Impressions from Sage Insights 2009

Last week, I attended Insights, Sage North America’s annual partner event. I’ve attended this event for several years now, watching the company’s attempts to create a cohesive brand and strategy across its many small and medium business (SMB)  solutions. At last year’s Insights, Sage had just hired Sue Swenson as North America CEO, so I was very curious to see what progress the company  has made in what has been an exceptionally tough economic year.

First, Some Background

Through a long history of acquisitions, Sage North America has assembled a collection of more than 40 small and medium business (SMB) applications that span financials, ERP, CRM, HR and other business functions. Although many of its brands–including Abra, Peachtree, MAS, ACT! And SalesLogix–have a long history, and large, loyal following, Sage hasn’t capitalized on the cross-selling and upselling opportunities between and among them.

Attracting new customers has also been a tough challenge for Sage. To outsiders, Sage’s large portfolio is confusing, and many of its older solutions haven’t been refreshed with new technologies. Sage has also faced mounting competition in the SMB business solutions space, from traditional SMB rivals such as Intuit and Microsoft Dynamics; enterprise players Oracle and SAP as they push downstream; and a growing array of cloud and open source vendors, such as, NetSuite, Intacct and SugarCRM.

Sage North America has tried to build a more cohesive strategy and reset its market image several times in the past. But for the most part, these efforts have fallen short because each product group continued to devise their solution and go-to-market schemes independently of one another.

My Impressions

It looks like Sue and her team  have done a lot of soul searching, which has resulted in the “back-to-basics” approach she outlined in her keynote address. Noting that the past year has been “transformational”, she elaborated on some of the tough choices Sage has already faced, including staff reductions. But she, along with Motasim Najeeb, Sage’s new CTO and other senior executives also outlined how they intend to move Sage forward. These center on a few key over-arching goals, including:

  • Unifying the Sage portfolio under the Sage master brand. Sage’s is investing in a new corporate campaign designed to make the brand more visually appealing, contemporary and friendly, and to ensure that the Sage brand has a strong presence in each product. This is the first time I’ve seen this much coordination and ongoing discipline over a sustained period of time, and according to Sage, it’s working.
  • Improving customer experience. Sage has two critical, yet often conflicting goals: keeping it’s large installed base happy, and attracting “net-new” customers to the Sage fold. The top priorities for installed base customers are for Sage continually improve quality, ease of use and operation, and fill product gaps in an incremental, non-disruptive way. But to attract new customers, Sage needs updated products, built on newer technologies. Sage provided a roadmap that spells out its plans to modernize Sage solutions without destabilizing the IB. For instance, Sage MAS 90 will add SQL support to compete for new license revenue, but continue to support installed base customers on ISAM, unifying the two via business framework reengineering and an abstraction layer. Sage is also working to ease customer integration and migration pain points with an “integration contract” that will integrate of any of its CRM solutions with its ERP solutions. Balancing all of these concerns may be Sage’s toughest challenge, both technically and financially.
  • Place bets on innovation. Sage is placing its bets on cloud computing, mobility and social media. In the cloud area, Sage has introduced a Web-based community (SageSpark) and services designed for the millions of small business that don’t use accounting software. The vendor has also rolled out turnkey appliances for MAS90 and SalesLogix, in partnership with Applianz, and is making its CRM solutions available via Amazon’s EC2 cloud. On the mobility front, Sage sees many users adopting mobile devices as their primary computing platform, and is integrating context aware and location based services into its CRM line-up.
  • More disciplined appraisal of customer experience. Sage is investing in better metrics and analytics to measure its performance, identify gaps and discover opportunities. It is closely scrutinizing support and upgrade rates, win/loss rates, investing more in its usability labs, and engaging in more one-on-one customer and prospect conversations. Sage is also using Net Promoter to measure customer satisfaction with its partners, and helping partners benchmark and better emulate best practices with a new Net Promoter portal.
  • Refuel partners. Although I don’t know the exact numbers, partner attendance at Insights seemed to be down about 20% or so from 2008. But the partners that were there seemed serious and very interested in how they could more effectively market and sell Sage solutions, and Sage is beefing up partner enablement programs and tools for many of its solutions.

I also sensed a shift in the Sage culture. Employees and executives appeared to be on the same page, positioning and discussing their solutions within the context of a bigger Sage picture. Not easy in a company where acquisition and brand independence are part of the DNA. In general, I got the feeling that Sage becoming more honest in its own self-appraisal, and less focused on products or positioning that were once treated as sacred cows.

How Will Sage Fare?

Let’s face it, a lot of things are more challenging this year than in recent ones—but maybe that’s a good thing. In difficult times, companies have to make the tough calls, set priorities and get focused. Sage North America still has a lot of work to do in all of these areas, but has charted a viable course to renew growth. Only time will tell if it will successfully navigate it.

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