I’m a bit behind in getting my wrap up and thoughts on Sage Summit – Sage's annual event for business partners and customers – together, but better late than never! As you can see in the related links at the end of this post, I’ve attended these events for many years. During this time, Sage North America has gone through many significant changes to bring sharper focus to its mission and more value to its customers. At this year’s event, I saw promising signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off.
That was then
Sage North America has been on a transformational journey since 2009, when Sue Swenson took over as CEO, made some tough choices, and began setting the wheels in motion to change the company’s downward trajectory. In the four years since, the company hired another new CEO, Pascal Houllion, in 2011. Under his leadership, Sage made some controversial (at the time) moves to unify the Sage brand and product names and divest Sage of seven non-core businesses, including ACT! and SalesLogix, which had large installed bases. To help streamline the company’s focus on its core business and on improving customers’ experience with Sage, Houllion also brought some fresh talent into the executive ranks.
This is now
The result of all this is a more focused, purposeful Sage. Gone are the days of trying (unsuccessfully) to rationalize an unfathomable number of overlapping products. On Houllion’s watch, it is unacceptable for Sage executives to position the Sage portfolio in different ways. At Sage Summit 2013, the executive team was singing from the same hymnal regarding Sage’s core positioning and messages:
- Continue to focus on its core businesses (accounting, payroll, payment processing, ERP, etc) for very small businesses, SMBs and the mid-market. Key to executing on this is the company’s move to centralize R&D Centers of Excellence for cloud, mobility, customer experience. In the past, each individual product brand would undertake separate development efforts for new functionality. Now, Sage R&D develops new features, extensions and add-ons once (for mobility or analytics, for instance) that individual product groups can replicate across their solutions. Sage is also in the process (though not yet there) of standardizing service and support offerings. It launched Sage City, a new centralized online community for customers, business partners and employees, last month. And, Sage will make new acquisitions when needed to supplement its core solution focus.
- Expand its connected services strategy and offerings. Sage is building more cloud services, such as SageExchange.com, Sage Mobile Sales, and Sage CRM, that connect to core financials and ERP solutions, as well as for partners to build and sell add-on connected services. The company’s big picture vision is to “liberate” data and services that had been locked into ERP so that customers can use them in the cloud, anywhere, anytime, and from any device. Sage is building a data cloud on Microsoft’s Azure platform with common connectors, bi-directional synch, multi-tenant storage and disaster recovery. This means that Sage connected services will work the same way regardless of the backend ERP/financials Sage customers use. This will all come together in the Sage Marketplace, slated to launch in FY14.
- Going all-in on the subscription pricing and the cloud. Sage now offers subscription-based pricing for all of its solutions, and comps partners on a percentage of subscription sales over the life of a contract. It has also committed to developing cloud versions for its solutions, including a cloud version of Sage ERP X3, which will feature a user pure web experience when available in 2014.
Taking the marketing road less travelled
The Sage commitment to putting customer experience first underpins these initiatives. Sage has several initiatives underway to up its listening game, such as the Sage Listens RV Relay, which is allowing Sage to also kick off a 'Shop Local' campaign to encourage people to shop with local businesses.
In contrast to the “build it and they will come” tack that most tech companies take, Sage is taking its cue from the Proctors and Gambles of the world. It is getting customer input upfront before developing new products and functionality. Sage is hearing that customers want easy to use, flexible solutions, mobile capabilities and a low cost of entry, and is concentrating resources on these areas. In fact, in one of the breakouts, when an analyst asked a Sage executive about social and big data plans, the exec said that customers are not calling these out as priorities. He added that while Sage isn’t ignoring these areas, it is prioritizing development and marketing based on customer input.
For instance, Sage recently launched Sage Healthcare Advisory Services , which includes a new “My Workforce Analyzer” tool to help SMBs understand plan for the Affordable Care Act. Analytics are under the covers, of course, to help SMBs develop what-if scenarios and optimize planning. But Sage isn’t calling it a big data solution.
Sage has often been knocked about for not keeping pace with the generational shift in the North American workforce. But it is now facing the facts – specifically that people born before 1968 will comprise less than 20% of the workforce by 2015. Sage is recalibrating its strategy to align more closely with different generational expectations. As Brad Smith, EVP of Customer Experience stated in his keynote, “We have to over-service the pre-PC guys but we also have to find ways to reach the ‘digital natives.’”
To that end, Sage demoed a voice-to-text initiative in which users can use voice-activated mobile technology to interface with ERP systems on mobile devices. It’s sort of like Siri, but within the context of the business and business workflows, so it appears to do a better job of handling user queries and requests. While the voice command initiative is in its infancy, it could be a key differentiator in the future.
Finally, Sage is putting its money where its mouth is, by tying Sage metrics and compensation for all Sage execs to Sage Net Promoter scores (NPS). The company’s previously shrinking North America business has grown 4% year-over-year.
Channeling the channel
SMB Group research shows that accountants/CPAs and technology business partners represent 2 of the top 3 influencer channels for SMBs selecting financials and related business solutions, with peers in other businesses rounding out the list. Sage has a large channel in both areas – with over 25,000 accountants in North America and more than 26,000 technology reseller partners worldwide. But over the past few years, cloud competitors have been trying to poach these very valuable resources.
Accordingly, Sage has several new initiatives underway to re-focus partners back on Sage. In addition to committing to provide cloud-based offerings across the portfolio to give partners a Sage cloud offering, Sage is:
- Partnering with the Business Learning Institute to develop a curriculum for accountants to help them provide more competitive services to their SMB clients.
- Planning to launch a new certification program for accountants focused on the startup market, with a collaborative version of Sage One, Sage’s solution for very small businesses, to make it easier for them to automate tasks and take care of clients.
- Introducing the Sage Advisor Partner Dashboard, which uses current customer data to help Sage reseller and accountant partners more readily identify new opportunities in the installed base, and provide a more personalized, consultative sales experience.
Sage is also recruiting new partners for mid-market Sage ERP X3, and new accountant partners to help it build traction among very small businesses for the Sage One solution.
Summary and perspective
Minus ACT! and SalesLogix customers and partners, this year’s Sage Summit was smaller than in 2012, but the energy level was much higher. Sage executives were more confident and relaxed, and the messages they delivered were consistent and crisp. Sage demos were more engaging, and even, at times, entertaining.
Key metrics, including rising NPS scores, modest growth in its North America business, and a stock price that recently reached its highest point in 13 years are also good signs for Sage. As important, conversations with customers at the event led me to conclude that “Sage Listens” has moved beyond a slogan to put the programs in place to proactively engage customers.
However, there are a few areas in which I believe Sage needs to double down:
- Sage One marketing. Worldwide, Sage has about 10,000 customers using this very small business management solution today. But most of the millions of very small businesses have never heard of it. Sage needs to significantly enhance awareness and demand gen campaigns to become more than a blip on the radar.
- Third-party connected services. Sage has a big installed base, which should make it an attractive partner for third-party developers – especially now that developers can write just one connector and reuse it for all of Sage’s core products. But Sage has only about 20 endorsed connected partner services today. Again, many developers don’t know about this opportunity. Sage must raise its overall visibility in the developer community and launch a targeted recruitment program to get developers to build the apps that its customers need.
- Clarity around CRM. After divesting ACT! and SalesLogix, the company’s sole solution here is Sage CRM. But other than discussing integration and a cloud version of Sage CRM that is in the works, CRM was very low profile at the event. Given Sage’s focus on core financials/ERP it leads me to wonder how committed is Sage to Sage CRM, and if will make the investments required to provide a truly first-rate CRM solution.
- Innovation. Sage made a good case for its direction in the cloud, mobile and integration areas. However, analysts and press did and will continue to hound it on social and big data/analytics. While Sage customers may not have put these areas at the top of their priority lists yet, it’s only a matter of time before they do. Sage needs to get out in front in these areas.
That said, it’s challenging to do everything at once. The Sage leadership team has made the decision to move forward instead of standing still. All in all, I get the impression that Sage as a company has a better sense of who it is, where it’s going and how it will serve SMBs.