it’s theirs. I would say to anybody who’s going through a similar situation: embrace the negative feedback, embrace the frustration, and work through it with your customers because then they have a more vested interest in being part of the solution and helping you celebrate the new wins. 

Bill Detwiler: During the pilot program, what type of feedback have you gotten from people that are using the new IdeaExchange as opposed to the old one? What’s been their reaction? 

Jenny Sacks: We took it out on the road, and I think at first we had to just educate people about our product planning process. We realized there wasn’t an education gap. 

Bill Detwiler: And were they surprised?

Jenny Sacks: They were surprised. I think they thought we were just going to fix the voting that they’re used to, the site that they were used to. When we came out and said, ‘We actually need something new.’ They went, ‘Oh, okay.’ Once we played it out, and we tested it with them, I think they really started to see how it made it more of a direct connection from their voice to Salesforce. We essentially dedicate part of our roadmap to what they want, really–no exceptions. That was incredible to watch them. We did see them go through some iterations for a while. We had a price next to every idea, and so you had to pay the price.

We found customers were saying, ‘Well I wouldn’t leave any money on the table, so I would buy things I didn’t even want just to spend all my money.’ That’s going to lead us down a road of building things you’re not that excited about, so we had to iterate the model based on how they engaged with it. We joked that we became experts in game theory, trying to figure out how to stay a step ahead of our customers in terms of the ways that they could play with the model, or make it work in a way that wouldn’t allow the true voice of the community to come through. The entire goal is to elevate their voice as a community within how we plan Salesforce product.

Bill Detwiler: Talk a little bit about customer centric design–when it comes to product services, UI, whatever it is–how important that has been to developing IdeaExchange, this entire process of how Salesforce builds products just in general and how people doing the same thing in other companies–whether it’s in tech or whether it’s in consumer products, or whatever it is–how important that customer centric process is part of the design?

Jenny Sacks: It’s amazing to see ideas that come in and then the product that comes out of it. In a lot of ways, we think of the community around a specific idea as a mini advisory board because sometimes we log an idea, and a product manager will go, ‘Okay, you’re asking for a faster horse. How do I give you a car?’ It allows for really great dialogue, but our customers have a seat at that table to say, ‘Here’s how I would use this in practice. Here’s how I would use it in the real world to serve my users.’ That’s become really invaluable to our product managers to feel like they have that input of, ‘Here’s how I would take this thing you’ve dreamed up in a lab and apply it to my users.’ It allows for changes and modifications.

Often, we will introduce IdeaExchange ideas into the product as a beta, and we’ll say, ‘Play with it; beat it up,’ and they’ll come back and say, ‘I like this. I like that. This didn’t quite work for me.’ We’ll have some time to fine tune it before it becomes generally available across our product. It’s been great to really see them playing that active role. It’s really part of our DNA. The IdeaExchange is one of the ways we listen. Every year at the beginning of our fiscal year in January, I take Brett Taylor, our Chief Product Officer, and all of his leadership on the road for something we call product roadmap tour, where we’re essentially taking his yearly plan for products to our customers and saying, ‘Prioritize it; rank it; take something off; add something that isn’t there.’

We do a series of visionary counsels throughout the year where we are bringing our customers–about 20 of them–into a room, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s imagine the future together.’ We don’t show any slides; we don’t talk about Salesforce. We just say, ‘What’s the future of the workforce? What’s the future of app development?’ It allows us to build the future together. We’re always trying to listen in really big and small ways but make sure our customers stamp every piece of the journey so that when it arrives for them, they go, ‘Yeah, I see myself in this product. It’s built for me.’

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