Vendor Influencers: The New Category on the Block

Note: I wrote this sitting at the Toronto airport about a month ago. I had just spent the day before on one of the best panels I ever sat on at the launch of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 in Canada.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Note: I wrote this sitting at the Toronto airport about a month ago. I had just spent the day before on one of the best panels I ever sat on at the launch of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 in Canada. Not only was it run by Frank Falcone, Microsoft's CRM lead in Canada and a rising star in his own right (ALERT, this comment has bearing on this post) but the panels were primo folks. First and foremost, at least in my mind, was my buddy, Brian Solis (who is not only incredibly influential but a great, great guy), and Umberto Milletti, CEO of InsideView (ALERT again: Bearing on the post). Additionally, two guys I hadn't met before but am now really glad I did, Jordan Banks, managing director of Facebook Canada and employee #2 at eBay, and Jonathan Lister, LinkedIn's Managing Director for Canada and Latin America The dynamics (pun sorta intended) of the panel were outstanding and its refreshing (ALERT! Bearing on the post) that the content was not focused on a product pitch at all, but in fact, was genuinely valuable for the 900 attendees. Also, there was terrific chemistry which I thought was a key driver of this. Brian and I were treated as a team and that was a great move frankly. We had quite the chemistry. In fact, given that I'm older, I'm thinking of adopting him as a younger brother. (kidding....mostly)

In any case, the fact that Frank had developed content that reflected some thought leadership and agnostic (not vendor-specific knowledge) in combination with three technology vendors (not me and Brian) on the stage NOT pitching but providing genuinely valuable again, agnostic, knowledge, got me thinking about a post that uber-influencer Ray Wang did in early February on his A Software Insider's Point of View called: Trend: Influencers Aspire for Market Maker's Status

The premise, which I completely subscribe to is that there are eight types of influencers that are now out there in the market who are moving, in different ways, depending on their profile, to influence markets and each of these types needs to be treated differently and, as a type, is at a different level of influence. I won't go into the details here. Read the post. Its worth it. But I want to take off on is a comment by Ultimate Software's Andrew McCarthy (a former Workday industry veteran) that posited another type of influencer - a vendor influencer. Ray, in response to the commenter mentioned Mary Jo Foley as a possible example of this type. For those of you who don't know her, shame on you! Mary Jo is perhaps the most influential writer/analyst when it comes to all things Microsoft. She is a fellow ZDNet blogger who is a must read if you have any interest in Microsoft in any way. Here's the link to her.

But actually I don't think that's what Andrew meant. Here's what I think he meant...or if he didn't, then it's a convenient comment for me to tell you what I mean when I say "vendor influencer."

There is a group of thinkers at vendors, several of whom I have mentioned more than once (see below for who) that is emerging...and I think its a first...who are able to present ideas that are agnostic, valuable and provide genuine thought leadership that goes well beyond their company. Now, to be honest, the ideas that they are focused on benefit their company - but that's okay, it should. But they don't pitch the company, they provide expertise that can be universally applied. They are trusted in a way that is independent of the company, yet they are still known to represent the companies they work for. The ultimate compliment is when they are invited to speak at either rival or other vendor companies events on subjects that they are expert in. This is an increasingly emergent and powerful group. They need to be recognized and I'm going to do just that in this post, naming several (not all) of them.

What I find fascinating about this group is that they are in what might be the most difficult position of all - having to maintain their independence, yet still recognize who's paying their salaries. In fact, one of the things that I respect about the ones I think do it well is that they don't use the freedom that their companies give them to further their personal agendas at the expense of their employers. There are some who are so-called thought leaders who exploit their relationships to their companies, either wittingly or unwittingly, to further personal agendas at the expense of their companies. There are other thought leaders in the vendor space who have followings who are pontificating without the ability to support their claims or who substitute their emotional state of the moment for wisdom. What's so funny is that while both types of "pretend influencers" actually have followings and some influence, in the short and long term they are noticed for their inability to get beyond their initial statement.

This leads me to the characteristics of the vendor thought leader - most of which are universal to all influencers:

  1. Honor is part of leadership - True influencers have honor. They honor their industry, they honor other human beings and value their thinking. They are genuinely interested in what others have to say and they recognize their responsibility to make sure that what they say brings value. While this may sound exaggeratedly noble for the 21st century, the reality is that honor matters in life and it is incumbent on a person who is actually paid attention to, that they honor those that respect them and return that respect to others.
  2. Say whatever you want, but be prepared to defend everything you say - This might sound ridiculous but with a zettabyte of data out there, but its not only not ridiculous but its paramount. I can't tell you how many times I've seen stuff written by so called influencers - sometimes with and sometimes without malice - that have been indefensible. They are often universal declarations based on something that is either context specific or even based in more than one case on something bad or good that happened to that influencer the night before so to speak that was broadened from "me that minute" to "everyone forever" in the post or article. Or invented. Or cobbled together from other people's work. This particular one is perhaps the most interesting because those who wrote it originally can defend it - meaning there is substance to the statement. But the person who is regurgitating some aggregation of other's work can't. Which is a problem. Look, if you're an influencer, and expect to be more than a micro-thin storyteller, be prepared to back up what you wrote. Its as simple as that. If you state it, prove it. That said, I can find numbers to prove any conclusion I come to. Sad but true. Which means I need more than a research organization survey to back up what I say. Research, sure, but more than one piece of evidence; stories; a body of knowledge that definitively convinces if not outright defines. And you have to do it over and over and over again.
  3. Resonate with the reader in a substantial way - The best influencers are able to get to the minds of those that listen to them. That means that they've understood who it is that they are talking with and how those persons are thinking. To some degree, they are empaths. Though don't go overboard with that one. One thing I learned early on in this world was that no one but me thought like me - which led me to the conclusion that each of us thinks with a metaphor unlike any other individual's metaphor. Its not only an influencer's responsibility to figure out how the metaphors of those individuals work but how to define what it is that they need to get across in the metaphor of those who are listening to them. Since its impossible to know each and every metaphor in action since you a. don't know all the people following you personally and b. none of us are smart enough to figure out each person's metaphor; the best that we can do is to figure out the common elements of the metaphors we do know and address our ideas in those terms. That's why personally, I love to speak to audience members of the crowd I'm about to speak to before I speak. I get a better understanding of how they think.
  4. The vendor thought leaders are able to represent and supersede their companies - This is exclusive to the vendor thought leaders. This new breed leader have established themselves as independent thinkers without reneging on their affiliation. They are respected because they represent their companies honorably and yet manage to provide valuable universal, defensible insights to the industries that they reside in. Other vendors will use them in their discussions as an influential name and source. The topics they represent are clearly of interest to their companies - they don't stray; but they add to the agnostic body of knowledge that is there for anyone to pluck from. They walk a line but with a certain amount of innocent grace. Meaning they are damned good people most of the time too.
  5. They can be focused on the issues - but the larger ones - (UPDATE: this was rightfully suggested to me by E20 leader and IBM Social Business Transformation Consultant Rawn Shah. Thank you sir.) This is exclusive to the vendor thought leaders too. They have the ability to address issues that affect an industry or an entire category not just their specific self-interest. For example, if they think they need to speak to something about the impact of social customers on revenue - which is a broad general category and they are focused in the contact center space - well, that's what i'm talkin' about.

Those five characteristics only touch the surface of what makes an influencer and what the vendor influencer specifically does. But enough of the probably too florid over the top effusive discussion. I guess I'm in a good mood. Here are the names of some of the top vendor influencers in our industry. This is by no means a complete list but they are those who stand out. I'm leaving some out because of space. Check each of them out where they are or were influential to get an idea of what they do by clicking on the links. The link will take you to a relevant and indicative post/article/presentation they wrote to give you a feel for what they talk about.  The order is random and has no ranking which is why you're seeing little dots rather than numbers.

The Vendor Influencers

  • Michael Wu, Chief Scientist, Lithium - Michael has a title which might seem odd for business, but he genuinely deserves it. He is as pure a scientist and a man pure of heart as I've ever run across. His power and why people listen to him is that he has the research to defend what he says and what he says is of most importance in an increasingly social business world. His strength is that he studies influence and looks at it in a way that shows what it really. He takes it far beyond the ridiculous au courant thinking that defines influence by Twitter followers and retweets. He's the only one who writes on influence that I currently trust.
  • Don Tapscott, Moxie - This is almost cheating since Don has been an influencer for years - long before his company was acquired by Moxie. Yet, what makes his work on government, macroeconomics and social trends in the mega sense and a knowledge-based economy so compelling and gets him audiences is that he's done the work to prove it. He also provides the message that Moxie loves - in a way respectful of the brand but independent of the brand. Besides that, he gets to go to Davos. How cool is that?
  • Anthony Lye, SVP, CRM Oracle - Anthony was one of the first very senior vendor leaders to speak out on social CRM - not just Oracle's version of it, but the concepts behind it and the techniques and methodologies that define it. Yet, we never forget he's Oracle. But he commands our respect as an influencer as much as his successful management of an Oracle P&L.
  • Chris Bucholtz, SugarCRM - Again, a trick really. Chris was the ubermensch of InsideCRM before Tippit decided to shut it down two years ago, so he was already an influencer in his own right. While at Aplicor, he was responsible for the totally agnostic Forecasting Clouds daily aggregation of CRM pieces. He has been the guy who put out the industry's annual Top 20 CRM blogs which comes out nearly every year. It predated his work at SugarCRM and Aplicor - and is keenly studied by practitioners who want to know who are the leading writers in the industry.  He now will be the lead on SugarCRM's well respected CRMOutsider blog - in fact his very first post came out in the last few days.  Chris has wide latitude to produce what he needs to, a smart move on the part of his new employers, SugarCRM Chris writes for independent media such as CRM Buyer too. He is also a well known prolific author on World War 2 military history - particularly aviation.
  • Martin Schneider, formerly Senior Director, Communications,  SugarCRM, now VP, Marketing Basho Technologies - Yet another influencer who predates his vendor influence, Martin is a former analyst with 451 Group, perhaps the most technical of enterprise software analyst organizations and is now the former Senior Director of Product Marketing for SugarCRM, having left them to take a position as the new VP of Marketing for Basho Technologies. Martin wrote much of the highly acclaimed CRM Outsider, which put forth strongly opinionated ideas on what was going on in the CRM industry with an impact that went well beyond what a vendor usually can expect. While the overt SugarCRM discussions were not terribly subtle, Martin still managed to be highly respected by the entire CRM industry and even non-SugarCRM vendors, partners, and customers. He was and will resurface as one of the more influential of the vendors spokesmen.
  • Umberto Milletti - CEO, InsideView - Umberto may be the most recent emergent vendor thought leader. There are two things that make him unique in this. 1. He is the only one with a focus on social sales. 2. He is the only CEO in this list. Much of this comes on the strength of his constant appearances at other vendor events as a speaker or on panels that they put together. The other piece is his leadership in establishing a Social Selling University. All in the last 6 months. Plus the man writes - and his company is the leading sales intelligence company. Not too bad.
  • Mitch Lieberman - VP Marketing, Sword-Ciboodle - Mitch is perhaps the most prolific writer of the entire bunch and was a thought leader at SugarCRM and in his own right before he joined Sword-Ciboodle. This is a case where his influence has only gotten stronger when he joined another vendor. He (and perhaps Michael Wu) is also the most conceptual of the vendor thought leaders, often providing new insights into helping to define the frameworks that will determine how business uses Social CRM. He does much of this through his well thought of and incredibly well named blog, Mitch Lieberman - A Title Would Limit My Thoughts. All while working at a day job.
  • Laurence Buchanan - VP CRM EMEA, CAPGemini - Laurence, also a former VP of CRM at SAP, is highly respected and we
    ll known throughout the industry. He is photogenic enough to grace billboards for Cap Gemini across Europe (see this not incredibly well shot picture if you want proof. Taken at the Copenhagen airport). Laurence is able to provide clarity to the application of Social CRM and broader contemporary CRM concepts with practical approaches for business to adhere to. He has his own blog, The Customer Revolution, which just gets better and better.
  • Prem Kumar - Senior Architect, CRM, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Ltd - Even though he is in title a senior architect, in practice he's that and chief evangelist for Social CRM for Cognizant.Prem thinks at a level that we all wish we could. He has a wide range of knowledge and a true thirst for it when it comes to all things CRM and Social CRM.  What makes him particularly important to the continued growth of Social CRM is that he is one of the first people to define a true technical architecture for Social CRM. He tends to write in presentation decks more than long articles, but hey, impact is impact and he has that.
  • Louis Columbus, Director of Product Marketing, Selectica - Louis is perhaps the biggest enigma of them all, being the quietest one on this list. But when he does write (far too little for my taste), it is hyperpowered. He is a master at understanding how the sales/selling process works - including complex selling.  He is the consummate practical influencer - meaning that he will give you ways to do things that are truly worth applying to whatever is you do. He looks at sales in ways that others don't - and probably can't. That means not just the numbers, but the behavioral.  He is a an adjunct professor at Marymount.  A busy busy guy. Even beyond all this, he is universally respected and liked, which is all you can ask for in a life, isn't it?

There are many others who are well known and very powerful and would theoretically fit the criteria that I mention above for the most part, but they miss one of the most unspoken - they don't write or have a consistent presence that I can put my finger on.  That is a prerequisite here. But the people I mentioned above are not only leaders in their company at one level or another but have made contributions to the industry they represent and are listened to by not only potential customers, but other thought leaders and other vendors. Not too shabby an achievement, now, is it?

I knew you'd agree.

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