Main content

Is employee experience relevant to CX? Can SAP capitalize? An SAP SuccessFactors review with Jill Popelka

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 14, 2022
Is there a product connection between employee experience and CX? I pick up that debate with SAP SuccessFactors President Jill Popelka - who also gave us a "state of SuccessFactors" update. Yes, my take on SuccessFactors has changed.

Jill Popelka SAP SuccessFactors screengrab from Teams call 2021-06
(screengrab from Teams call)

Recently, I caused a bit of a social media ruckus about SAP's employee experience plans. It started with my piece It's time for CX to change - can SAP deliver on that?

My view? SAP SuccessFactors' emphasis on so-called "employee experience" gives SAP a potential edge as they look to (finally) make their CX mark:

The so-called "customer experience" will remain elusive until employees feel like they matter - no matter how automated the world around their jobs becomes.

I went on to assert:

I think SAP should have a roadmap answer to the employee experience - CX connection.

I won't detail the social media fracas here, but it had to do with whether EX (employee experience) really impacts CX - and what a "roadmap answer" might look like. Fair questions. But here's what some readers didn't know: I already had an interview on deck with SuccessFactors President Jill Popelka - so I could take this EX/CX matter "to the top," as it were.

"Are customers able to deliver right now on employee experience using our solutions?"

I also wanted to follow up on my colleague Phil Wainewright's past interview with Popelka (Sapphire Now 21 - SAP SuccessFactors chief Jill Popelka on flexible working and the digital experience). Detailing SuccessFactors news items, from the RISE with SAP to the shift to HXM, Wainewright wrote:

It's also about a new user experience, with SuccessFactors having become the first SAP application to offer the Work Zone digital workplace experience. Note that Work Zone is not specific to SuccessFactors — it's also rolling out for other SAP applications and is more about the employee's digital experience at work than any single application. This is where HXM crosses over into the broader realm of digital transformation, getting the CHRO and HR teams involved in supporting change management throughout the enterprise digital journey, not just in HR.

I'd say that's a strong rationale for why SAP CX and SuccessFactors should be talking to each other. No use denying it: I have strong opinions about SAP SuccessFactors' ups and downs (as I see them) the last five years. But I'm starting to see some pretty compelling customer examples - stories that come off as modern and fresh, not just "We moved HR to the cloud." As Popelka told me:

I think some of my peers wonder why I talk to customers so much. I talk to customers so much because I want to understand: are they really able to deliver right now on employee experience using our solutions? And I get more and more "yes" answers.

How Opportunity Marketplace and Dynamic Teams fit in

Okay, I'll bite, why is that?

You probably heard about Opportunity Marketplace - we announced it at SuccessConnect. We sincerely believe this is the cornerstone of how we lead to employee experience in the future. That's because employees want to have agency and autonomy over their careers - so they select a company based on a purpose that they believe, in an outcome, the skills that they have, etc.

But once they're in, if you want them to continue to grow and thrive in your organization, you have to give them opportunities - opportunities to choose how they grow and where they grow. It's not as hierarchical as it used to be. People are curious, and sometimes want to move laterally to understand a new part of the business. So Opportunity Marketplace gives them the ability to do that. It reveals to them experts in these areas where they could go have new opportunities, short term assignments, learning opportunities, and then full-time roles.

Popelka thinks Dynamic Teams will also play a key role:

We also believe our new functionality around Dynamic Teams is going to be huge for creating better employee experiences... You're trying to get this diverse set of skills in to deliver on an outcome... Dynamic Teams allows you to bring those diverse teams together, get them up to speed so that they have a similar set of foundational information, and then helps later you understand what experience they got from that dynamic teamwork.

I like the emphasis on productizing "employee experience." If you can't productize - and operationalize - these concepts, it will taste like marketing pudding. That's why I always emphasize customer use cases over new - and still unproven - products. A couple examples Popelka cited last year got my attention:

Mariposa Corporation has an incredible story. It has rolled out mobile learning to all of its employees, many who did not have the opportunity for higher education. They now tap into lessons on leadership and business, often taking time in their evenings and weekends to further their learning.

Sephora recently transformed their new store manager experience by creating a modern, mobile-forward manager experience called MySephoraCareer. The results are incredible: it's now 83 percent faster to hire new people, saving in-store managers 1.5 hours in paperwork per recruit. There is also a 98 percent increase in the number of candidates. For a brand that hires close to 15,000 new employees each year, this is a huge step in improving the experience for both new recruits and current employees.

About that EX to CX connection - a priority item at SAP?

But how about that EX-to-CX connection? To what extent is SAP SucccessFactors pursuing it? As Popelka revealed, this is not a new question for her team:

Before the pandemic, I lived in Singapore for three years. I was leading our SuccessFactors team there. After we acquired Qualtrics, I immediately had a services team start work on, 'Hey, can we understand what's happening right through Qualtrics?'

Can we get greater insight quickly into what's happening in the CX world, and then, in real-time, translate that into what might need to happen from an employee experience? Whether that's learning, or quick micro-learning in the flow of work, to help the people on the frontlines interact better with their customers. Can we give them that insight immediately, so they know what's happening in the customer's world, so that they can improve what they're doing as employees on the frontlines, with our customers? So we've done some work connecting this.

How close are we to productizing this? Popelka:

It's not baked into the product today. But it's absolutely something we're continuing to think about, as we figure out how to bring that CX and EX story together. It's the X and the O data, the experience and the operational data - it's one of the ways we can really get value from that.

My take

I need to tread carefully here. Just because I think I see a potential competitive advantage here for SAP, doesn't mean SAP is pursuing it aggressively. I say that because many teams inside big software vendors do cool things that never become core to product or strategy. Popelka told me she is going to take a look at how those early EX/CX customers is Asia are progressing, and whether it is making a tangible impact.

I'm not really interested in a debate on why EX matters to CX. If that's not obvious by now, I'm not sure I can really take the argument further. As I wrote:

The so-called "customer experience" will remain elusive until employees feel like they matter - no matter how automated the world around their jobs becomes.

One skeptic told me: we don't have the data points to show EX impacts CX. I countered: we don't have convincing data that CDPs help the customer experience either, yet plenty of CDP projects are underway.

Many of the areas SuccessFactors is pursuing, including the Opportunity Marketplace, are also intended to improve the so-called "employee experience." You don't necessarily have to integrate HR and CRM data points and roadmaps to make employees' lives better. "Happy" employees aren't necessarily the key to CX either. Example: a happy customer-facing call center employee without the power or knowledge to solve my problem isn't very effective, no matter how pleasant they are, and how much they like their job. But: we can measure EX in multiple ways, including skills development.

I hope to talk to SAP's new CX leadership soon, and take on this question once more from their side. I get the sense the dialogue between SuccessFactors and the new CX team is early days; we'll see if it becomes a product priority.

Some have told me SAP SuccessFactors talks too much about topics like employee well-being - themes that can come off as a bit warm-and-fuzzy. However, while I believe SAP SuccessFactors has made some big strategic mistakes in the last five years (HANA replatforming, dragging slowly on next-gen payroll), I don't believe the current leadership's focus on employee experience/HXM is wrong-headed. Yes, the messaging can be buzzword-heavy at times, but: it lines up well with SAP's core values (SAP, whatever its imperfections, is a standout global employer). I also believe the conviction behind the messaging is sincere. No, that doesn't guarantee product/market success, but give me an energizing mission over a bland "let's get you to the cloud!" HR migration push.

A few years ago, I could not have told you what made SuccessFactors different, or what they even stood for. Back then, I would have told you: I think they are chasing the other HCM market leaders, except in terms of SAP's superior international footprint. In some ways, that "what does SuccessFactors stand for" problem goes back to their heady startup days. SuccessFactors was always very good at being a SaaS company, and those lessons helped SAP. But being an effective SaaS company can also come with, how can I say this diplomatically, an off-putting Silicon Valley hubris.

However, now I see SuccessFactors finding its conviction. Popelka herself has written openly about the challenges of employee burnout in a pandemic on LinkedIn.That type of transparency is still underrated. I also know, from my own backchannel, that they are taking a much harder look at project (and partner) quality than many of their peers.

Now, I think I could tell you what SuccessFactors stands for, and how they are trying to differentiate. Whether that can be turned into a new level of customer momentum is still unfolding. But as the leading HCM vendors roll out different approaches, it makes the entire market more interesting to cover - and better for customers.

A grey colored placeholder image