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(Editor’s Note: SugarCRM CEO Larry Augustin contributed to this blog post, which originally appeared on the Huffington Post)

Uber. Airbnb. Netflix. These brands are at the forefront of the disruptive tech we’ve seen emerge over the past few years. The way we consume media, book holidays, and order taxis and takeaways has changed beyond recognition. ‘Disruption’ has become the buzzword to describe the companies leading the charge for transforming how we use technology in our everyday lives. But then again, new technologies are introduced all the time, and they’re not necessarily disruptive. What really makes these brands disruptive is how they’ve changed the customer experience in ways that we didn’t even know we needed.

The common thread among disruptive brands — and why they’ve become such trailblazers for innovation — is the way they not only meet the basic needs of customers, but have had the vision to pre-empt ways to revolutionize their products and services to transform our lives. The mantra these disruptor brands live by is: Don’t deliver what the customer asks for; rather, deliver what he needs. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In other words, businesses today need to create change. Many “status quo” brands consistently tell their customers what features and functionalities they need in a solution. Disruptive brands do more than this. Of course they deliver what the customer needs from them, but they take this one step further by creating an experience for their customers which is unique and exciting. Essentially, disruptive brands reframe how the customer thinks about a problem, and then the answer maps back to their innovation. Try to think of booking a taxi without your mind wondering to the Uber app on your phone. Difficult isn’t it? The Uber brand has done what all businesses strive to do: it’s become synonymous with the industry it represents.

The idea of delivering what the customer needs versus what he says he wants — and using digital technology to create a unique customer experience — has led to some incredible stories of disruption. Take Netflix as an example. It started as a DVD-by-mail business in 1998, and, as technology caught up, it launched into streaming media and video-on-demand online.

By leveraging transformational digital technology and focusing squarely on the customer experience (i.e. making movie rentals easier and more convenient), Netflix displaced almost all of its competitors (the disrupted) in one fell swoop. More recently, Netflix again disrupted the television-watching experience. Understanding consumers’ affinity for binge-watching content, they now release entire seasons at one time.

Netflix is a simple example, but disruption is happening in every industry. Recently, my colleagues at SugarCRM visited a potential customer in Ireland. It was a long-time family business that makes uniforms — essentially, a garment manufacturer that makes uniforms for medical personnel and law enforcement. Even in this narrow business, the CEO is planning for disruption. The future of his industry is wearables: Connected clothing will change his business and he must keep up to meet his customers’ needs.

Arguably, the next frontier for digital disruption is the automotive industry. Google gets a lot of credit as a disrupter in this industry with its autonomous, self-driving car, and five years from now, we may even be able to buy one at a dealership. I’d argue that true disruption will only occur when Google or someone else completely changes the customer’s experience in the car — and I mean really change it so that it’s unrecognizable as compared with what it used to be.

What does this look like? Instead of everyone facing forward, maybe we now face each other. Maybe the back window becomes a television screen – or the car itself is a browser and its glass windows deliver an immersive Internet experience all around. Suddenly, the car is not just for shuttling passengers from point A to point B. It’s also a chance for passengers to be productive while stuck in traffic. In other words, the customer wants a car to get him from here to there, but the car manufacturers provide him with what he needs — additional time in his day to get through his to-do list. I know this is coming because there are companies already thinking about how to monetize the “new” automotive experience.

(Editor’s Note, this post originally appeared in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and was syndicated in 42 Biz Journal publications across the country)

I’m a big Star Wars fan, so when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” descended on theaters late last year, I braved the crowds to see it — twice in the first 18 hours. And just like all the other Star Wars movies, “Rogue One” stoked our geeky imaginations with all the technological possibilities of a galaxy far, far away, like holographic displays and all sorts of strange devices.

And did you notice the Imperial server farm? Of course, advanced artificial intelligence (AI) was well-represented too: Like C-3P0, R2-D2 and BB-8 in earlier movies, Rogue One’s K-2SO displayed uncanny humanness.

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The futuristic Star Wars-esque world is still mostly the stuff of Hollywood movies, but technology visionaries are hard at work bringing us ever closer. AI, or “ intelligence exhibited by machines,” is one area that is evolving into reality, and there are some subcategories under AI with practical applications that we use today. Natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning are two of them, and their potential for the future is exciting, especially for B2B technologies like customer relationship management (CRM).

The ultimate destination of AI for the business world is to make people’s jobs easier. Just like K-2SO in Rogue One, AI will become our intelligent personal assistant that saves the day and makes life easier. However, you may have noticed that no one has a droid at the office yet. So, let’s look at what technologies are real right now and what is coming farther down the road.

What’s real: Natural language processing and machine learning

NLP technology is quite adept at decomposing language into parts, understanding the baseline intent of that language, and representing it in both spoken and written word. Perhaps the best-known application of NLP today is Apple’s “Siri.” Ask Siri any number of things — “What time is it in Berlin?” or “When is my next meeting?” — and it can tell you.

NLP has also found a foothold in CRM. Intelligent CRM tools strive to improve customer relationships, and use NLP to mine for topics of interest from customer conversations in email and CRM. What better way to connect than to personalize customer communications? Many agree, and subsequently, NLP has benefited from a lot of investment lately.

Another subcategory of AI that is much more real than ever before is machine learning. Its recent success is due to the availability of huge volumes of discrete data points, and with this deluge of data at the ready — including digital data like social data, data from public records, and IOT data — patterns begin to emerge once analyzed.

Machine learning uses algorithms to understand patterns in data sets, and then applies some logic to the patterns. (“If ‘A’ looks like ‘B,’ and ‘B’ looks like ‘C,’ then ‘A’ also looks like ‘C.’”) Machine learning algorithms are also self-learning and have been designed to take feedback, which means that their “intelligence” grows as they analyze more patterns.

In the last few years, machine learning has made a particularly big splash in image and video recognition. Some visual recognition algorithms can analyze pictures from the Internet and understand the emotional intent behind the picture. This capability is especially valuable in commerce when a brand wants a greater understanding of its levels of customer satisfaction.

For example, one machine-learning technology trawls different social networks, looks for its customers’ brands in photos, and discerns the mood of the people in the picture with the brands. Is the person holding a can of Coke in the picture smiling or frowning? To be clear, the algorithms don’t understand the emotions of sad or happy, but they understand the difference between a mouth that is turned down versus one that is turned up in a smile.

While this latest advance is certainly impressive, machine learning’s greatest strides are yet to be made, and CRM in particular stands to benefit significantly.

What’s not real… yet

In 2013, the world watched as IBM Watson leveled its human opponents on Jeopardy. The idea that a computer powered by NLP and machine learning algorithms could spit out correct answers to so many varied questions was a curiosity. Be fair, though: Watson had a huge data set — the Library of Congress — at its — er — fingertips.

Keep in mind that machine learning’s success practically applied has only come about relatively recently, thanks to the advent and use of SaaS and cloud platforms, which can cost-effectively collect massive amounts of data. It’s also taken awhile to collect, publish and aggregate enough discrete data points in which to find and analyze meaningful patterns.

Organizations in many industries have already found a way to use machine learning to their advantage. In the coming years, CRM, too, will be primed to truly take full advantage of machine learning. Companies have by now collected trillions of rows of customer data to find patterns, and are beginning to train algorithms around how customers act. These algorithms are learning about what customers are most likely to do next based on their behavior patterns.

Tomorrow’s CRM system will be more than just a database. It will capitalize on machine learning to become the ultimate personal assistant. It will not only make a user more efficient and effective at getting the job done, but will also reveal something the user didn’t already know about his customers. This is where machine learning comes in, mining massive amounts of social and other data to uncover unknown details about a customer that will deepen the customer relationship. Tomorrow’s CRM system will also apply AI to supplement declarative rules based on workflow systems that will make predictions as to what a user should be doing next.

Back to Watson. IBM Watson provides a model for CRM to even go beyond the “ultimate personal assistant” with its personality profiler service. The service needs only an email address to scan all content that can be attributed to the person behind the address — every blog article, every tweet, every Facebook post — and then determine the personality characteristics of that person. What would that capability mean for CRM — for the sales engagement process?

The type of personality-rich and amusingly expressive cognitive intelligence displayed by K-2SO is a long way off. But the AI revolution promises new and exciting use cases in the very near future, and holds great possibilities for CRM in particular. With this in mind, in 2017 and beyond, organizations must begin to view their CRM systems as much more than just a database; rather, it must be seen an intelligent tool that has the potential to transform customer relationships.

As a founder of SugarCRM, I am often asked the question, “how do you compete against Salesforce?”  After all, they have great buzz in the marketplace.  And because of their position in the CRM space, we must beat them at some stage of the evaluation process every time we sign up a new customer.  How do we do it?

I usually answer this question by talking to the strengths of our product and our company.  SugarCRM customers choose us over Salesforce because of 1) our application design (customers LOVE our user experience and our focus on building for the individual end-user first and the manager second), 2) our technology flexibility (we integrate with EVERYTHING and deploy EVERYWHERE), and 3) our best-in-class customer loyalty (winning the PC Magazine Business Choice award for CRM two years in row says it all).

But there is a lot more to building a successful company than just a killer product and an avid customer following.  How we engage with our prospects and customers is critical to how we beat our competition.  Yeah, that’s called CRM and we live it everyday.

Our own CRM strategy at SugarCRM is the result of some very thoughtful planning.  This blog post will point you to the resources we used to build our brand and define the programs that educate our prospects to choosing Sugar and becoming successful SugarCRM customers.

Let’s be clear.  I am opening the kimono.  This is the secret sauce.  You’re getting a very real view into how we operate behind the scenes.  If you are the up-and-comer in your market and challenging your industry’s status quo, pay close attention.  This is our formula for challenging the status quo in the CRM industry.  You can follow this exact same formula and become the next challenger in your industry.

To begin with, competing against the big boys takes more than just inspiration and guts.  It takes a focused strategy on building a brand that your potential customers will pay attention to and that your existing customers will love.  Every next market leader starts off with no brand recognition and must compete against a category leader that dominates their market’s awareness.  How to do that?

In 2009, Adam Morgan wrote the book “Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders” which describes how small companies can effectively compete against the brand of large companies.  This is good stuff.  Marketing jujitsu at its best.  Building a brand takes a lot of work and this book details your roadmap to disrupting your industry.

Quick Start #1:  I thank Adam profusely for recognizing that most business leaders like me appreciate the Cliff Notes version of business books.  He published an excellent 9-page summary of his book that I recommend to every CEO and CMO.  Read it.  It will change your worldview on how to approach culture, innovation and brand development within your company.

Now to the next step.  You must turn this brand strategy into how your employees engage with your customers.  Creating a sales and marketing execution based on the Challenger Brand requires a different perspective than what is outlined in “Eating the Big Fish.”

In 2011, a consulting firm called the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) wrote a book called “The Challenger Sale:  Taking Control of Customer Conversation.”  Building off of the Challenger Brand idea, but focused much more on how to engage with potential customers rather than the market as a whole, The Challenger Sale has become a “must read” book for start-ups across Silicon Valley.

Quick Start #2:  Here is an excellent blog post summarizing the Challenger Sale book into a short 10 minute read.  This is good stuff.  If you have worked with a SugarCRM sales rep, you will immediately recognize how we turn this theory into practice.

But isn’t there a missing piece?  Some smart guys wrote about building a Challenger Brand and executing on the Challenger Sale.  However, a bridge was needed between the brand and the sale.  That’s called marketing.  Translating brand strategies into marketing tactics that support sales execution requires a unified framework for your product marketing, demand generation, field marketing and all other components of your marketing execution. Most importantly, you need a crisp “challenger” message.

The Customer Executive Board created a very thoughtful Challenger Marketing framework that does just that.  It enables your marketing team to tell a disruption story to the market built around the storyline of “the world is changing, old is bad, new is good, we deliver new.”  Challenger Marketing is a rich framework with several key concepts and approaches for building a multi-faceted challenger marketing program within your company.  It takes some time to digest all of the concepts and build them into your content and delivery.  This is where you have to buckle down, pay attention and really think through how to implement these ideas.

Quick Start #3:  Our friends at CEB created an excellent 55 minute overview of Challenger Marketing  in this YouTube video.  Presented by Brent Adamson, customer brainiac, co-author of the Challenger Sales book and co-creator of the Challenger Marketing methodology, this gives your marketing team the details they need to turn concept into reality.  I have to tell you.  Wow.  Mind.  Blown.

Now that you’ve decided you want to “challenge the status quo”, what’s the status quo you want to challenge?  This is where my company, SugarCRM, comes in.

SugarCRM customers have chosen to differentiate themselves in their marketplace by embracing digital transformation to build a killer customer experience.  Don’t you want to win the PC Magazine Business Choice Award for your industry?  I bet you do.  This is where we help you map out your company’s customer journey and translate that into an easy-to-deploy set of business processes built in a killer app called Sugar.  Gotta love that name.  Puts a smile on my face every time.

Quick Start #4:  Learn how to look at your business through the lens of your customer, by reading this short ebook on how digital leaders use customer journey maps to guide business transformation.

There you go.  A four-step recipe for success. And I do wish you the best of success.  I believe there is no better satisfaction that taking on the big boys and beating them.

Want to carry on the conversation we started here? Connect with me on LinkedIn.  I look forward to meeting you.

Naming products is both an art and a science. Marketers work hard to come up with names that resonate with their target customers, maybe evoke a specific emotion, maybe tell you what the product does. Sometimes its a hit, sometimes its a miss. Heck, we named our company Sugar and then decided SugarCRM was closer to home. Either way, the name “Sugar” was stepping outside the bounds of normal back in 2004 and it’s been a hit for us.

It’s certainly fun to watch all of the companies out there name their new AI services. From IBM with Watson (that’s their founder’s last name, not Sherlock’s sidekick) to Microsoft with Cortana (which cracks me up as a Halo fan) to SugarCRM with Candace (Candace…candy…sugar…get it?), we are seeing a whole new set of opportunities for marketers to make their impact with compelling names and creating compelling identities. It was exciting to announce Candace back in June 2016 and describe the future of CRM and AI together.

Our friends at Salesforce joined the fun a couple weeks ago and announced their approach to CRM and AI. They chose to name their AI service “Einstein.” But I’m going to pause on the obvious for a moment. Einstein? Really?!

Personally, I think Marc Benioff and his marketing team have let their hubris finally get to them in a big, big way. To try and steal the “Einstein” identity away from Albert Einstein, one of the greatest legends of modern history, is absolutely ridiculous. It is simply yet another illustration of how Salesforce continues to lose touch with their customers and believe the hype they spout about themselves everyday.

My fellow marketers at Salesforce, this is beneath you. Here’s a wag of the finger at the Salesforce marketing department.

Maybe this experience is familiar to you: You want to grow your business, but don’t have confidence in your growth machine. Your current sales organization performs adequately, but ramping up new reps is hit or miss, some are total flops.  It’s clear the growth formula just isn’t there. Making it harder, marketing keeps handing over leads that are barely qualified and rarely pan out.  And, the constant pressure to grow, grow, grow, is weighing on the team.  

How to solve this when you have too little consistency in how your sales reps engage with your prospects? And customer hand-offs from department to department also seem to be a constant challenge. After all the hard work of signing up a new customer, it frustrates your sales team to no end when new customers have less than an ideal experience with the rest of your company.

On top of all that, your budget is finite, and you aren’t exactly sure increasing your sales and marketing spend is the answer (yet) to dramatically increasing growth anyway.

If this sounds familiar, I have a suggestion that will help close more deals and keep more customers, all without blowing the budget…take a close look at your CRM implementation.

Here’s why: a new, fresh approach to your CRM can change the way your organization interacts with customers, qualifies leads, manages the sales cycle, and helps you differentiate yourself from the competition. In many cases, this self-analysis will lead you to evaluating a new CRM solution for your company.

It’s simple really: Legacy CRM is primarily all about reporting numbers to management with little, to no, focus on helping your people deliver an awesome customer experience. This is amazing to me given that, with a few exceptions, different companies in the same industry usually offer just a variation of the same services or products. And every one of those competitors are just a simple Google search away from each other.  How you win customers is now based on how you treat customers as much, or more than, as what you sell.

That means the need for an exceptional, and unique, customer experience is more critical than ever before.  Think about it, I’ve stayed in many business class hotels all over the world. There are some minor differences, but they all offer a comfy king-sized bed and a bathroom. The list goes on: airlines, rental cars, even Uber vs Lyft. How do you differentiate yourself when you offer similar goods or services as your direct competitors?

The answer is your customer experience. The companies that win in this era of empowered and intelligent customers win because they create better relationships with their customers. That makes sense, but a natural follow up question (and the key question to this whole blog post) is: How can you create a better customer experience when you are using the same, uninspired CRM system as your competitors?

Last month, at SugarCon 2016, we heard many great stories from SugarCRM customers who started out by looking for a different approach to CRM. We heard over and over again that they didn’t want to look like their competitors. They realized that they needed a different kind of CRM to build a different kind of customer experience.  These folks were all mavericks, disruptors, mobilizers of change. They were tired of adequate, average, and the status quo. They saw Sugar as a chance to find a better way. And, their research and investment paid off:

  • Jaime Morillo of Marathon Sports said his organization has seen a 225% increase in customer purchases during monthly promotions and increased customer retention from 47% to 57% since implementing Sugar
  • Naomi Ward of CitySprint in the UK talked about how Sugar is powering their logistics and delivery company’s fight against major disruption from the likes of Amazon and Uber, while driving sales growth.
  • Rober Amber of Unifin, a financial services company in Mexico, said his organization was able to reduce credit application processing time by 60% and grow sales revenue by 300%

These organizations, and many others, understood they had options when it came to CRM. They felt playing it safe was not really all that safe. They realized a modern CRM could help them sell more, increase revenue and build their brand without having to increase budgets.

I challenge you, don’t be a follower. Separate yourself from the CRM pack. If you follow your competition’s tools, you’ll follow everything else.

Besides, the view from the front is much better.

(Editor’s note: this post was originally published on CMSWire.com)

Have you been Ubered? Has technology reshuffled the deck in your industry? Are you about to become obsolete as some new (or renewed) competitor steals all of your hard-won, seemingly loyal customers?

Digital disruption is the new buzzword in the business transformation consulting circles, and for good reason. We are watching business model after business model being disrupted by ridiculously fast evolution in mobile tech, new marketplaces are popping up all over the place and faster and faster communication keeps connecting buyers and sellers in new ways. Technology has truly punched the accelerator on business digital transformation in industry after industry.

But what’s the one immutable fact through all of this? Customers are king. Today’s customer expects immediate answers and instant gratification. You may have a fantastic product or service, but if you don’t put an outstanding customer experience at the center of all your business planning, you will lose. This means the most impactful digital transformation strategy for your business must be around transforming your customers’ experience with your company. In short: Make it easy. Make it awesome.

That’s where modern CRM comes in. With a thoughtful investment in CRM technology, you can impress your customers by putting all the answers and insights they could ever need, right at their fingertips. Regardless of the channel, from classic retail (like your nearest mall) to modern mobile marketplaces (like Uber), CRM technology puts immediate, relevant answers in front of your customer. Sounds like lots of moving parts though, right?

Taking a step back for a moment, it is worth reflecting upon the fantastic evolution that CRM technology has gone through. Thirty years ago, Customer Relationship Management software meant call center software for tracking trouble tickets. With the advent of laptops in the early 90’s, sales force automation became the hot new CRM topic for helping companies accurately forecast their sales pipelines. And then in the late 90’s, outbound emailing became Marketing Automation software. But what truly transformed the CRM software industry was when companies stopped looking to CRM software just as a way to gain efficiencies from their employees. Instead, when companies began looking to CRM software to orchestrate a set of interactions between the company and their customers, that’s when CRM transformed from a cost reduction investment to a growth acceleration investment.

However, many organizations are often stuck in their old habits, using their legacy CRM technology to support separate, siloed business functions. By looking forward, the opportunity exists to use modern CRM as the backbone of a digital, customer-first strategy. Here are your four steps to CRM transformation:

  1. Transform Initiatives – Align your business initiatives with customer needs. If a customer-first strategy is at the center of your business, it makes sense, then, that your CRM must follow suit. An organization evolving to meet the new demands of the customer — in fact, building infrastructure around the sole purpose of serving them — recognizes the customer’s power, and will ultimately succeed.
  1. Transform Individuals – Empower individual employees. Your CRM platform must be designed with the individual employee and the customer in mind. As CRM has evolved to meet customer demands, organizations must remember that helping their own people get their job done is equally important. The right CRM helps salespeople sell and helps customer service agents deliver an extraordinary customer experience by providing the right information to the right person at the right time — even before they ask.
  1. Transform Interactions – Orchestrate customer interactions across the customer journey. Doing so brings a customer focus to everything and orchestrates consistent and informed interactions throughout the entire customer journey and at each human and digital touch point across departments, processes and systems.
  1. Transform Information – Deliver insight with a single view of customer information. Today’s customer is more informed, thanks to smart phones, social media and the rise of the digital economy. A Modern CRM gathers and organizes information about the customer across all internal and external data sources.

If a customer-first strategy is at the center of your business, congratulations. You’re squarely on your way to fostering a customer-first strategy. Your next goal should be to ensure your CRM supports this strategy and positions you to win in this era of digital transformation.

 

If you’re like us, you’ve spent the last several hours digesting the UK’s Brexit Leave vote. While we recognize this is an economic and political story before a tech story, here’s our take on what the vote means.

A UK exit from the EU impacts not just physical borders, but digital borders as well. Data sovereignty, the concept that data is subject to the laws of the country in which it is located, will likely require companies to change systems and processes for managing customer data.

Why? The UK is part of the EU data regime. The vote to leave the EU could create a new UK data regime where companies need to manage CRM system data crossing the new digital border between the UK and the rest of the world. Storing EU customer data in the UK will no longer satisfy EU data laws. Likewise, UK customer data stored in EU countries will have had to comply with separate UK data laws. Changing processes and systems to comply with the new legal landscape around customer data takes both time and money.

How can business protect themselves against the likely forthcoming changes in tech policy? For one, it’s vital to have flexibility in cloud options and can adapt solutions to suit the particular needs of their customers and comply with data sovereignty laws. Modern SaaS companies leverage multiple infrastructure service providers in different countries so that customer data can reside wherever legal requirements force a business to store that data. In contrast, legacy SaaS providers operate a single, vendor-specific cloud putting all of their customers’ data at risk under the umbrella of that vendor. In this next generation of SaaS, technology companies operate both their own cloud and also enable other service providers to deliver that SaaS service on their clouds, either private or public. For example, with SugarCRM, businesses have a CRM system that is ready for a world with multiple clouds and many data sovereignty regimes.

Looking further ahead, the issue of data residency is not exclusive to the EU, but is part of a global trend with similar discussions currently taking place in countries like Russia and Canada. I see this trend continuing with more and more countries moving towards security and privacy laws that require their data to be kept within national boundaries.

The recent battles between the EU and US over the “safe-harbour” legislation are an example of what a thorny issue cloud-based data storage continues to be. The problem is that there’s a fundamental contradiction between the cloud and national borders; information has no respect for lines on a map and tech companies thrive when their solutions are systems that have maximum flexibility. The more legislation that occurs, and I think that this is inevitable post Brexit, the bigger the headache for SaaS companies as they are forced to navigate different legalities in different markets.

I am certain that this debate, this tension between data storage and national security interests, will continue for many more years to come.