ASUGForward 2021 - SAP's CX re-invention comes into focus

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 23, 2021 Audio mode
SAP's CX strategy was a question I raised and tracked during Sapphire Now. But how would it carry over to customers at ASUGForward 2021? Lessons from an SAP Commerce Cloud project were instructive.

ASUGForward's e-commerce expert session
(ASUGForward's e-commerce expert session)

The three-week virtual affair known as Sapphire Now 2021 has come to a close. Time to break down what we've learned? Nope. Because we've rolled right into ASUGForward (free registration, June 21 - 24, you should be able to view some replays afterwards also).

When Sapphire Now kicked off, I raised some burning questions: The opinionated Sapphire Now 2021 preview - my top questions SAP needs to answer. We did get clarity on some points, example: Sapphire Now 21 - SAP SuccessFactors chief Jill Popelka on flexible working and the digital experience.

The expected business networks blitz got my scrutiny: Sapphire Now 21 - SAP touts the business networks revolution, but can it deliver? However, SAP's intriguing (but sometimes confusing) CX strategy needs a closer look also.

SAP CX - on the right track?

I've written about why SAP's approach to CX has utterly baffled me historically. But in October 2020, I  explained why the current leadership team is one worth watching (SAP doubles down on CX - why SAP acquired Emarsys). One day, SAP is pushing the infamously-named C/4HANA. Then a cloud-first leadership team steps in, the C/4HANA name goes quietly by the wayside, and you hear the word "multi-tenant" uttered more often than from any other team at SAP. Yes, that interests me.

But the most important part is: can SAP finally deliver something compelling in "cloud CX" to customers, which includes a sizable SAP CRM on-prem install base?

In the early days of Sapphire Now 2021, I had my first on the record talk with Bob Stutz, President, Engineering and Operations, SAP Customer Experience. There is also some SAP CX news, via what you might call a "reboot" of SAP Upscale Commerce. (One way to think of Upscale Commerce is: a Shopify-style commerce setup for SAP customers).

SAP's Bob Stutz on Upscale Commerce, and his team's goals

Now, with ASUGForward playing out, I can see how Stutz's views stack up with user group conversations. When I talked with Stutz, I asked him if he thought his team had achieved its Sapphire Now goals. He told me: so far, so good. Which prompts the question: what would constitute a successful Sapphire Now for the SAP CX team? Stutz responded:

Getting to a successful goal is really about getting people to understand our strategy: where we're going, what we're doing. The things that we've been working on, you know, like putting into a market a brand new, multi-tenant, modern, cloud-native commerce platform, the continuation of our CDP and what we're doing there - and tying it into all of our other CX applications, and into the bigger SAP story.

When CEO Christian Klein wanted to cite an example of quicker time to value with SAP, he chose an SAP e-commerce example, via Brakes, a UK B2B company that had to make a quick pandemic B2C switch. As Klein said during the Sapphire Now 2021 press conference:

We saw the customer example we have with Brakes. I mean, in seven days, with our software and our technology, we changed the whole business model. They just switched to online commerce, to home delivery, to still deliver their services to over millions of households in the UK.

Yes, Stutz's team was jazzed:

We've made great progress with this platform. Like all commerce platforms, they take time to mature, which is why the Upscale Commerce platform is sort of geared towards midmarket. But over time, it will be able to take on the largest of the large enterprises.

What customer need does this "rebooted" product fill? Stutz:

The long-term goal for us is to have a commerce platform that is capable of not only serving the B2B space, but also the B2C - one that's modern, one that is easy to make pricing and product changes. That's the beauty of the Upscale Commerce product: if I'm a commerce person and I need to make changes to a platform, I can do it from my mobile phone.

This is really about the new world of commerce. It's about commerce anywhere. Whether it's a website or social channel doesn't matter. And we need to be able to play in that space, and play in it very effectively.

SAP CX at ASUGForward - views and field lessons

So what do SAP customers think? At ASUGForward 2020, I went looking - to the degree you can do that virtually. First stop? I dropped in on a Meet the E-Commerce Experts session, where two members of the Bendix Commercial Vehicles Systems SAP team talked about their experience "modernizing their global e-commerce deployment" with the SAP Commerce Cloud (John Goetz of Birlasoft, the implementation partner on the project, moderated the session).

The Bendix team had learned from past global projects. So they agreed with Birlasoft on key practices such as:

  • Their SAP ECC system would remain the system of record.
  • SAP Commerce Cloud would pull data from Bendix's ECC and PLM systems.
  • They were rigorous about real-time integration, data flow, managing product information, and, most of all: keeping their regional systems as close to their global template as possible.
  • They set an 80 percent goal with adherence to that global template, which would allow for some needed localizations.

But these projects only work if the customer (and potentially their end customer) sees the benefit. Goetz asked Marylou Hornung, Director Sales Operations with Bendix to explain: what was the customer benefit of that data integration? As Hornung told attendees:

For our customers, we wanted that omni-channel. Wherever they went to get information from [us] around the globe, they would get the same answer. So whether it was calling customer service or looking online, the source of the truth was the back end system.

Another useful way to assess outcomes: check the stats. Hornung:

I believe we have a lot of a lot more customers who find value in the site. They can verify that they have genuine products; they can verify product attributes; they can check availability - all these things they couldn't do in the past. They're very happy today that they have the ability to do this.

By email, I asked ASUG CEO Geoff Scott for his overall pulse on where SAP CX is headed. He told me that the sheer volume of commerce transactions SAP is running came as a surprise to him (more dollar volume than Amazon). Scott also believes that the CX side of the portfolio has become much more competitive - enough to justify a closer look. I asked him what SAP customers need from SAP next:

SAP's CX portfolio, in my view, holds a lot of promise. What we as customers need is more education and understanding of its capabilities. We need to see through all of the individual products to understand where SAP is heading with this entire portfolio.

We have all learned over the past year-plus that digital commerce is an absolute necessity – regardless of whether you are a B2B or B2C company. SAP needs to help us understand clearly and succinctly how their CX strategy will speed time to market, and ensure that our SAP investment is integrated out of the box.

My take - better to re-invent the CX market than to chase it

When Stutz took on this role, I told someone "I wouldn't wish this job on anyone." Why? Consider the challenges of 4,000 on-premise customers on SAP CRM (a product Stutz helped to build during an earlier stint at SAP), along with an array of homemade bits from various ill-fated SaaS CX builds, and interesting acquisitions that lacked a common platform. But now, with Emarsys in the fold, the acquired pieces seem to fit. You can't find a big hole in the offerings anymore. Building an effective CDP around those offerings is another matter entirely.

Then there is integrating to the back end. That's a challenge but also a selling point. In the Bendix ASUGForward session, it was refreshing to hear no S/4HANA talk - just a story of working with SAP to get a commerce project done. Yep, an SAP ECC customer finding impact with integration to SAP's cloud products. You could imagine a similar story from an on-prem CRM customer. That's the point: transformation should start where you want it to, not necessarily where S/4HANA does.

When you lag behind a market leader in a product category, you can chase them from behind and mimic their approach. Or: you can attempt to see around a few corners and do something bold. The so-called "customer experience" market is ripe for such re-invention. Yes, we can agree that omni-channel is important, but what major brands have really achieved that, when you put them to a true test of online chat, service call, email and so on? Something is missing. Vendors claim that a CDP will solve this perpetual riddle. Right or not, few brands have solved it.

With a customer like Bendix, SAP can make the case that their back-end connectivity is critical to the so-called customer experience. With B2B customers looking hard at B2C (or at least commerce platforms), SAP is well-positioned to help customers there also.

For years, SAP seemed to enjoy calling out Salesforce as a legacy player in cloud CRM from the Sapphire Now keynote stage. This claim always came across as either childish or absurd, or even sour grapes. I'm not hearing that talk from SAP anymore. If you think you can build a more modern, more responsive CX technology stack, go out, do it, and delight customers. That seems to be what Stutz and team have decided to do. So far, they appear to have the freedom to do it. That said, it's very early to declare success outside the parameters of the acquired CX products. Making something greater than its assembled parts is no small job - and it's the job at hand.

One thing that struck going through the ASUGForward "customer experience" sessions - many of them actually focused on employee experience instead. I don't have a problem with that. You can improve CX with smart automation only to a point. At some point, we're going to interact with your humans. We'll figure out pretty quickly what kind of head space they're in. That's the stuff out of which loyalty is earned - or lost.

In a recently analyst session with Stutz, when he articulated a vision of how an omni-channel platform, supported by integrated customer data, can drive real engagement, I told him that I had no quarrels with that goal. But: I told him I've dealt with some service line employees this week who wouldn't be able to treat customers well, even with perfect information. There, we agreed. Finding the right automation mix and supporting the heck out of your people is still more interesting to me than CDP tech wizardry talk. There is more to say about SAP's CDP plans, and whether this is a toxic buzzword or something we should actually care about. Stutz has strong views on that also. That one will have to wait.

Updated, 8pm US PT on June 23, 2021, with a number of small tweaks for reading clarity.