As Denis Pombriant and I were ruminating at the National Pastime Sports Bar at the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center, we concluded that for some reason, perhaps just ordinary corporate brain freeze, it took 'til this year - the glorious, blackcurranty with hints of pepper, spicy, long finishing, 2008, for most of the CRM companies to finally "get it." "It" being that the customer is in command of the conversation and the nature of the software world - and the world in general - will never be quite the same. (for another definition of "it' see my post on SAP) The only sad part of 2008 is that by CUSTOMER relationship management companies getting that the CUSTOMER is in control, the level of irony available (you know, the irony that CRM companies can't figure the customer out) is considerably reduced. But, while that's sad, since this particular irony was always good for something really funny if nothing else, it is really heartening to see that companies are beginning to actually understand what customers need and what they are demanding. Nice stuff, indeed.
Which leads me to this entry.....a horse to water......
The reason for my drink with DP at that bar at that convention center in that town (D.C.) was that Sage Software was holding its annual user conference - called, fittingly enough, Insights 2008. Before I get really into it, a little bit of history is necessary, since you haven't seen much of Sage in my often insane (but never inane) ramblings on CRM.
Me 'N Sage: A History
For those of you who don't know Sage (from a CRM perspective, that is) they are a multi-billion dollar European based enterprise that competes in the small and midsized business market with what is normally seen as enterprise applications - meaning front and back office apps. They call them business management applications - an apt, if not exciting, name for them. Their strengths lie in financial applications on the back end and CRM on the front end. They have two CRM products and one contact management product. That would be Saleslogix and the less robust, but now FINALLY interesting, SageCRM, and for the contact manager, the always popular constantly available, highly lucrative but from a CRM standpoint, albatross around the neck, ACT!. Don't get me wrong, ACT! is a very good product and always has been but it has been what stood in the way of small business going to CRM - even when they needed it. Now, its a bit subject to feature bloat frankly, though Sage seems to have some good plans for ACT! in their roadmap.
In any case, Sage, for a variety of reasons fell off my radar screen almost completely, and if not for the genuinely strong efforts of their marketing guy, Ryan Zuk, would have disappeared from my watch list entirely. He personally is a good guy and good at what he does, so he kept them on my list. This is actually ironic, because I have such a long history with the predecessor of the company. (Sage acquired Best Software who acquired Saleslogix), Saleslogix. Back in 1999, Saleslogix was the first CRM partnership I ever built and Pat Sullivan, the creator of ACT! AND Saleslogix wrote the foreword to the first edition of CRM at the Speed of Light (this is the Amazon mockup of the 4th Edition, now available for order, despite the horrible text associated with the sales link) and remains a valued business associate and friend.
But Sage always seemed to be a bit "off" to me. Don't get me wrong. They have had a solid product in Saleslogix for years - functionally. Until this conference, I never understand why anyone would bother with SageCRM. ACT! of course, is the industry standard contact manager with over 2.8 million users. But their architecture for the product was always at least a generation behind. Something on the order of when SaaS was gaining ground, they were announcing the client-server version. For the most part. Additionally, their partner channel, which had been the historically most important reason for my developing my early onset partnership to them, was, by 2005, competing with itself. I was involved, as a favor to a friend, in a CRM application selection process for a significant midsized business and the partner who was selling Saleslogix (competing with NetSuite and salesforce.com at the time), actually brought out SageCRM to compete with Saleslogix - so they competed with themselves - and stories abounded about that at that time.
So while I liked them and had them as my client in the past (my experience was just okay), I just declined to cover them. Declined to cover a $2.3 billion company with 15,000 employees and 25,000 partners AND 5.5 million customers.
Because, even if I had these difficulties, as someone covering CRM and writing all the time about the technology, I OWED them coverage, either good or bad, but coverage. They are and have been a legitimate player in CRM for more than a decade and that predates Sage. They deserved better than I gave them.
Luckily, they didn't really need me much and they managed to do just fine without my coverage.
So much for being influential.
In any case, I decided to go to the Sage Insights 2008 conference this year because I wanted to turn "My Bad" into My Good" and I have to say that while I have a couple of concerns, they have taken a really interesting path. They are still "off" but this time it might be good "off" because they have a unique strategy - especially given their customer base - and it is one of those that is SO different than the rest of the industry that its hard to tell how well it will succeed. Though it could succeed. They have a couple of things that truly differentiate them from anyone else at this time and that is something that I can rarely say about any CRM company, big or small. Keep in mind, their unusual strategy and execution of that strategy (which is the subject of this post) is backed by a company that, while aimed at small and medium business, is the third largest software company in the world (according to them at least - I assume Oracle, SAP and Microsoft are the two that are bigger. Oh wait, that's three.) and has mucho dineros available to them and millions and millions of customers already. No SMB focused company or company that wants to be that has nearly the resources Sage does.
Formidable (the French word, not the English)
Okay, so first some general impressions and then a discussion of Sage CRM 2010 - their strategy for the next 2 years.
Denis Pombriant, yesterday, in his CRM Buyer column, makes note of the savvy and intelligence and willingness to learn of Sue Swenson, the new CEO of Sage. That's a great backdrop to what I'm going to say, so go, shoo, shoo now, go for a few minutes and read what Denis said.
You heard me. GO!! I'll wait.......................................................................................................................................................
Back already? You read the whole article, right? Okay, OKAY! I believe you.
There were 5000 folks or so at Insights 2008, a hearty if not spectacular number. But, given economic slowdown, that is a goodly number because the companies that do business with Sage are either small, medium, or divisions of enterprises, so 5000 is a great number for a group like that. It was surprisingly lively, though of course, why I would expect otherwise only comes because I do so many conferences as an analyst/influencer/journalist, that I get to be a jaded, Sam Spade-like cynic of the noir sort after too many. What was kind of peculiar and I'm not sure why this was the case, there were a few analysts at the conference - listed as press though - but I didn't see Forrester or Gartner there - which is beyond surprising. Rob Bois of AMR Research, Andrew Boyd of Aberdeen, Denis Pombriant of Beagle Research and Laurie McCabe of AMI-Partners was there, but that's who I saw and that was it. Weird. Gartner and Forrester need to be like me and proactively get on the stick. The Sage ride is going to be interesting.
The one thing I would suggest to Sage is that they concentrate more with one on one meetings for people like me (okay, I really mean ME not people like me). Greater insight is gained and given in meetings like that which have a lot of value. I got to meet with Larry Ritter, their SVP of CRM Product Management who is a great guy and a true product strategist to the nth degree. Larry and Sr. Product Manager Steve Oar gave me an excellent demo of Saleslogix 7.5. I don't know what I can and can't say about it (not sure of NDA status) since it isn't being released until August, so I won't say a lot yet (more below though) but it is very impressive and looks really good. There are a couple of basic things that need to be improved, but this seems to be (pre-production, not a live real customer environment for me to see it on) a really solid addition with a lot of interesting changes related to their strategy (see below). I also had a brief, very friendly, meeting with David Van Toor, their GM for North American CRM. He was friendly, a sharp intellect and a little bit tired but a true gamer. A lot of fun to talk to.
All in all, the conference was thorough, covered a HUGE range of topics in a good venue and well managed. But its not what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about Sage CRM 2010 - their strategy.
Sage CRM 2010 Strategy & Products
Sage has an unusual strategy that I have to say follows nothing like any other strategy of any other CRM vendor that I know about. They also are the only CRM vendor that uses REST rather than SOA as their architecture - and that actually is one of the reasons that their strategy veers away (not "off") from the other CRM vendors. Given their target markets, the small and medium business world, their strategy could work but it has its risks. First, REST, for those of you (including me until a few days ago) who don't know it (as you will see, you DO know it, but you didn't know it was called REST).
REST - which stands for Representational State Transfer (which sounds mildly sinister) - is apparently the architecture the web is based on - a WOA (without the H) (a web oriented architecture). It uses web links to take you to dedicated web pages that contain content and XML-based instructions on what to do with that content - in other words a way of presentating instructions on what to do with the content on that particular page. The page itself is just that - a page that carries this information. So it might say, for example "get this PDF file." It is used in conjunction with standard web protocols like HTTP, SOAP (though interestingly, Sage folks derided SOAP as clumsy and made it seem as if REST doesn't use it - or need it. I personally don't know the answer to that and am too tired this morning to find out, but it seems like it does), RSS, Atom, and all the other "envelopes" that you've come to know and either love or regret depending on your inclinations and mood. What makes this interesting isn't that this has been around and its what the Web's architecture is based on. Its that Sage is using it in place of a service oriented architecture (SOA). For more on REST check these links. Easy explanation. Dissertation on REST by its creator or at least father figure Roy Thomas Fielding. Wiki on REST. More on RESTand RESTful Web applications than you ever would want to know.)
Now, here is one place (one of the few) I have a bit of a beef with Sage. They claim in their Sage CRM Solutions 2010 Strategy document that:
"To allow loosely-coupled systems to communicate using Web Services, a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) appraoch was developed and recommended for enterprise applications. However, the SOA approach proved to be cumbersome and complex, requiring a range of additional standards such as directory services, security services, discovery and more. As a result, the Web community resisted the adoption of infrastructure heavy SOA standards, deciding to adopt a different pattern that is founded on representing the state of information in a URL and being able to freely extract information states and share the same. The WOA paradigm is rapidly gaining momentum and overtaking the SOA approach."
To that I can only say, WTF????? While I have no beef on using a RESTful approach to the client base that Sage is attempting to appeal to - which would be small and medium businesses - who could do with or without a SOA - this statement about WOA "overtaking SOA" is blatantly self-aggrandizing. There is no evidence that I can find ANYWHERE (and I did look this time) that says that beyond this document and that's just a self-promoting attack on something that has been very, very good for business - a SOA - and has been increasingly perfected and adopted as 2008 goes on. Unlike past years, I've seen multiple SOAs at the enterprise level being developed and used and quite interoperable, thank you very much. Its shaped how companies from SAP to Neighborhood America to Rearden Commerce have been able to be vendor agnostic. I have no doubt that REST and WOAs are useful architectures but this statement is far too blatant and offers no proof for itself.
Dump this from your strategy document, my friends at Sage.
Now on to the good things about the document and a couple of "REST-based" products that truly standout with Sage.
Sage's strategy is actually pretty smart and if they can pull it off successfully will provide salesforce.com and others with some serious competition and a true alternative in a number of places.
Their pillars are Interoperability and Migration, Anywhere Workforce Experience and Connected Front and Back Office. Let's look at each.
One thing I gotta say. They are getting CRM 2.0 very, very well and are clear on the idea of a rich user/customer experience down to the marrow. In fact, they staged several customer "experiences" at the conference. Dave Van Toor, the GM of NA for CRM (Acronymic heaven in that one!) in his CRM discussion, used a gourmet popcorn customer, Dale & Thomas to describe their use of Sage's CRM products and while that was going on, had people throwing Dale & Thomas gourmet popcorn to everyone in the crowd (several hundred). Actually, the popcorn throwing was a little distracting when it came to the message that Sage CRM was good and Dale & Thomas popcorn people liked it was not lost but a bit buried under the popcorn "experience." Awesome popcorn BTW. And a highly enjoyable well done experience that underscored the "we've bought into" customer experience and CRM 2.0-ness of Sage this period.
One other weakness I would seriously suggest they fix - their definition of CRM 2.0. They clearly understand it, because I saw it in practice and I see it in their strategy and in the execution of some of their applications, especially mobile (more on that later) but their definition in the CRM 2010 document misses the mark by quite a long ways -
"CRM 2.0 generally refers to a rich set of CRM functionality enabled by highly interactive connections to Internet-based content. Rich user experiences and the ability to blend information from within a CRM system and other rich data sources are envisioned to enable extreme productivity."
Guys, CRM 2.0 is not a Technology 2.0!! This is just too much the old school impinging on the new world and is a justification for their architectural choice. Let me provide an alternate definition of CRM 2.0 that's more strategic and also is gleaned from the CRM 2.0 wiki which is where the CRM community is creating the definition that even the analysts (see Forrester's Bill Band and his report "The CRM 2.0 Imperative" should you doubt me) are adopting.
CRM 2.0 is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a system and a platform, that is designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation to improve human interactions and provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment. It is the company's response to the customer's ownership of the conversation."
I like that a whole lot better, though it's my actual first take on a definition to adopt (would love to have some feedback) and I have no personal stake in the definition at all, not being a vendor. This, by the way, is not the same as Vendor Relationship Management.
But there really is a lot to like in the Sage strategy as a whole. They understand the idea of conversation with customers and listening to customers and, as a result are providing products that are more than competitive, they are genuinely good. They see the need for interoperability and integration so that the customer experience/user experience is simple and seamless. They understand that the need to integrate the back and front office is mission critical because that customer interaction affects the entire enterprise. They know that customers want a highly personalized and entirely portable experience with their favorite companies, so they take context into account in their applications especially their outstanding mobile applications. In other words, while this certainly meets their business model's requirements since they provide multiple CRM products (interoperabililty) and want to be part of environments where they aren't the only products (integration) or where their other products reign supreme (front and back office connectivity), they are absolutely doing it in tune with the customer's increased expectations and demands - and even using an architecture, which while different, is not a full generation behind as in the past but is something short of a SOA though probably more than sufficient for their target customers.
In other words, with a few glitches, they are being very smart. Very smart and while in another direction, they aren't "off" anymore. Now to the pieces.
Interoperability & Migration
Think about this. Sage has 2 CRM and one contact management product. ACT!, the contact management product has 2.8 million users and many of them are in the 43,000 companies that use it. But companies grow and user adoption is always a bitch and a half. So, what if, ACT! being used by many in an environment that is beginning to use SageCRM or Saleslogix So, for example, what if ACT! was interoperable with the other Sage CRM products? User adoption is likely to go up as the user can take his/her sweet time to move from ACT! to whichever and still work successfully with the rest of the faster adopters of the other Sage CRM product in the company. No data migration is necessary. It uses the same data store.
If need be entire departments or sole operators can remain on ACT! should the company so desire to allow that. Yet the business can continue uninterrupted. Migration is at least apparently seamless as is the use of whatever you're using in the Sage CRM or CRMish family (not Amish, CRMish). None of this is ever as seamless as expected but this is a smart piece of a technology strategy and well within the boundaries of CRM 2.0 thinking. The user rules.
Anywhere Workforce Experience
This is easily the coolest and sexiest part of their strategy and its best execution and probably their biggest differentiator. Their declared strategy here is that the customer gets a choice of on premise or on demand (their SageCRM product has a hosted version SageCRM.com) and they have additional functionality that can be plugged into the customer's feature/function portfolio. The experience can be hybrid (on premise mixed with on demand) and can be connected, disconnected or mobile. What distinguishes this particular part of the strategy is their idea of Context Aware Services - which lead to their anytime, anywhere workforce awareness which when you break it down is device awareness, user awareness, network awareness.
This plays well into my New Desktop thinking which will be out shortly in a whitepaper I wrote for salesforce.com - and it dovetails with the Yankee Group's Anywhere Enterprise thinking, which I heartily endorse.
The products that result from this are particularly good. Saleslogix 7.5 of course. The parts of the product showed by DVT on stage (and what I saw which I will keep quiet about) were really excellent for the most part. For example, the UI for their web client is very, very good. Second best one I've seen in current gen CRM products - which makes it the best in the SMB world. Additionally, they, like many other vendors - notably SAP, Oracle and salesforce.com - have integrated enterprise mashups and useful ones at that. They showed a scrolling Google News Feed that was created through specific search criteria and RESTful calls. The unstructured data from the newsfeed (RSS enabled) can be downloaded to somewhere.
Probably the coolest though still a bit primitive feature of Saleslogix 7.5 (I'll just say that the functionality is as complete as you will get for sales, good for customer support and the usual for marketing) is what they call Timeline Visualization. This is a timeline of all account specific or (I think) opportunity specific activity. It is a comprehensive timeline that mashes up the data from multiple sources and presents it as a timeline for you too see what account activities occurred when. You can drill all the way into the single activity or event if you care to. You can also provide the data from the newsfeeds so that, say you can see what happened to the company/account on the day that you lost or won the deal and if there had been any reason for the result that was external to your actions. The one thing they didn't have yet that I think they need to is the ability to use the workflow to provide a color coded result of good or bad so that for example, if there was a setback you'd see the part of the timeline being red at the point of the setback while the good stuff is blue and the okay stuff is brown - or - green, fuschia, teal, whatever. Right now you can color code each line separately but not line segments. They took notes on my suggestion. Hope that it shows up in the 7.6 release (hint, hint). But even without that, this is a very interesting and differentiating feature that takes into account the visual proclivities of contemporary employees and the ease of navigation/use that users demand. Rich is the right word.
But also Saleslogix for the Blackberry and ACT! for the iPhone.
First the latter.
That's in a beta stage (barely. Version 0.5) and it is cool and simple and seems to carry all the ACT! functionality on the iPhone,. Which is an achievement. As you know, I tested all the CRM for the iPhone apps out there and found that you were better off using the Blackberry because, if you weren't in a wifi environment, EDGE just slowed it to a crawl. The demo of the device was pretty fast but I have to assume it was wifin' away, not EDGE connected. If it was EDGE working then this will be the fastest CRMish app (though not really CRM as we know, now, don't we, mi compadres?) I ever saw for that device. What it does do well is get data straight from ACT!. Updates to the ACT! data are also grabbed during bidirectional sync.
David Van Toor got so excited about this stuff that he said "we believe that discussions for on premise, off premise, on demand will become irrelevant." Not for a long while but it might someday be the case.
Saleslogix Mobile has one of the smartest features I've heard when it come mobile CRM. Context-awareness built in through the use of location awareness via GPS access. Aside from access to Saleslogix data from a very simple interface, they also have the ability to find "Accounts Near Me" and that's tied into the GPS system built into the Blackberry and the voice recognition systems - so that if you hit the "Accounts Near Me" button, the following occurs.
- The system locates you.
- It then goes and finds (based on your preferences) by accessing your customer list, the customers nearest you.
- It then speaks to you with a message like this "you have 8 customers within 5 miles. 3 (note: of the 5) have alerts."
- You can then view the alerts or call a customer.
- You then can use Telnav and get directions to the customer's site.
That is cool, useful, context-aware, location-aware and 2.0 to the max.
All in all they have executed exceptionally well on this particular area, are distinguishing themselves from their competition and have an excellent and intelligent vision when it comes to how the customers are thinking. AND they are actually listening to their customers.
Good show, old chap (they ARE UK based).
Connected Front & Back Office
The final pillar in their CRM 2010 strategy is the connected front and back office. While a technologically complex thing, it is very simple because it makes sense for them and for their customers. For them, its a no-brainer. They have products for both the front and back office. For both upselling and cross-selling, customer retention, better user experience which keeps their customers happy and cost simplification and reduction, it pays to have common components, common and open standards, suite integration and common interfaces. Helps them because their customers become tied to their enterprise suite. Helps the customer because the interface and data for both ERP and CRM are both accessed and used the same way. Plus the user impact on the front and back offices along with the customer impact on the two "offices" are now pre-eminent features of the overall business experience in the new environment.
End of story.
One last criticism though. Even though they claim that SaaS is a significant part of their strategy (see the doc) and their product portfolio (SageCRM.com), they barely mentioned it during the conference. Given the interest in and the predominance of SaaS in customer discussions (especially for the customers Sage is interested in) they might want to reshape their messaging to focus some of it on SaaS and engage in that chat because their customers are looking at it, whether their research seems to show it or not. Spend the time and the dime and result will be worth it.
All in all, I'm very intrigued for the first time in a long time with what Sage is doing. They are being rebels by their WOA not SOA architectural approach. I don't know that it'll work, but its one that has some real upside for them if it does. Despite the power of SOA. They are off again - but this time not "off "as in "a little nuts" but "off" as in "unique in their outlook." They've developed some serious strategies for capturing exactly those customers that have been both demanding in their conversational requirements and in their business needs and that's a thing of importance unto itself. Sage goes back on the watch list. The closely watched list. They are well worth it.
Will they succeed? I really don't know. Their strategic approach to the 2.0 world is right but their technology execution so different that I can't tell. But I'm going to keep watching and I WILL keep you posted.