Is NetSuite Sweet for Customers?

It’s widely agreed that customer experience is now the most important dynamic for business. Any organization that wants to retain loyal and even vocal customers should do everything possible to ensure and maintain customer satisfaction. Software companies, especially those that promise to provide CRM and effective interactions across any channel at any time, should be good examples of embracing the methods they prescribe for using their products. But do they?

Maybe our organization is not having great luck at the moment. We just went through a bad experience with Salesforce, which had a cascading technology failure (known as #NA14) of its data center and database operations that shut down thousands of customers that, like us, use its software. Of course, technology problems happen, but there is no excuse for poor communications that don’t explain a situation and provide regular updates, not to mention prompt resolutions. Customer communications and supporting processes ought to make customers feel that they and their business are important to the provider. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was more than communicative and listened to comments on the issues directly through social media; now we wait to see what changes the company will make in its customer relationship processes and communications.

Unfortunately, around the same time as this fiasco another one occurred, originating with the cloud-based ERP provider NetSuite. Here again there appear to be some very large challenges with its customer relationship processes and resulting customer experience. Our analyst firm tracks and has recommended NetSuite as part of our research practices and advisory services to organizations and business professionals on applications, as in this analyst perspective by my colleague Robert Kugel. In October 2013 NetSuite announced its acquisition of TribeHR,  a cloud-based provider of a human resources management system (HRMS) for small and midsize businesses. Our firm at the time and continued to be a happy customer of TribeHR but also an advocate of and reference for its efforts, as I wrote in 2012 and part of our human capital management research coverage.NetSuite Logo

After the acquisition, at end of 2015, I received an email from an individual supposedly at NetSuite billing us for use of TribeHR. I was not sure if the message was legitimate, as the usual form of business communications to a customer and did not identify the person’s position in NetSuite. As you may know, it is a common scam to send invoices and ask for payment without context; this is an issue the FBI’s Internet Crimes Division is actively addressing where individuals are asking for payments through emails and PDF that appear to be legitimate. We ourselves have been attacked by these scams though our governance processes have prevented any mispayments. I sent an email reply to ensure that the sender actually was from NetSuite and asked for the agreement for the invoice; I got a generic reply that did not identify the person or department and said only that the invoice was related to back billing for TribeHR access. I asked again for proper identification and a copy of the license agreement and terms for payment. This was the last I heard about it. I never got a call from an account manager or anyone else at NetSuite to address the situation. Of course it could have been resolved easily if NetSuite had embedded online billing and payment from within the application. Obviously this was not a satisfying customer experience for something as easy as clarifying an invoice and setting up recurring payments from our organization.

Then, out of nowhere, on April 22 our instance to TribeHR was shut down without notice. Attempts to log in by anyone in our company received this boilerplate message: “Your account is currently suspended. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause. Please email support@tribehr.com and collectionsteam@netsuite.com to reactivate your account or submit related questions.” I sent an email, and the HCM Customer Success team at TribeHR responded quickly to let me know they were investigating. Clearly the vendor could and should have been more proactive. We have a prominent website, I myself am easily found through social media, and most importantly I am the main contact within TribeHR where I am listed as the system administrator and human resources contact. All NetSuite had to do was use the customer information in our instance of TribeHR. Any communication at all could have remedied this situation; it was even worse since the communications with me in December were never followed up as I requested.

Next a new person contacted me for the first time, saying he is our account manager. He told me that the invoices were sent to a person who has not been with the company for seven years at an outdated mailing address. I requested that the outstanding invoices be updated and consolidated in one agreement. I signed a new agreement on May 10 and emailed it back, requesting a credit card link so we could get it paid immediately. I was told that once the order was processed we would get an invoice and payment link. This was important as the terms on the agreement I signed said that payment was due upon receipt. But the updated invoices from the beginning of the year and a link to pay them did not come.

Then on May 24, our system again became unavailable for use. In response to my inquiry our instance was reactivated and I was informed that it was not clear why we were turned off and that the invoice would be sent to our accounting for payment. I thought it weird that no one from NetSuite had called or emailed to let us know it would be turned off. Forcing customers to chase a software vendor to pay for services is certainly not a best practice.

At this point I thought it would be worthwhile to make sure that the CEO of NetSuite, Zach Nelson, knew about our problems and poor customer experience, so I put it on Twitter to elevate the situation: “Looks like @NetSuite just shut off @TribeHR customers from access to its HRMS – not a good signal to HR & biz for them! #FAIL @ZachNelson” and then “@NetSuite @TribeHR @ZachNelson and email my rep and it is turned back on! When do sales control customer access to apps?”

Five hours later I got Zach’s response: “Should we be mailing the collection notices to someone else in your company?” I responded “@ZachNelson @NetSuite @TribeHR you are really out of touch! I asked your sales rep to get our accounting team an invoice to pay & waiting!” and “@ZachNelson @NetSuite @TribeHR if you would like emails to your team I am happy to provide! Instead of accusing me / get the facts!” and “@ZachNelson @NetSuite @TribeHR or use your new online billing / subscription system with online payment for your own business! Free advice!”

A basic email to our account rep, who by the way has been more than easy to work with, by Zach would find out that we are trying to pay for services and have been shut down twice because of NetSuite having old information and are still waiting for a payment link. Not one to get falsely roasted on Twitter, I responded, “When did CEO of your SaaS provider trying to falsely roast you on Twitter become customer best practice? Ask @netsuite @ZachNelson #FAIL.” I expected it would be obvious that roasting a customer and industry analyst was not necessary when a simple response to request a call or direct message on Twitter could resolve it. But Zach responded on Twitter, “If sending 4 email notices between December and April is considered ‘No Notice’ then the answer would be yes,” which is a response to my asking, “Do you turn off your customers with no notice?” These were my next responses to Zach: “not difficult to see your org/process made mistakes multiple times – I signed agmt & waiting for invoice” and “an apology is easy to give a customer/analyst on your mistakes not mine if you looked at what happened.” and “been a happy customer of TribeHR and supporter of your efforts! Not sure dishing on me makes any sense!” and “@ZachNelson and for the record, been a fan of @TribeHR read  https://marksmith.ventanaresearch.com/2012/11/15/building-your-workforce-into-a-strong-tribe/ … then became a customer & reference – ask @josephfung.” This turned into a late-night rant because I was concerned that our instance would be turned off again. And all of this for invoices that do not add up to more than $500 USD.

As an industry analyst and chief research officer covering the spectrum of applications, tools and technology for business (and the overall top-ranked enterprise software analyst in 2011), I was hoping for more courtesy in these communications. We do get much communications from analyst relations like we get from other vendors to help us recommend NetSuite unless we diligently pursue it. I noted in listening to the keynotes from NetSuite SuiteWorld16 along with announcements about new offerings like SuiteBilling, which it announced on May 17 and demonstrated, that if it is as advertised, it should resolve such issues as billing and payment for subscriptions. NetSuite could even embed this system directly into TribeHR or provide it to customers through a secure login. If NetSuite is using its billing applications for subscriptions it should process bounced emails and develop professional business communications to effectively engage with customers. Any of these is a better approach than emailing PDFs to customers –manually sending invoices is a worst practice. As we have written, the subscriber experience impacts recurring revenue. It is amazing that NetSuite’s people cannot even look up customer information in the system it rents to customers and doesn’t bother to go to the customer’s website and call them if they can’t get information from their own system. Instead its CEO roasts the CEO of their customer and head of an industry analyst firm that recommends NetSuite on Twitter without proper investigation. Let me just say that it does not take long for bad customer experiences to impact future business, as word travels fast today.

If NetSuite is in the business of serving small businesses, which was the backbone of its growth, then it should know that asking them to print and mail checks for a low monthly subscription of less than $200 is not a best practice and impacts their efficiency. Asking small businesses to wire money is worse because as anyone knows it could cost a small business $15 or more, which is 5 to 10 percent of this invoice and amounts to a penalty to the customer. Software companies like NetSuite should progress like those in other industries that service small businesses, such as healthcare, insurance and other recurring payments; they allow a customer to use ACH for recurring invoices and eliminate manual or costly methods for payment especially if you do not allow credit card payments online. Also, applications like NetSuite should have accounting and billing contact information so that the information is updated by the customer and easy to access and email or even make a phone call. Also, any issues related to the use of the software should be notified to the administrator or in this case also the head of human resources. Since the business is renting the software, the courtesy of contacting them is an industry best practice. These are my recommendations for NetSuite and any software-as-a-service provider, including Salesforce, for which I also provided recommendations in its communications and the billing and payment processes.

We at Ventana Research know that recurring revenue challenges finance, accounting and billing departments as we have written, and that it is easy to say that you should use the software you sell for your own business. We understand that engagement throughout the customer life cycle is the largest recurring revenue challenge in 55 percent of organizations, according to our recurring revenue research. As a negative, example as administrator of our TribeHR instance I have not received updates on the direction of the application. This is a concern for us when we hear the loud partnering communications from NetSuite about a competitive approach from UltimateHCM and are not clear on the future of TribeHR. Our research also finds that payment processing and account management are two of the top five capabilities desired by organizations for a recurring revenue system. In addition our research finds that customer renewals are the largest expected recurring revenue challenge. So we have empathy for NetSuite in this situation. Our research and clients show that improving vr_Recurring_Revenue_04_key_capabilities_of_recurring_revenue_systemscommunications in the billing and payment cycle along with the operation and improvements to the software are essential for long-term success and to customer retention. This improvement is part of what we have articulated is critical for customer experience in 2016 using digital technologies.

The customer experience I have described suggests many areas in which NetSuite needs to improve its communications, contracts, billing and payment processes. Right now it is not so sweet for customers of NetSuite, and its leaders should take to understand the issues in its communications and customer processes to ensure that situations like ours don’t happen again. NetSuite has been operating since 1998 and providing applications in what is known now as cloud computing and should have these processes well defined and refined. TribeHR was acquired in 2013 and by this time should be better integrated as a business and technology into NetSuite and its customer relationship processes so there should be no excuse for what our organization has experienced. We suggest that other small or midsize businesses should re-evaluate any further use of NetSuite and place on hold any evaluation of NetSuite until the company improves its customer and subscriber experience and communications.

No one is perfect, including our company, but I am standing by for a public apology for the clear mistreatment and abuse from CEO Zach Nelson and NetSuite. He could have passed this issue down to the customer service team (and hopefully customer success team) to resolve. Remember our organization was not the cause of this bad customer experience and lack of customer relationship processes. As you see I have documented the experience well, and those who want to see what not to do, just contact me.

Regards,

Mark Smith

CEO and Chief Research Officer

Can We Trust Salesforce for Business in the Cloud?

I have been meaning to write about Salesforce since its Dreamforce 2015 conference. Salesforce provides a platform, tools and applications for business and IT who claims to be the ‘no software’ company which as you will read is exactly what happened on May 10th. Heck, Salesforce is making a lot of advances on its platform, its applications and even with Analytics and the Internet of Things. These changes are at the center of what at our analyst firm calls digital business innovation. Much of what it’s doing is very good, but now I am questioning whether the company’s foundation of business processes and technology platform has reached a point at which it can’t grow any further without impacting its own customers’ operations and success. That may be a harsh statement, but I think my reasoning will become clear as you read this perspective.Salesforce No Software

This is not my usual focus, but it comes from a customer-centric perspective since we have been a customer of Salesforce since 2012. You’ll find this is different from most of my analyst perspectives, which take the approach of a technology insider; after all, as an industry analyst in 2011 I was the top-rated enterprise software analyst (if you don’t mind a little self-promotion). In this case, however, I won’t go into the research and best practices that show what Salesforce needs to do to be an effective provider of CRM and other business tools that help companies succeed in serving their customers and delivering the best possible overall experience.

The stimulus for this piece was something that caught the whole industry’s attention: the all-day #NA14 outage on May 10, 2016. What is #NA14? Organizations that rent Salesforce applications that are housed and served from the #NA14 cluster of servers (one of 37 clusters around North America) know what it is. On that date it experienced what I believe was the largest-scale outage in Salesforce’s history and maybe ever in the industry based on number of companies and users. While other clusters also had some shorter outages at the same data centers, it was #NA14 that went out for the entire day. So impactful that the humor of having a t-shirt that those affected can purchase.

Survived #NA14You might say, it was just one day, so what is the big deal? Well, thousands of companies that have hundreds or thousands of users each were abruptly denied access to their applications for marketing, sales, customer service, messaging and to analytics and any custom applications and all their interactions with prospects and customers. This means everything was down, and for businesses that operate on Salesforce’s platform – like ours does – across marketing, sales, customer service, operations, customer engagement and even accounting, this was a major inconvenience. Much of the #NA14 fiasco has been documented and reported by Information Week and eWeek. As well as the outage, customers lost five hours of data (according to their Salesforce Trust website) and I can imagine at least millions of dollars in worker productivity and potential new sales. The customer interactions that could not occur had a direct impact on the customer experience that companies were trying to deliver, and you can bet those customers were not happy.

Making it even worse, Salesforce did not substantively communicate to customers and users while all business using Salesforce was at a complete standstill. The company did nothing to relieve the internal confusion and panicky communications within organizations that wanted to know what was going on.

Why this lack of communication? After a little investigation I found that the customer information Salesforce needed to communicate with its customers resides on the same servers that were offline and so was inaccessible to the Salesforce account and customer service teams! This means that Salesforce does not have a centralized customer information store that is a replica or master of the data stored on its server clusters around the world. How is this possible for a company of its size and reputation? A lack of investment in process and infrastructure that has led to a brittle foundation for its cloud computing empire must be at the root of the situation. Any organization that depends on customer relationships should have its customer information available even when key software is not operational and should know how to communicate to its customers across any channel, voice, text or email. My colleague Richard Snow outlined this in his guidance for 2016, and Salesforce should heed his advice and apply what he has written about the innovations it provides to its customers to its own business.  When I look at the information Salesforce has about our organization, I see that it does not have fields to tell them how they should communicate urgent notifications and by what channel. Would it be most useful to call, text or email? Here are some serious places for improvement.

Salesforce eventually got past its consistently uninformative responses on Twitter to check its trust.salesforce.com site. CEO Marc Benioff personally replied to some people’s tweets like mine with this: “I am sorry for our service disruption on NA14, please email me at ceo@salesforce.com so we can call you @parkerharris.” It revealed that the company does not link Twitter handles to customers and store centrally. The Twitter mob launched a flood of obnoxious, sometimes hilarious memes on the situation, like pictured here, and very quickly it became too late for Salesforce to recover. I did email and tried to follow up with Marc but got no response, so that gesture on his part was worse than nothing. I got basic responses to direct messages on Twitter but nothing that improved my confidence or trust in Salesforce’s ability to resolve the situation.NA14 Squirrel

Something that was not mentioned at all during this service disruption and data loss is that Salesforce uses Oracle’s database technology under its Force.com platform. Salesforce stated on its Trust website, “The service disruption was caused by a database failure on the NA14 instance, which introduced a file integrity issue in the NA14 database.” Salesforce was careful not to mention Oracle in any communications, though it noted during the crisis communications that it was a database failure. It is known that Salesforce has built its own abstraction layer as part of its platform, along with its own query interface; maybe that is the root cause of the integrity issues that eventually led to the five hours of data loss. If Salesforce was not able to shift successfully to backup data centers, let alone ensure against a power failure to a data center itself, we wonder whether its data centers are configured properly for fail over and disaster recovery. As a side point it is well known that placing data centers in major metropolitan areas like Chicago and Washington, D.C., is not a best practice; Google, Facebook and others have selected locations in Oregon that are remote and geographically stable and have lower energy costs and less risk of failure for power or human mistakes.

During the crisis, individuals at several levels of management in the support and services team tried to salvage the situation, but since Salesforce could not provide real updates online about service restoration, companies were left with their employees who depend on Salesforce sitting around, and many turned to Twitter for laughter. Two days’ later customers received a formal apology letter from Keith Block, Salesforce’s vice chairman, president and COO, that stated that a power distribution failure in a data center forced the company to switch to a backup data center, but there was also a database failure that created file integrity issues that led to the disruption. The letter apologized for the poor quality of service and encouraged companies like ours to contact him or our account team or even file a support ticket, which showed some humility. But it did not mention the lost five hours of data that was acknowledged on its Trust website, so you would have to do your own investigation to determine whether you had data being entered during that time. And no reference in the email or direction communications to customers that “#NA14 instance continues to operate in a degraded state that can impact the reliability from a performance and scalability perspective, or that they are planning a four-hour shutdown on Sunday, May 15th to attempt to do what they have stated as “bring the NA14 instance back to full functionality”. I guess that customer communication on the operations of its applications and software is still not a priority for Salesforce and making customers go and check the website is what they believe is a great customer experience.

What would you do to make up for a #NA14 situation if this was your company? I probably would offer incentives for future services or even apology incentives in the form of gift cards for every user – something to show you care about the customer experience beyond an apology letter that does nothing to help individuals who are on performance plans for quotas to customer engagement interactions. And the email was followed up by another email inviting customers of #NA14 to a special executive team conference call to probably further apologize on the situation. If I was any customer of Salesforce, I would want to be listening to this phone call and communications from executives to determine what might happen to them. Let’s hope that the time since the #NA14 crash has placed a level of seriousness and reconciliation with Salesforce executives.

All of this comes back to the overall customer experience in subscribing to software from Salesforce. Salesforce has become difficult to work with for businesses, especially small and midsize ones. Our own business made three changes to our subscription over the last 9 months to upgrade and purchase more licenses – changes that it should be simple and straightforward to make. But if you have experienced the Salesforce Checkout, you know it is anything but pleasant to review quotes, contracts, orders, statements and invoices, and the billing and payment system is even worse. You cannot pay for your subscribed changes by credit card and ACH like you can with any other software as a service on the Internet from, say, Microsoft, Adobe or even SAP or the range of services that a business pays for in healthcare, insurance, contractors and online banking. Salesforce asks you to mail a check because it is more expensive for it to provide online payment. Really? This is the most inefficient way to conduct commerce and make payments. When we refused to pay by check, Salesforce collections generated a new invoice with ACH/Wire information that a customer can manually use; but I refused to waste my company time and I called collections who took my credit card number over the phone. The company at this point doesn’t have an online payment system managed by the customer as is standard in the industry.

Even worse, communications to customers come from what is called the collections department, which is an insulting word, as if you were a deadbeat; why not call this team Customer Payment? My experience in three incidents suggests this team needs training in effective customer communications to maintain a quality customer experience. Salesforce’s customer engagement approach for requesting and paying for software is ludicrous, and it comes from a company that markets itself as providing a “customer success platform empowering companies to connect with their customers in a whole new way” – that’s in the About Salesforce statement in its press releases and website, and it could not be further from the truth when it comes to the experience it actually provides to customers. All of this could be fixed by using subscription and recurring revenue software from Salesforce’s partners and ensure the focus is on the subscriber experience like its partner Zuora provides today, and as Richard Snow has pointed out.

Another nagging issue stands as the largest impediment for companies that try to gain access to the latest innovations from Salesforce. I mean its new user experience, Salesforce Lightning. It was announced to customers in 2014 and begun to be released in 2015, but it is still not widely used. I have learned that thousands of companies have yet to migrate to Lightning as organizations have determined it is not ready for prime time in large and small deployments. Our experience has been that it is slow and not responsive to quick changes in the layout of information you are viewing and for getting to previous functionality requires switching to the classic interface. Plus not all of the entire suite of functionality from Salesforce has been upgraded to support this user experience, including the Console, Contracts, Data.com., Forecasts, Orders and even Getting Started. Yes, that’s right: Salesforce is struggling to get its own new user experience software up and running on all of its own applications, but it insists that it will be pretty much complete by the end of 2016. While this would be a good first step, Salesforce also has yet to make Lightning compatible with Windows Touch, which is now the standard method for the tens of millions of professionals who got a new notebook in the last year to scroll up and down, engage with the application and gesture through information. Today if you try to touch your way through Salesforce, it just does not work like it was turned off or not enabled. My inquiry on the situation to Salesforce found that my assessment was indeed true.

As an analyst firm that covers business applications that relate to the customer experience, from marketing, sales, service and operations all the way to finance, we conclude that Salesforce is not adhering to best practices. Any organization that cannot get access to its customer information to communicate to them in the midst of a crisis because it does not have a centralized customer database is set up to fail. It is a fact that systems will fail, and an organization should be prepared to have centralized backup of all of its customer information. When it comes to communications, an organization should not rely on a condescending top-down approach that some believe is a superhero type effort but be sensitive to how it communicates with customers and be honest in the information within the communication. Salesforce should be sensitive to other communications it is sending out during sensitive times like #NA14. For example, on the day of the #NA14 crash, Salesforce cloud services sent me an email message saying that “simple configuration changes improve business outcomes.” On the following day an email from customersuccessspecialist@salesforce.com invited me to explore how to best utilize my subscription, and this message had been assembled by copying and pasting text with different fonts and sizes of type. How embarrassing. All of which says to me that spinning out communications designed to learn more about me and get me to spend more with Salesforce is more important than my experience with the situation on hand. I had to reach out to our account executive to inquire about the #NA14 crash, but the rep was not able to offer any enlightenment beyond checking the trust.salesforce.com site. In addition we’ve received no communication from the analyst relations group who should be proactively in dialogue with those that recommend and research their company; sadly, that’s not surprising, as getting information or updates on Salesforce is nearly impossible unless you go and find it yourself at Dreamforce.

Salesforce TowerSalesforce is investing massively in new real estate for its office towers around the world, and the largest of all is the new headquarters in San Francisco. Being the tallest and reaching into the clouds is a heavily marketed message. I hope that Salesforce is not falling victim to what my colleague Robert Kugel calls the headquarters effect. Unfortunately the reality of a cloud infrastructure is that it still operates on Planet Earth, and Salesforce needs to pay significant attention to that. I have pointed out issues in Salesforce’s cloud computing approach – in its processes, technology and people – that make it more difficult to work with from my viewpoint than hundreds of other technology providers. To provide customer relationship management (CRM), which is the stock ticker (NYSE:CRM) of Salesforce, how the processes are instrumented and people are empowered and enabled to communicate is more important than the technology itself.

I hope Salesforce will assess its people, processes, information and technology to ensure it can deliver the great customer experience that it espouses as the main value in working with it. From our point of view, as Robert Kugel has written on Salesforce and midsize company opportunity, it is clear that depending too much on one provider may not be the best recipe for success. Even Salesforce is rumored to be shifting away from its own cloud computing environment for its Internet of Things (IoT) and will operate on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Our organization is reassessing whether Salesforce is the right provider to support our marketing, sales, service, operations and customer management for the future. In addition, over the coming months we as analysts will assess Salesforce’s advances in marketing, sales, service, analytics and platform and write about them to help you make your own decisions on whether to reassess or invest with Salesforce for your future in the cloud. It is a serious question whether this company can be trusted to effectively support the business success of its users and customers and whether it can rebuild confidence that it can respond to the critical situations that happen to any technology provider.

Is Salesforce able to communicate with and engage customers for the best possible experience? Can Salesforce listen to its customers and improve their product as I have pointed out? Will it improve its business communications to its customers? Time will tell what Salesforce does and how it will recover from #NA14 and prepare itself for the future and how it communicates its plans to mitigate the risk of similar failures in the future.

Regards,

Mark Smith

CEO and Chief Research Officer