Marc Benioff, the CEO of software-as-a-service (SaaS) upstart Salesforce.com, (CRM) is known as one of the wilder figures in tech. He built a business designed to destroy the traditional software market, where he once worked as a high-ranking executive at Oracle (ORCL).

He timed Salesforce's launch perfectly, just as broadband Internet penetration achieved levels sufficient to support a SaaS marketplace. As revenues grew and Salesforce emerged as the clear leader in SaaS, other followed suit -- including Oracle, Microsoft (MSFT) and, most recently, Google (GOOG) with its applications marketplace. The upshot? Benioff was prescient at the least, visionary in many ways and certainly wound up in an envious position.

Not Exactly What I Expected

Which is why I was so shocked that he personally returned an email plea for help that I recently fired off to him, immediately escalated my query to an executive vice president and thanked me. Actually, he said "Mahalo," a Hawaiian word for "thanks." So, that belies either some knowledge he may have had about my background (I lived in Hawaii for 15 years) or an adopted habit from Benioff having a second home on the Big Island.

"Mahalo for escalating." How often will you get an email like that from the CEO of a multibillion dollar company within a minute or two of making a complaint?

Granted, I've been a journalist and blogger. So, Benioff might have realized that this squeaky wheel should be greased, or else a public mess could ensue. But I've emailed other CEOs -- often -- and never gotten back a direct reply like this. In fact, my missive wasn't even a pleasant plea. I was struggling to learn Salesforce (which is actually extremely complicated) as part of my new day job as director of marketing at a greentech startup.

Salesforce had me flummoxed and angry, and my head was throbbing. And I wasn't doing anything complicated. I was just trying to add a list of contacts to an email campaign I was building. Salesforce's definitions and menus weren't clearly explained. Nor did I find any help in the extensive, detailed and, unfortunately, nearly impenetrable "help" menus.

An Answer in 67 Seconds

So I wrote to Benioff a simple email with the subject: "Appalled at How Bad Salesforce Inline Support Is." In the body, I wrote: "It's like a root canal. Make it stop." I pushed the send button at 10:06 AM on March 17. Just over a minute later (67 seconds, to be exact) a reply came back from Benioff, asking one of his top product executives to call me and find out what was wrong. I almost nosed my green tea and then rubbed my eyes.

A short while later, I received a call from Brian Estebez, a product development manager at Salesforce.com. We talked for a while about what I thought was wrong and how it could be improved. Estebez made no commitment, but he acknowledged my points, felt my pain and encouraged me to become involved in the feedback channels that are Salesforce's primary mechanism for developing new product features.

Estebez also offered to set me up with some training. But I gently explained that the whole point was Salesforce shouldn't require training to do basic tasks. They should either be obvious or be easily understood with strong built-in support that enables a user to complete most tasks without toggling back and forth between multiple screens.

A Good Sign for Salesforce's Future

Long story short, I can't say that I'm a better Salesforce user. And maybe I'm just a noisy, self-famous blogger who happened to make it through Benioff's email screen. But I have heard other tales of him responding personally to these sorts of emails. And the fact that his response came so swiftly implies a simple but really important fact: The man probably spends a lot of time reading customer emails.

To me, this bodes particularly well for Salesforce and its future as the company grows along with the rising SaaS market. At 10:06 a.m. on March 17 my instant-message status message read "Salesforce = Pain." By 10:09 a.m., I had changed that to "Mahalo for escalating." And I'll raise a half-full (rather than half-empty) glass to that.

Disclosure: Alex Salkever owns shares of Salesforce.com. That, however, has not prevented him from publicly slamming the company in Twitter and in his blog posts.



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