The future of business is as a service, says FinancialForce CEO Tod Nielsen

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 17, 2017
Forget software eating the world, services are devouring the galaxy and every business must become a services business, says FinancialForce CEO Tod Nielsen

Tod Nielsen CEO FinancialForce on stage 370px
Tod Nielsen, FinancialForce

FinancialForce hosted its Community Live user event in London this week, the first opportunity for new CEO Tod Nielsen to share his strategy with customers.

Nielsen, who joined FinancialForce in January following leading roles at VMware, Microsoft and most recently Salesforce, did not discuss specific product details or updates with his audience, but instead focused on where he sees the market going.

This included a warning that products as we know them will soon cease to exist, with users instead wanting the convenience of a utility rather than dealing with the maintenance and upfront costs of an item. Nielsen told attendees:

When you buy something, that becomes an asset that’s stuck with you. I think we’re going to be at the point where some day in the future balance sheets for companies are going to be very, very sparse, because nobody’s going to own any assets. It’s all going to be comprised of an aggregation of a whole set of services.

Every business is turning into a services business.

Nielsen cited Marc Andreessen’s oft-referenced WSJ article from 2011, where the entrepreneur predicted software was eating the world. The FinancialForce CEO added:

If we were going to write the similar article for what does the future look like, I think it’s services are devouring the galaxy. I believe we’re entering a new phase in the economy, not just the tech industry, and that is the new services economy.

Nielsen went on to list some of the “more obvious” examples of service businesses that have already disrupted traditional industries – Uber and Airbnb – along with newer examples like Rover’s dog walking as a service and Apple’s recent ambition to transform itself into a services company.

He also highlighted research from CFO magazine, which reported 70% of CFOs saying more than 50% of their revenue now comes from services. Nielsen believes that a year from now, those figures will increase to 90% of CFOs quoting services as 75% of revenue.

Security and speed in the cloud

The shift to services has been enabled by a change in attitude to cloud computing. Nielsen referenced last week’s ransomware attacks, which took out much of the NHS IT infrastructure and led to hundreds of canceled medical procedures and appointments, noting that none of the victims affected were using Amazon, Salesforce, Google or any of the big cloud providers.

Eight or nine years ago, the concern for most people in applications was I don’t want to do anything [in the cloud], I don’t want to put data there, I don’t trust it. But the bad actors have become so sophisticated and so talented, that unless a company is investing millions every year to protect and secure their datacenters, it’s the equivalent of putting their money under the mattress.

We’re at this point in the industry where ironically what’s kept people away from the cloud is going to be what pushes them into the cloud. It’s not a matter of if but when. It’s a very exciting time for us.

Now that the world has overcome its cloud security aversion, the biggest challenge Nielsen sees is the speed of change businesses can manage.

We’re now at this point where things are moving so fast, that human’s ability to adapt and to accept and to process the change, we’re now surpassing that. We’re at a point on the technology graph now where humans are behind. How can we get over this mismatch between what humans can adapt and where technology is.

We have enough tech now to get us where we need to go. The focus and energy needs to be put around people and process. Speed is the new currency. You may fail, but fail fast and try again. Experiment out, be agile and make sure your back-office systems and your company is supportive of this sort of adaption that is necessary to be successful in this new services economy.

And what can help companies adapt for this new services-driven world? Investing in a new ERP system, of course – preferably one that is “a value add and not a constraint or a blocker.” Nielsen advised firms to look for three core facets from their ERP: business model agility; time and talent optimization; and predictive insights. But he conceded that even FinancialForce could not offer the perfect system – yet.

No one has the answer right now. We want to learn from best practices, but we want to be free to experiment. Speed is the new currency.

Do more on customer experience

Nielsen also shared his keynote slot with Salesforce, as evidence of the close relationship between the two firms – many of FinancialForce’s customer wins are down to Salesforce integration (more on this in our upcoming articles from Community Live).

Tiffani Bova, former Gartner analyst and now global customer growth and innovation evangelist at Salesforce, used her session to urge businesses to up their game when it comes to customer experience.

She cited a recent experience she had with a hotel chain’s loyalty programme, when a customer service rep had advised her to phone each of the different hotels she had a reservation at herself to get her membership number added onto her booking, rather than being able to manage that process for her. Bova said:

The customer is far more disruptive than the technology. Customers are saying we expect you to know me more, and personalization is not ‘Dear valued customer’ and then ‘Dear Tiffani Bova’ and then ‘Dear Tiffani’.

Customers expect you to say we know that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays you catch Uber in San Francisco or when you’re travelling you normally stay at this hotel and here’s the times when it’s going to be peak and your expenses will be higher so we advise you to travel between 10 and 11. That’s personalization, not calling me by my first name.

Speed is the new currency for the customer so getting them the information they need in real time just when they need it is where you start to see the difference. Data, analytics and intelligence is what propels the business forward.

The problem for organizations as Bova sees it, is their siloed nature and the lack of integration between the back office, which holds a lot of useful data, and the front end where the customer is. She gave the example of sales people being at loggerheads with marketers; business leaders complaining that the CFO never frees up enough money; and the services team complaining about problems with the product.

It’s this vicious circle of these disconnections between the groups is what is really driving challenges across the business. These disconnections are absolutely what is hurting your business.

At the C-level, you completely understand the strategy. By the time you get to the field execution level, the gap is getting bigger between what you aspire to do and what’s actually happening in the field with anyone who’s customer-focused. How do we get the teams wanting to work together for the sole reason of delivering a better customer experience? As you make decisions up here about what happens in the front line, think of what is the impact on the customer.

Understand your customer

Bova noted that Amazon chief Jeff Bezos will not have a meeting “bigger than two pizzas,” while he always insists on an empty chair at meetings –  for the customer. Everyone now defaults to this imaginary attendee, meaning all decisions are now made around whether it adds value to the customer. Bova added:

Top teams win with a customer journey strategy. Be a customer. Call in and don’t be you, try to buy something, try to return something, send an email, see how long it takes to respond. You will start to walk and understand the life of your customer.

Bova’s other top tips for businesses were:

  • Customers want everything in real time and from any device, down to their Apple Watch
  • Voice command is the new user interface – 30% of Google Now searches are via voice
  • Align sales and marketing; front office and back office; C-level to frontline contributors – don’t let the gap be too big
  • Lean on data, analytics and intelligence to enable customer engagement

If you are still conducting your business the same way you did 12 months ago, you are not looking at the data in any real way. Because there’s no possible way that’s going to be valid because customers are so different.

They don’t want it on paper, they want it digital; they don’t want a phone call, they want a text; they want you to tell them people who bought this bought that, what is the next thing that they should be doing.

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