SugarCon 2015: SugarCRM continues its own journey

SugarCRM is always an interesting company that travels its own path. Pureplay CRM has been its hallmark for a long time, but now it veers slightly - though in the appropriate direction. SugarCon 2015 showed us how they are moving. Here's what I think it means...

I've been back from SugarCon 2015 a couple of weeks along with about 1000 other people give or take a few. I (and the other 999 plus) have had some time to think about what I saw and it was fascinating as always. This company, which I've known one way or the other for 10 years, always makes the ride at least thought-provoking. This year is probably the most interesting in a long time for its raw promise. But both words are in play kind of separately. The promise of their direction is substantial but it is truly raw at this stage. More on all this later, because it's time for what all of us (or me alone at least) have been waiting for.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome with the Event Scorecard, my assessment of the conference qua conference, not the messaging and marketing or the product announcements, but the conference and the environment around the conference itself. In case it wasn't clear, because I often am not, it's about the CONFERENCE.

I'm always somewhat lenient on this because it's VERY hard to pull off a large event of any scale and it would be entirely mean-spirited and unfair to criticize any company doing the event without acknowledging what it takes to build a large event or even a small one. There are hundreds of considerations and multiple constituencies to satisfy and it is the stage - at least in the technology world - that, whatever is said and done, will impact the company for at least 12 more months. So there is a lot to think about and a lot to do - and it has to be perfect - and it never is, because of the obvious. We are human. Nothing is perfect. Yakkityyakkityyak. But when it comes to the staging and execution of an event like SugarCon, I'm thinking Aretha and R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

If you want the details on how I think about this and how I look at the criteria, read my Adobe post of several weeks ago, which has an exhaustive (and exhausting) explanation. Suffice to say, and once again to drive it home, it is very hard to develop and manage a large event with all the moving pieces and conflicting interests that have to be satisfied. When I do this scorecard, even a bad grade on a particular thing is done with a great deal of respect. I only offer my opinion in the hopes that it will help the planners in the following year. Though there are criteria I work from and quantifiable things going on, it's still just an opinion.

After we get through the scorecard then I'll lay out my assessment of the direction of SugarCRM as reflected by the conference, the meetings, the announcements, the sentiment and the conversations. But let's go with the scorecard first.

Without further ado....

The SugarCRM SugarCon 2015 Conference Scorecard

Category Grade Notes
Keynotes (Content) A- To reiterate, this isn't an assessment of the messaging, just the quality of the content of the keynotes. SugarCRM and of course the speakers from Larry Augustin, SugarCRM's CEO, on through the day provided lots of substantive detail to support their message. Larry did something that most keynote presenters don't do - he spent some time showing how the current messaging/positioning evolved from prior years and made its transition seem to be logical. Other keynote speakers could learn from this. Usually the messaging is just presented with NO continuity whatsoever. It's just "BOOM! New messaging!" and that's it. Good for SugarCRM here. As they say in the UK. High marks. They lacked a bit when it came to vision but, in this instance, it wasn't that big a problem given the overall narrative thread. One downside was that some of the data was very old - let's just say a baby born when the data was released would just about be graduating college now. But all in all solid content to justify the messaging and a good narrative thread.
Keynotes (Presentation) C+ This was bland. Unfortunately, much as some don't like it, the staging around the keynotes has to carry some excitement. It had some of the typical muzak-like sorta high energy contemporary rock/punk stuff but it didn't impact much. The rest of the supporting effort, lights and other accoutrements didn't lend themselves to driving audience excitement because there wasn't any. The bright side, was that as always, Clint does a great job as a demo MC, and the demos were lively though heavily scripted and obviously so. But between Clint's natural style and some rock star semi-comic acting by Karen Hsu, they still were entertaining and useful. Some of the supporting speakers the next day (who go here, not in the first category) like Bill Parrish of Forrester and a couple of the panels were very good all in all, but the staging/presentation really wasn't supportive of otherwise very good keynote content.
Tracks/General Sessions A- From my conference "spies" - attendees who filled me in on tracks and how they went, most of the attendees I spoke with (7 to be exact and an analyst/press person or two who attended some tracks) found them to be educational and unless they were tech tracks, less SugarCRM focused than subject matter expertise - a good thing. Many of the tracks were aligned with SugarCRM's current messaging around the customer journey so, for example, you would have one on how to do a journey map. Several of them were taught by SugarCRM customers. All in all, a very smartly done part of the conference that met with high praise from at least the small sample of attendees I spoke with.
Analyst/Press Relations B+ This is the toughest one because it is split to the extremes. On the one hand, Martin Schneider did what may be the best job of the year when it came to being attentive to each individual analyst - and I mean each and every one. He was remarkable in making sure that he took care of the requirements of all analysts and press at the conference. But, on the downside, the basics that analysts and press need to do their work live from the conference, which only benefits the host organization, were not there. No power, no tables to work from at the keynotes, no analyst/press room to work. Importantly, no 1:1s with executives at all. This was a big omission, but Martin rather creatively mitigated some of the problem by providing informal get-togethers by informal "have a drink" or things like with a few analysts and an executive or two - and the executives of SugarCRM, because they are a genuinely friendly and approachable group, made themselves visible and accessible. So this was tough. Martin did a superb job but the basics have to be there so the analysts/press can do their job. Table stakes are table stakes - and in this case, tables.
Food (VIP) A- Since there was no particular analyst/press workroom, the VIP food was restaurants. The choices were generally outstanding, and that was the consensus. The only reason for the minus is that there was no "conference food."
Food (General Session) A- By far, the best conference spread of all the conferences. The choices even of sandwich were interesting, there was a bit of a "foodie" vibe in the selection. The availability was excellent, the lines were easy to navigate, and the snacks were there and easy to access and good quality. The only reason for the A- and not A+ was lack of obvious choices for special diets, though you could cobble together what was needed for the bulk of them.
Exhibition Hall B The mix of partners, big and small, was good and included good presence from SugarCRM's key partner -IBM and their new shiny new acquisition, Silverpop. The hall itself was a bit "dusty" and disorganized and even though there wasn't an unwieldy number of partners, it was sometimes hard to find a specific partner. It was a bit all over the map, but all in all, a decent experience. A huge plus was that it was incredibly easy to find the hall and get to. While this seems a bit, well, weird, it isn't. At some of the other conferences this year, the Exhibition Hall took detective work and hiking equipment to find.
Crowd Energy B- The crowd energy was pretty low and the staging of the presentation didn't increase it much - at least on the main stage side. But that said, the audience had a professional demeanor, not a bored one AND they paid attention to the presentations - they were engaged enough. The cocktail receptions etc. had a decent vibe - a generally pretty happy and somewhat mellow one. But the excitement level could have been better.
Ambiance B- The ambiance was fine. What that means is that the crowd flow wasn't irritatingly difficult, except for occasional knots that slowed things up (e.g. getting into the first day keynote), the overall environment of the hotel, the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco, was ordinary - the service was friendly and fine except at the Urban Tavern restaurant where the service in general seemed somewhat disinterested. The hotel staff handled the crowds as best they could but missed the boat a few times - I heard a few complaints about how long it took to do x or y or z. But all in all, it flowed well but just didn't stand out.
OVERALL B+ SugarCon 2015 was a well-managed conference that could have done a few things better, but really not a lot more. The content strength (again this is not an opinion on the nature of the content, just the strength of it and how it aligned with the conference themes) was very good and that's the most important thing. The executives were approachable for everyone and all in all the SugarCRM folks were attentive and friendly as always. That's because they are a collection of truly nice folks. This conference was all in all, where it mattered the most, done well.

Now, let's dig into the direction of SugarCRM, according to SugarCon 2015.

Overview

SugarCRM focused all its messaging around the customer journey. All of it. They focused their training and education around it, they tried to focus their product release around it (more on that in a bit) and they focused their future around it. While Larry Augustin showed the evolution of SugarCRM's messaging from the more eclectic "customer of one" to the customer journey in a welcome bit of discussion in the beginning of his keynote, something other CEOs should emulate when they give theirs, this is a risk for SugarCRM for what it implies for their future, though it is also an alignment to the market that every CRM company either is going to have to make or if they are smart, are making already. Is this risk worth it? Let's have a chat about it.

SugarCRM: The Customer Journey

What made the message intelligent was the following:

1. Identifying customer behavior at the macro-level (by the thousands/millions) and the micro-level (one person) is the trend du jour - but one that has to be taken seriously due to the demands of the digital customer. That means not only IDing customer behavior but figuring out what to make of it so that it would be possible to anticipate customer behavior in the near future.

2. It was focused on the customer journey, not on customer experience. Let me be clear. Customer experience is of meta-importance when it comes to the strategy, tactics and programs of a company. That said, there is NO customer experience technology market since you cannot enable an ongoing emotional state or even a snapshot at a given moment of that state. That means that SugarCRM focusing on the journey which can be identified, analyzed and reported on by technology was wise indeed to focus on the engagement side of the customer's behavior.

3. It was explained logically (if you are a strong believer in logic) by CEO Larry Augustin as an evolution from the CRM for one kind of perspective that SugarCRM has had for the last several years. And for SugarCRM, it aligns the company with the current move in the marketplace toward customer engagement and systems of engagement, which are transcending even CRM. Much more on that another time.

What made the message problematic was the following:

1. SugarCRM's new release had very little to do that was identifiably related to the customer journey. They had a customer journey widget, which has promise, but at this stage was in a state of being kind of ugly and not showing all that much. A late alpha release maybe? At least what it appeared to be. The rest of their release was their graphic workflow creation tool - which, while very nicely done, has little to do with an actual customer journey per se (see #2 here) and more to do with table stakes that they needed to have. Now they have the tool, solving a gap that existed for quite a while for this otherwise excellent CRM platform (now in version 7.6), but it isn't a journey mapping tool. They would be smart to a. develop their widget a lot faster on their road map and b. partner with a journey-focused technology vendor to develop at minimum an integration with that tool.

2. Their definition of a customer journey was more of a B2B customer buying process. It wasn't wrong, per se. It was clean, nicely defined steps along a path toward purchase by a B2B buyer in the market. As a buying process/procedure that most buyers would follow gladly if they could, it was well-represented. But the customer journey is much more than just that - and it isn't that neat. It is big and messy and is not aimed at keeping buyers on a path toward purchase per se - though that is an outcome devoutly to be wished, but is instead focused on understanding the emotional states and behaviors of a customers as they run hither and thither through the woods towards that purchase - and not just getting them to what they purchase but also for the company to understand the reasons that they are purchasing what they purchase. So it isn't the "what" only - the path to transaction, it is also the "why" - why did they make the transaction. All so that insights can be gained about large groups of customers down to a single customer and then the behaviors leading to the best chances for purchase are anticipated and addressed with the kind of personalized approaches to the customers that make them feel as if the company "knows" them. That is not the same customer journey that SugarCRM spoke of, even if they meant it that way. Their buyers process is legitimate, and you can call it a customer journey of sorts, though I wouldn't, but its not the deep rooted, messy, big-scale-to-itty-bitty-single-customer journey that companies like Thunderhead are tracking and interacting with. This will be a problem down the road if its left this way. What might be valuable is to study what Rick Parrish, a Forrester Research Senior Analyst who specializes In the customer journey said, and work with that.

The Other "Thing"

This wasn't a conference with a lot of drama. A lot of the conferences are set to be dramatic and high energy and memorable at the level of volume - sometimes the noise volume (bad), sometimes the signal volume (good). Sometimes, from the industry analyst's access and standpoint, there is noticeable internal political noise. In the case of SugarCon there was none of any of this. But there were some underpinnings that I think need to be sussed out and addressed in order for SugarCRM to make the move to the next level - whatever they define that as.

I had conversations with multiple SugarCRM partners who are a generally friendly and lively bunch of people, who don't have many complaints in their lives. While there was nothing really bad about anything I heard initially and a continued commitment to SugarCRM was not risk, I did sense disquiet, things that were left unsaid. But since I'm writing about a company and it is a public document, I don't have the luxury of having a feeling about something being stated as fact or as a real concern about a company. For all I know, the disquiet could have been mine because I ate some bad sushi. So I had another set of conversations with various SugarCRM partners, some of whom I have known, trusted and admired for many years, and others who I met with the conversation. There were enough discussions with the same general theme emerging to convince me that my senses were right (and that the sushi was actually okay). The disquiet stems from a small handful of things but the most important single thing, and the one that came up the most frequently was the partner program itself over time. There have been several changes in SugarCRM's target markets, sales models and thus, partner models over the last several years and a lot of the partners who have been with SugarCRM for some time are looking for some comfort and certainty. Simple as that. They aren't abandoning SugarCRM - they understand the value and high quality of the technology they are implementing and/or supplementing. But they are concerned about the, let's call it, "over-fluidity" of the program. To make it simple, SugarCRM needs to do what Microsoft does, on a smaller scale of course. Develop their criteria for partnership, solidify the benefits that the partner gets depending I would presume on their partner tier, and speak with or meet with each and every individual partner to make their overall program clear and to show that they matter to the company and give the partners something to work with that isn't going to shape shift in the near future. Not complex, not a huge problem, but one, if resolved, has huge benefits. I can't state enough the importance of a partner ecosystem in an era where the customers are demanding and even occasionally entitled. What the company has to provide is much greater as a result than in the past. It's not just products anymore. It's the provision of the right products, services, tools and consumable experiences that make or break a company - and it takes a well done partner ecosystem, not just a network to succeed at providing all that.

I am a fan of this company and I think that the move they are making begins to realign them with the technology market and customer need which has shifted toward customer engagement and is moving beyond CRM as we now know it. CRM won't be going away, nor will SugarCRM, but the recognition of the how the market is changing and what customers are looking for is something that all technology companies have to adjust to and SugarCRM is taking their own journey in doing just that. They are at the beginning of something which for them is somewhat raw but it's the right path and if they can stay the course - meaning stay on the road leading toward engagement, align their products to that - with CRM being at the core and the customer journey providing the fence posts - they will continue that journey to success.

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