CRM Watchlist: The suites less sweet - NetSuite, Oracle, SAP

CRM companies like NetSuite, SAP and Oracle have long histories as suite providers. Is the suite era over? Is best-of-breed the winner? Not so fast: Think ecosystems and make sure you understand why these three companies won the CRM Watchlist 2015.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Notice: Registration for the 2016 CRM Watchlist is now open! Please send me an email at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com if you are interested in participating. In return, you will get a registration form. Fill that out completely and send it back and the questionnaire for the 2016 Watchlist will come.


Suites are being replaced by ecosystems, or technology matrices, or whatever else doesn't imply a single entity providing everything. In fact, the definition of enterprise software suites as "all in one" is going away. Thus, the so-called "debate" between suites and best of breed is also going away.

You could say that the reason for this is that interoperability is better than ever - one application can live with another from a different vendor more easily than before. You could say that the REST APIs out there and the willingness of technology companies to provide them to anyone who wants to build integrations to the provider's technology is far more widespread than any time in the past. Look at Salesforce and its AppExchange - the open APIs that Salesforce provides also commoditizes the applications that are integrated to Salesforce using it.

Think about it this way: Your little company has this idea to do something that Salesforce doesn't do or just isn't doing well. You register, get Salesforce's Open APIs, develop your integration, do what you have to do to sign up and put the app on the AppExchange and you have a market. All without dealing with standard partnering relationships with Salesforce.

Now, I'm oversimplifying it but that's the way that it more or less works. Interoperability and integration are commodities now. The need for suites becomes less and less manifest, but the best of breed could be found with the integration with one of the suites.

But that doesn't mean that best of breed gets a pass either. The reality is that best of breed, even with the interoperability at its optimal, doesn't provide enough of what customers are looking for any more.

In the past, when customers were looking for just products and services from a vendor, a best of breed application might well have been enough. But because even the suite vendors now integrate with anything and for the most part sell their pieces individually, there is no measurable advantage of going best of breed over suite since the suite providers can compete app by app.

But customers aren't looking for just products and services any longer. They are looking for the products, services, tools and consumable experiences that, on the one hand, provide the customer with a more complete set of capabilities that are attuned to the outcomes that the customer is looking for. But the customer is also looking for the feeling that the vendor "knows" them well enough to make it a personalized set of products, services, tools and consumable experiences. They have to be "good enough" (not delightful) to make that customer want to continue his/her interactions with the vendor.

How do you do that? Ecosystems - those that ultimately blur the distinction between suites and best of breed because both are necessary to provide the customer with what they seek.

Think of ecosystems this way. For years, David's Bridal thought that its customer was the bride. So, for many years, they did what you would expect that they would do. They provided wedding gowns and accessories for the wedding - the event - itself.

But when they began to think more broadly, they realized that the bride wasn't always a bride - they were affianced before the wedding and newly married after the wedding. All of a sudden it made sense to partner with companies that provided possible avenues for a honeymoon - e.g. a cruise company. Get the bride a special deal on a cruise honeymoon. Or for prior to the wedding, a jewelry company or flower company.

With partners to cover the pre and post areas, they become an infinitely more interesting company to a bride-to-be. They still have their core mission - selling wedding gowns, but because they provide an ecosystem, they are more appealing. The bride to be can customize what she wants leading up to and after the wedding.

That's how ecosystems work.

But to some extent, I'm begging the question. The reality is that while all of the above is true, it isn't the reason that suites are becoming less prevalent; but it's one of the changes that have gone on because of the reason.

If I were to choose one reason that this is occurring, it's because the customer is more demanding than ever before. Those same kind of ecosystems are becoming the necessity for technology vendors -- not just making sure the integrations are done or interoperability is more convenient. That means that if I'm a vendor with a suite as the winners here have provided as a truly solid option, I have to get away from just providing my suite and some extensions to it and I have to start thinking about what it is that my customers and prospects truly want. That means to figure out what their goals are -- and what outcomes they are looking to achieve given those goals -- and then from there seeing if I have what it takes to give them everything that they need.

The odds of being able to give them everything are about, oh, somewhere south of zero, so that means I have to do the following:

  1. Figure out what it is they would need that I can categorically provide (e.g. specific kind of technology like CRM) to get a complete set of outcomes related to their goals.
  2. Figure out what I natively provide and am willing to invest in to build.
  3. Figure out what partners can help me fill the gaps.
  4. Find those partners and seek out the appropriate relationship to them.


What makes these three winners so interesting -- and they are suite providers, make no mistake about that -- is that they are able to natively handle a big chunk of the ecosystem. With the addition of Salesforce and Microsoft, they are perhaps the only remaining true suite providers. And that amounts to something.


NetSuite is an annual Watchlist winner and a conundrum. They are primarily an ERP provider but they have a highly competent CRM suite, CRM+. Additionally, not well known enough of a fact, NetSuite is a pioneer of native cloud-based applications. They began their life in 1998 as a web-hosted accounting application called NetLedger. So they dabbled with the cloud predecessors, the application service providers (ASPs), 17 years ago, right around the time Salesforce was getting its start. They are among the originals.

This is a company that has had a solid management team for years, with founder Evan Goldberg still CTO and responsible for the development of what is among the most solid suites on the market. What always marvels me about what they provide is their attention to detail that matters to customers. For example, if there is a change in a tax rate that is important to a company's CFO, it is reflected the next day in the applications that the customer is using - automatically updated via the cloud. There is no need (unless the customer sets it up that way, to manually provide the update. It's just done. Easy peasy. That's the way it should be.

The CEO, Zach Nelson, while not a founder, is also someone who knows how to lead a company. He has been NetSuite's public face for many years and has the good will of many of the industry analysts who impact his company's public perception and the good will of a very satisfied customer base (after a few glitches several years ago). Aside from being the public face and a true hail-fellow-well-met, he is a smart strategist who has kept the company in the conversation around ERP and even CRM big time for years.

Aside from my general admiration of NetSuite's management team (and I haven't even mentioned the literally incomparable Mei Li, their SVP of Corporate Communications), is that they have FINALLY filled a hole that they've had for many years. They hired Fred Studer from Microsoft as their Chief Marketing Officer.

Their lack of an even decent CMO for many years, led them to do some things that made little sense, given their offering (see below for some of that) or at minimum, made them either hyper-aggressive or under-apparent. Neither served them well (again, see below). Luckily, they had Mei Li for outreach (both public relations and analyst relations) and there is no one better at making journalists and analysts like a company for what they are.

Officially and unofficially, along with Zach's likeable demeanor, that kept several wolves from their door and kept things neutral at minimum, and made them positive at best, regardless of the snafus. Hiring Fred Studer is a fabulous move - a man well suited to both a strategists position and a public face - who understands marketing as the first line of engagement - a decidedly 21st century view. To get an idea of his value as the public face of a company take a look at this Microsoft commercial. This was a great move, one that will have market impact quickly.

But it goes beyond that. Their CRM+ product suite genuinely should have that plus sign after CRM because it offers a bit more than the traditional product suite. Not only does it cover the more traditional sales, marketing and customer service functions but it handles incentive compensation, partner management and order management too. Notice that I haven't said a word about "social" here. That isn't the NetSuite footprint. They cover functional operational automation at all levels - not communications. They aren't a hip product, but they are a very good one.

But management and product are only two of the more than 30 things that get you on the Watchlist (or not).

One area that they have shown marked improvement in has been their partnership program which had been an historic weak spot for the company. On the VAR side, over 40% of their business is derived from partners - a huge leap forward given that their revenues for 2014 clocked in at $556.3 million, a 34% year over year growth rate. They are well on their way to their first $1 billion.

But the partnerships go considerably further than that. They have a SuiteCloud Developer Network (SDN) which is dedicated to building complementary solutions to the NetSuite offering, using and extending the NetSuite platform. There is one very smart move there. They understand platform and the value of platform - which means extensible system to build from - to their overall ecosystem - though I can't say that they think in ecosystem. They don't. They should because they are actually building an ecosystem, but let's just say that they haven't labeled it as such. Their CRM partners for SDN include InsideView, LyntonWeb - which connects Hubspot to NetSuite - and CallidusCloud via CallidusCloud's LeadFormix acquisition.

Rather uniquely (I think), they have a BPO partner program - essentially partners like Capgemini and McGladrey - whose job is to provide the entire range of the market with a unified solution - i.e. ERP, CRM and ecommerce. They can do it the old fashioned Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) way or with Business Process as a Service (BPaaS) - another new acronym.

Let me just say that given where they were three years ago, this is a HUGE improvement in both execution and thinking when it comes to partnerships.

There is more but I think it's to take a look at what they can do to increase their impact on the marketplace and hopefully get them to whatever they think their next level is. To be clear, these are tweaks but they are important ones - and mostly aimed at their marketing weaknesses of the past several years.

What they can do

1. Acknowledge their CRM suite for what it is - This is where the conundrum comes in. As I mentioned they have a very competent CRM suite that has a few features that aren't found that often in CRM suites but at the same time add value to the offering. Yet, they continually publicly insist that CRM is order management and ecommerce - a clearly ERP company view of CRM. However, all this does is create market confusion, undermine their own offering's value and at the same time, makes them look like they don't know what CRM is - and they damn well do.

Look, let's face it. There has been a now-$25 billion CRM market in the technology and services associated for two decades. It has a clear definition that is organized around the sales, marketing and customer service functions and outcomes of any given company. The customer facing departments are the core of the CRM market and of what CRM does. Order management is a nice addition that ties it to ERP systems. Ecommerce is a separate matter altogether (take note SAP - see below). CRM and customer engagement interface with ecommerce but they aren't ecommerce. So get the story straight. This one isn't that hard. CRM is a mature market with a clear definition. There is no reason whatsoever - literally NONE - to not address the market with the same definition that we all have for it. That ways customers can choose what they want and compare. If NetSuite wants to say order management is one of the additional features of our strong sales marketing and customer service, that's fine. But drop the rest.

2. Stop the attack dog marketing - NetSuite for some reason seems to think that attack dog marketing works - witness their relentless attacks on SAP (I won't dignify them with URLs). The reality is that it doesn't and they just look outright silly doing it. While we see barbs thrown at other vendors - Marc Benioff does it, Larry Ellison does it etc. they don't spend their marketing dollars on attack ads that often. Microsoft does it with Apple and it just looks silly. Good humor might work, but attack dog marketing is not good humored. Time for NetSuite to stand on the merits of its excellent offering, rather than try to diminish its competition's. It does them little good.

NetSuite is arguably the single most consistent performer - with a record of nearly continuous excellent output when it comes to the solidity offering, the quality of their customer base, their very accomplished management team and their improved partner network. This may not have made their growth explosive but it has had them growing year over year well and there is no end in sight for that. Hell, that's why they have the impact they do. They just get the big and the little things right. Now that they have a legitimate CMO who can make things happen, there is nothing but blue skies ahead for them.


Oracle is a company of surprises that aren't that surprising. They are huge and will continue to be huge. They go through management shifts that don't seem to materially alter the management structure or the company's chain of command that much. But what they have been doing over the last year plus or so, is reinventing their applications for the cloud and, when it comes to the customer-facing quadrumvirate, sales, marketing, service and social, they are doing a really good job.

To be candid, when I attended OpenWorld 2014, I attended with the idea of deciding what I was going to do with Oracle which had been an inconsistent company when it came to the customer-facing applications market. I knew why - they are primarily a database and hardware company. Applications seemed to be a means to an end rather than a significant part of their market effort.

Well, they proved me either wrong or that they had changed (I like to think the latter) and what I saw concerning their applications at OpenWorld 2014 was very pleasantly surprising. Here are a very brief picture - one sentence per application - since this is the Watchlist, not an analysis of their applications or OpenWorld.

1. Sales Cloud - might have the most powerful mobile sales application I've ever seen with a usable though not beautiful interface.

2. Service Cloud - agent focused, knowledge embedded and very competitive.

3. Marketing Cloud - has the power of Eloqua behind it so is a real market challenger though, like almost every other marketing cloud, needs the stitching.

4. Social Cloud - their killer app. As both a standalone, and integrated into the other three, has enormous depth, is multi-lingual (19 languages I do believe) and might be the best social listening and analytics combination in the market. Might be. Meg Bear and Tara Roberts led the development of this and they nailed it.

They, like SAP and NetSuite include ecommerce (see SAP on this one) in their suite - each for a different reason, but all including it. A more marked differentiator for Oracle is their CPQ Cloud product. I haven't seen it but hearing about a cloud based configure, price, quote product is interesting to say the least.

But there were other ways that Oracle continued to surprise. I did a RivalIQ (great product by the way) study of social outreach and Oracle's was BY FAR the greatest. You would think that Hubspot or Salesforce would be the mavens of social reach but they (and everyone else) didn't even come close to Oracle's reach. Here's an example of total social reach on March 4, 2015 at 2pm ET. These are followers across tracked social channels that are active:

Oracle - 1.4 million

Adobe 263,000

Salesforce 260,000

Notice that Oracle's reach is roughly 6.5X the nearest competitor. Needless to say that given this is an impact award, that level of reach has standing. It bears on the results.

Again, vastly improve and even killer products in combination with great social reach are still not enough to get you on the winner's list in 2015. But there are so many more changes over the last year or two at the company. Don't get me wrong, I still have a lot of trepidations but I see Oracle in a better light than I did a year or two ago.

What else moves me to say that?

Oracle has always operated BIG. A lot of their customers, even when they were dissatisfied wouldn't transition to anything else because it was too costly and there was too much invested in the legacy Oracle implementations. In other words, it wasn't customer love, but inertia that kept Oracle in the game. To be fair, that wasn't the bulk of their deployments, but there were enough to make that a matter of concern.

Now, we have customer success at the forefront of at least the CRM/CX/SRM customers. They do what they must to provide the outcomes that the customer is looking for. One key indicator of this change in attitude and in general smart move is that they schedule customer journey mapping workshops with their customers. Their own Watchlist submission description says it better than I could have:

"Customer Experience journey mapping sessions.....are meant to be fun, fast-paced, collaborative and enjoyable. Our customers put themselves in their customer's shoes. And see/feel/experience what their customers see and feel. The sessions concentrate on emotion - that trigger beyond technology, people, things, real world contexts and processes. Emotion is the critical element to make it real. It often really determines what decisions a customer might make..."

Perfect. They see this as a way to improve customer engagement and to impact brand interactions. Amen, brothers and sisters.

This is not the Oracle of yore. There are still plenty of glaring imperfections, but the level of advancement I've seen is the most promising in years. In 2014, they set themselves squarely on course for not only impacting the market and their customers in during the year, but in future years.

But of course, they still have a few things that they have to do - and in their case, more cogent than most. Let's just call them emphatic suggestions.

What they can do

1. Call it CX if you want, but get rid of the RightNow leftover concept - When Oracle bought RightNow back in 2011, they inherited RightNow's ardent desire to distance themselves from the CRM market that made them. RightNow had come up with an artifice around customer experience which they called CX which was used to reposition RightNow out of the CRM/customer service market and into some imaginary customer experience technology market which never materialized.

Unfortunately, Oracle bought into the concept and it has crippled the company's market positioning ever since. They have a large portfolio of products that are part of their CX offering and even have a CX summit coming up that I'll be on a panel at in a few weeks. But CX as a concept or an umbrella isn't aligned with the marketplace and, in fact, is more an artifact that is left over from the RightNow acquisition. If they need an overarching umbrella name call it CE - customer engagement and build out the case to call it that with the arrangement of the portfolio into a technology matrix, an ecosystem (see below) with a narrative that supports and sustains it. All is possible.

They have come a LONG way when it comes to the product offerings they have in the more or less traditional CRM areas. They have several others that would be typed Social CRM if that were still a usable term (it isn't) - Oracle calls these Social Relationship Management (SRM). They have the foundation. Now they need the framework and the narrative. So forget calling it CX. I changed my mind. Drop CX, pick up CE and let's get to 2015 from 2011.

2. Hire some customer-facing leadership with oversight - Right now, Oracle has several capable leaders who are overseeing the development of their products e.g. the Sales Cloud, the Marketing Cloud, the Service Cloud. You could make a great case that Meg Bear, who is running the Social Cloud is someone who has made it out of the ranks of executor and into the echelons of thought leadership. But since Anthony Lye left Oracle a couple of years ago, they don't have anyone who is taking overall responsibility for direction of all customer facing assets - and who is a highly visible face. They need that person - and they need that person fast. This is a big "what the hell are you thinking with no one at that leadership position" miss. It has to be redressed.

3. Think ecosystem - Microsoft and SAP think ecosystem. Oracle and Salesforce don't. Thinking in terms of the ecosystem you can provide to your customers is pretty much a vital component of the customer-facing strategies for the 21st century. Oracle, due to their legacy and focus, has been perhaps the least focused on ecosystems of all the companies. As a result their CX product portfolio, despite the quality of many of the products in it, is a confusing set of "stuff" that has a lot of features and functions. If they are thinking ecosystem, then, in their case, for their customer facing technology, they will have a story to tell about what Oracle the company, not the products of Oracle (or the ChronicWhatcles of Nar-ni-a) can do to support the outcomes that their customers are looking to achieve in order to reach their goals. BIG difference than "here are the features and functions that we can provide and the products that have these features and functions and the ways we can integrate the products." There is a difference between a story and a string of sentences. In order for Oracle to get past the string of sentences, to a narrative, they need to start thinking in terms of the ecosystem(s) they provide.

I am encouraged by what I'm seeing with Oracle and hope that I'm right. I want them to succeed. They have overcome a lot to be impacting the customer-facing market once again. I'm betting that they can sustain that impact.


SAP is always an interesting part of the Watchlist. There are things about them that blow me away and things about them that make me want to blow them off. As I've said for years, they are perhaps one of the most innovative companies I've ever seen. They are one of the two majors who understand the concept of ecosystems - and they build accordingly. To add to that, and one of the big reasons that they are in the 2015 CRM Watchlist winner's circle, is that they are, after years of tumult, starting to get a real handle on the market and where its going and are focusing the company's work at least around their customer-facing technology, in alignment with that market.

That is reflected in their rather progressive outlook. "We envision an evolution of CRM to a next generation omnichannel customer engagement platform that goes beyond the traditional focus on front office efficiency and effectiveness and blurs the distinction between market, sales, service and commerce: A platform that allows companies to focus on engaging with customers at each step of their journey, blending physical and digital customer experiences. "

Why would I spend time focusing on this? Because it is actually the clearest exposition of where the market is going and how to address it that I've seen to date. While I see the customer engagement platform as a much larger entity, not so much one that blurs the lines, but subsumes the different still distinct sales, marketing, service and commerce capabilities, it is still, relative to SAP's offering, what they need to be thinking about - and far better than their CRM is a failed experiment declaration of a few months ago. They also do something I think that is VERY important in their statement when they say "blending physical and digital customer experiences." As Rich Toohey, the VP of Marriott's Loyalty Program, rightfully stated in a guest blog post here on this very subject not too long ago, "To maximize the value of any engagement program, the design must successfully fuse digital and physical interactions."

True dat - big time.

This outlook is reflected in the way that they've begun to construct their product portfolio. They continue to take the hybrid approach to CRM due to their required satisfaction of a customer base that was largely on premise and while in transition now to the cloud in many cases, is still heavily on premise represented. But, to show you how they are thinking - and this is wisely - they have integrated their brilliant JAM collaboration product into both the CRM on premise (though JAM is cloud-based) and SAP Cloud for Customer, their cloud CRM/CEC suite. This is a wise move, because employee and customer collaboration and interaction are necessary for successful customer engagement. JAM fills a space that needs to be what they have done - interweaving it into their products regardless of delivery mechanism.

They also provide customer engagement intelligence (CEI), a marketing cloud (though that's really the result of an alliance with Adobe Marketing Cloud in its best instance), ecommerce, a sales cloud and service cloud, field service (this is arguably one of their best products and best kept secrets), and a loyalty application among others. Their partners provide other services but at the moment, their native provisions are considerably stronger than their partner applications. That's fine, but it does leave holes (see below for what to deal with).

What makes their portfolio realignment so interesting is that they are adding some depth to the portfolio, which gives it strengths that others don't necessarily have. For example, their SAP Cloud for Sales added predictive analytics so that they could develop new capabilities like deal finder, which is what it sounds like: figuring out the best deal under the circumstances (whatever those circumstances may be), an influencer map based on social presence, content, topics of interest, and other factors; and lead scoring.

This rather intelligent realignment is being done in light of a complete redesign of the user interface that they have called Fiori. In June 2014, Fiori, a genuinely attractive, easily navigable interface, became a free offering to all SAP customers - very smart, given the intense interest by customers on how easy to use an application is and a big investment by most enterprise technology vendors in user interface redesign.

This is then piggybacked on 25,000 customers using the CEC (see below) platform and applications - a significant base indeed. Combine this with a significant partner ecosystem that is immensely strong in some areas and you have a 2015 CRM Watchlist winner, who belong on this list.

But, of course, they aren't perfect - far from it - and there are things that they can do and should that will propel them to the next level - and hopefully, keep them on the Watchlist in the future.

What they can do

1. CE, not CEC - I've made this clear in the past and will be a bit more imperative now about it. Their messaging needs to shift from customer engagement and commerce back to customer engagement. That's not an easy thing, I understand. But what I'm seeing at this juncture from the companies that grew up in an ERP universe with a CRM galaxy, they are uniformly incorporating ecommerce into the mainstream of their CRM or customer engagement messaging. Does it belong there? Yes and no. It does belong there as a way that customers transact and interact. But it's a way to do that - one of several ways that customers engage with companies - and buy things. It isn't any bigger a way than sales, marketing and customer service is - and is not, as SAP is claiming, one of the pillars of first generation CRM - that would be ONLY sales, marketing and customer service.

That kind of distortion is a result of elevating ecommerce to a level that it isn't on. Customer engagement is a much bigger concept than ecommerce - not in dollars, but in scope and by what it represents. Ecommerce, as well as sales, marketing and customer service, are just four of the moving parts which, when it comes to technology, and that, after all is what this is about, is only about 25% of them.

Here are the other moving parts that I've identified so far. By equating commerce and customer engagement on the same level, they reduce customer engagement to a lot less than it really is. By their insertion of ecommerce into the mythos of CRM, they could equally as well have called their thrust CES (customer engagement and sales); CEM (customer engagement and marketing) CE...you get the message. Its time for SAP to go back to what they were literally the forerunner for - the first to market. Customer Engagement without the Commerce in the messaging.

2. Tweak the ecosystem - JAM and CJM - SAP has one of the best partner networks out there, solid, thoughtful and while not complete, well distributed. Given that they've thrown their lot in with customer engagement, they could add two pieces to the ecosystem, one that they already own. First, they need to expand their very own collaboration tool, JAM's penetration and integration so that it intermeshes and stands along with the engagement ecosystem they are building. They are also missing a major piece of the ecosystem - the building of the customer journey (similar idea to Salesforce's Journey Builder tool) and the tracking of the journey and communication with those on the journey (Thunderhead.com-like). These are arguably their biggest holes. They also could do a better job with their loyalty application (which is actually competent) - tie it to advocacy, which we are starting to see with more advanced loyalty systems. Those would go a long way to improving what is already a good ecosystem.

3. Even more focus on industries - This one is funny, peculiar funny. If there is any company that understands industries, the vertical markets, it has been SAP. For years, they were the king and queens of multiple specific industries e.g. oil, gas, petrochemicals comes to mind right away. They have and, if they've managed to keep them up (I don't know if they have or haven't), the best industry process maps, bar none. They've most recently (3 years ago) added a sports vertical, a bit late, I must say. But even a bit late, they can own the analytics side of the sports market. Microsoft owns the CRM side. No one is displacing them any time soon.

However, oddly SAP hasn't been very strongly pushing their vertical strengths at the precise time when verticals like health services/wellness, sports, media, entertainment, retail, even financial services including insurance and wealth management are seeing a resurgence in interest - in engagement, precisely what they are focused on. They need to step their public efforts at least big time. They are becoming an afterthought in the public mind even if not in their penetration, which is years old and deep, but getting a bit long in the tooth. Time for a serious industry refresh at the precise time their competitors are going all in on the key verticals.

Well, that's about it for this round. The suites and their ecosystems are done, done and done. Reviews in the bag. They are great companies with long histories and great futures. Winners all. All deserved.

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