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Chatter In The Air, Everywhere

Salesforce.com expands its Chatter product family, while GE and Virgin America are exploring exotic applications of the enterprise social network.

David F Carr

September 20, 2012

7 Min Read

Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide

Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide


Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Chatter for customers, Chatter for partners, Chatter for GE jet engines, Chatter in flight for passengers on Virgin Atlantic. This week's Dreamforce conference is bursting with examples of how Salesforce.com is extending its enterprise social network and the new ways customers are finding to use it.

In addition to playing up its Chatter Communities for Partners and Chatter Communities for Service (both available to select customers, with general availability scheduled for the first half of 2013), Salesforce is introducing a file-sharing addition to the product line called ChatterBox. Meant to be Salesforce's version of "Dropbox for the enterprise," ChatterBox is expected to enter customer pilot tests in the first half of 2013, with pricing and general availability yet to be announced.

ChatterBox puts Salesforce in competition with Box, one of the more enterprise-oriented cloud file sharing services, which offers a version of its service through the Salesforce.com AppExchange. Box for Salesforce embeds Box file sharing in Salesforce.com customer records. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said he decided file sharing was an essential platform component to keep the Force.com platform competitive, much like the social feed user interface provided by Chatter. ChatterBox was created at the request of customers who trust the Salesforce.com platform more than they trust other cloud applications, according to Benioff. While Salesforce has offered some file storage as part of its platform prior to this, he said, "It's critical for today's platforms to have this next generation file management."

[ For more on the Dreamforce conference, see Salesforce.com Unifies, Extends Cloud Portfolio. ]

In a meeting with press and analysts, Benioff faced similar questions about whether the creation of a Marketing Cloud from the acquisitions of Radian6 and Buddy Media (part of a broader product unification strategy) would eventually put it on a collision course with partners like Eloqua, a marketing automation vendor. Eloqua is a longtime Salesforce partner that recently introduced Chatter integration with its own product.

Benioff pointed out that there is a difference between the social media marketing area Salesforce is targeting and other marketing requirements that vendors like Eloqua address. Similarly, even though Salesforce is edging into the Human Capital Management market with its new Work.com offering (a retooling of its Rypple acquisition), Benioff said he expects to remain on good terms with Workday as a partner because it manages traditional "system of record" human resources information management chores. In contrast, Salesforce bought Rypple because it "looked at managing people in a highly collaborative way, which is very symmetrical with what we see with Chatter." When the products are used together, Work.com's social recognition and rewards functions will be exposed as a tab on the Chatter user interface.

As part of his keynote address on Wednesday, Benioff showcased a series of success stories to reflect the "business is social" theme of the conference, some of them quite exotic. He recounted an opportunity GE CEO Jeff Immelt gave him to make a presentation to 40 top executives about what the future of GE should look like. He got Immelt to give him a hint, which was that GE saw one element of its future revolving around the man-machine interface for products like jet engines, as well as better customer service for those products. So the GE Share implementation of Chatter Benioff proposed, which the company is now implementing, includes the idea that products like jet engines should be able to "collaborate" on the enterprise social network. What this really means is that these highly instrumented products should be able to provide data feeds that become part of the conversation between a customer trying to resolve an issue and engineers and support staff at GE.

"The data on our equipment gives us tremendous amounts of information, and this just unlocks that for us," said GE CIO Charlene Begley, who appeared as part of the keynote. Immelt is scheduled to speak at the event on Thursday.

Virgin America is pursuing a vision of putting a bigger in-flight entertainment and information screen on the back of every seat, with Chatter as one of the features passengers will have access to. That upgrade to the airline's fleet is coming next year, according to Virgin America CEO David Cush. Virgin already allows passengers to message each other during a flight, but with Chatter they'll also have the potential of interacting with Virgin support staff on the ground. As Cush explains it: "You sit down at your seat. The screen is going to greet you, and it's going to know what you like. It's going to know who you want to talk to. So what it means is when you get on the airplane, it's not four or six or eight hours of dead time, it's four or six or eight hours of the best time you could possibly have. Virgin America is going to be the first airline to invade this space and become a social enterprise."

That quote is from the video shown below, which includes a mockup of the seat-back app currently in development.

The idea is to open up the possibility of providing customer service while the plane is in flight, heading off problems, Cush said later in a Q&A session with press and analysts. Right now, people who experience service problems will write to complain about what happened, Cush explained. "But with earlier intervention, the conversation could instead be, 'This is what happened to me--can you fix it?'" Customer service personnel on the ground could even take proactive action to alert a passenger to a potential problem, such as a bag not having made it on the flight, through a pop-up alert on the screen, Cush said. Another scenario Salesforce representatives showcased during the keynote was that customer service agents, recognizing that a high-value customer might be in danger of missing a tight connection, could relay an alert ahead to airport staff with a custom map showing the passenger exactly how to get most efficiently from his arrival gate to the departure gate. A gate agent could then be holding up an iPad displaying that that map, with the customer's face on it, as he walked off the plane, to point him in the right direction. The file with the map would be sent via ChatterBox, naturally, and the same technology could potentially allow the alert and an attached PDF map to be relayed to the customer in flight.

Cush said while that scenario is exciting, he is even more excited by the potential for collaboration among employees, which he expects to happen mostly through mobile devices because "90% of the people who work for our airline never sit down at a desk or sit down at a computer." Salesforce's strong support for mobile devices was one of the deciding factors in favor of Chatter over its competitors, he said.

Cush also sees potential for breaking down silos in what traditionally has been a hierarchical industry. Running an airline is a "logistical nightmare where about 20 steps have to go right to get a passenger and their bag to the final destination," he said, and better collaboration might allow workers to bypass some of those steps when necessary and jump straight to a solution.

Others who vouched for Chatter:

--Ed Steinike, CIO at the Coca-Cola Company, who described Chatter as "a new way to work in a faster environment," something the company will need if it is to fulfill its stated goal of doubling revenue over the next decade.

--Andy Lark, chief marketing officer at Australia's CommonwealthBank, who talked about "providing the ability for the narrative of the organization to be captured and shared."

--Activision CIO Robert Schmid, who discussed improving customer service by using Chatter both internally and externally. "We're hoping that with Chatter, as soon as somebody can't answer a question, we [can expose] that problem to all our smart people" and get the answer for the customer.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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