Sage Transform - in-person intel from the front line

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer November 15, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
In the age of COVID, an in-person user conference is definitely different. Here’s a first person take on the recent Sage Intacct Transform gathering in Las Vegas.

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Over the past week, diginomica has published a number of stories re: the Sage Intacct Transform event. Jon Reed has done a couple of customer case studies and has reviewed the keynotes (see all links at end of this article).

Reed and I were at a Sage industry analyst briefing a few days prior where we got a preview of the big announcements but this news was all under NDA. He went back to the 'diginomica Fortress of Solitude' and watched Transform keynotes virtually, while I went to Vegas to wander the halls, talk to lots of customers, hit a number of breakouts, etc.

This piece covers the intangible news you can only pick up from being there as well as the news about customers that you can’t get from a carefully pre-screened and/or pre-recorded set of virtual presentations.

Herewith are my observations:

Sage Intacct customers

I actually enjoy going to the ginormous group meals vendors offer up at user conferences. The food might be a challenge (thankfully, Sage didn’t serve us a bunch of flat meat sandwiches!) but it’s a great opportunity to give the PR/Marketing handlers the slip and talk to real customers. It’s also a way to really learn about how the vendor and its products are actually faring.

Specific to Intacct, their customers are still enthralled with the vendor. I heard no one express any buyer’s remorse for having chosen Intacct. The acquisition of Intacct by Sage Plc may have triggered some changes to Intacct’s pricing and SaaS agreements but people, by and large, are quite happy with their purchases.

Additionally, people I spoke with were positive about Intacct’s culture and people. While there have been some leadership changes since the acquisition, continuity of the team, policies and business relationships were mentioned as positives, although some felt the contracting/pricing has gotten more complex.

I found myself defining Intacct customers based on whether they went live prior to 2017, between 2017 and the pandemic, or during the pandemic. The pre-2017 customers I spoke with were mostly growing firms (more on this below) and were at the show to acquire add-on products/applications. Those who implemented the solution pre-pandemic were the giddiest. To the one, they were so glad to have moved off of their on-premises (and almost always, underpowered) solutions before the pandemic hit. This let them have a work-from-home (WFH) set of capabilities that wasn’t possible beforehand. Those who went live during the pandemic are really glad they did but some of them are already looking ahead to getting more cloud-based applications. Doing a cloud implementation was apparently easier than an on-premises install during this pandemic.

Growth

It was a bit of a surprise to discover so many Intacct customers were undergoing big growth spurts. I mean, we have been through a couple of years of massive economic disruption and still these companies are growing.

As I pondered this, I suspect that part of the reason for the appearance of so many growing firms is that many of these customers are upgrading from a starter system. It’s a selection bias, but certainly one that validates the bottom end of Intacct’s target market.

At the other extreme, there were several longer-term customers who business had grown 2X or more over the last few years. Almost all of the growth I heard about was organic growth. There were almost no stories of inorganic growth (i.e., mergers/acquisitions).   

One other observation - I didn’t hear of a single customer mention scalability as an evaluation criterion when they were buying Intacct. However, their ability to scale their firm without changing financial systems was notable. Intacct’s functionality enabled many of these firms to grow internationally, organically, etc.  Some firms indicated that they were able to utilize revenue recognition (i.e., ASC606) functionality when it became necessary and it required no change in software.

One last point re: growth, a number of folks reported a reduction in spreadsheet use in planning, closing, and other functions. None of that was possible with their predecessor software. I asked for specifics, but all I could get was that “a lot” of spreadsheets went away. The other descriptors I heard involved the software freeing ‘up our time to do more strategic work’.  Accounting leaders were almost universal in stating this realized benefit particularly as it pertained to better month-end accounting closing improvements.

Renewals/contracts/pricing

I sensed some apprehension from a customer whose initial three-year term will be up for renewal soon. The apprehension is due to his not knowing what to expect as to potential price increases and the fact that his firm has both grown a lot in recent years and has subscribed to additional applications. I recommended that the client should get in front of this now and not wait until just before renewal. Intacct might want to do some proactive outreach to high growth customers to help them prepare for a potential future price increase.

That said, customers weren’t necessarily worried on this front as they’ve had a good relationship with Intacct over the years. I’d recommend Sage notes this and takes steps to ensure it maintains a white hat-wearing vendor brand as a way to keep sales coming in and mitigate potential churn of the subscriber base.

Other application focus of customers

Intacct has a core financial applications legacy but it has been adding new applications to the suite in recent years (e.g., the budgeting/planning solution). Intacct also has a large partner network with a number of third-party applications and tools that work well with the suite. Customers were very engaged with these third-party firms at the Expo Hall (see below) and looking to buy a number of add-on products. I don’t know if this was pent-up demand from almost 2 years of pandemic disruptions, but whatever it was, it was notable.

But of all third-party solutions, most customers I spoke with have problems with payroll. In every interaction I had, the decision to select a payroll provider/solution was separate from, and often preceded, the selection of Intacct. The problems these firms are having weren’t caused by Intacct but these ills make for less efficient finance operations. How? Bad payroll to general ledger integration adds significant time to closings and introduces a number of errors into the financial operations (see this report on this phenomena).

Customers shared with me that:

  • Their payroll to general ledger integration is either non-existent, broken/inoperable, error-prone and/or an obstacle to the timely closing of their accounting books
  • Their relationships with major payroll providers (and some down-market solutions, too) are far from ideal. The payroll provider costs keep spiraling upward, the integration with financials doesn’t work now (or never did), etc.
  • Payroll users are not feeling the love with their current solution provider. I saw about a half-dozen payroll/HR solution providers on the Transform Expo floor and I hope they read this and do as much as can be done to take this angst away from Intacct’s install base.

Intacct didn’t create this problem, but there could be an opportunity for them in helping fix this.

The expo hall experience

Software buyers/users have been locked out of this option for almost two years. Yes, virtual expo halls were attempted during the pandemic, but they were, in a word, horrible. The interaction with sales people was stilted, limited and not a very productive use of anyone’s time.

At this show, people were talking. They did a lot of talking, too! It’s interaction moments like these in the expo hall, the dining areas, in the halls between breakouts, etc. that weren’t being replicated (or replicated well) in virtual conferences. These (sometimes chance) meetings were two-way discovery sessions not one-way vendor propaganda experiences.

What I noted was that the expo hall was open for long stretches of time. Even so, it was almost always well-attended with people who wanted to talk with partner firms. Why so much conversation/interaction? I suspect it had something to do with:

  • Pent-up demand for add-on applications – with a new normalcy and growth appearing in many firms’ planning horizons, a lot of companies are looking to make additional improvements in business processes and technology.
  • People love the tire-kicking opportunities at an expo hall – people have been so heads-down for so long that they’re hungry to learn what is the new art of the possible for back-office functions/processes/technology. Attendees want to go back to work smarter, wiser and more cosmopolitan.
  • Expo as a connection place – this expo was always buzzing with activity. With its food, drink, CHAIRS, and more, it become more of a communal hangout than just an endless number of undifferentiated booths full of people desperate to hand out tchotchkes.
  • Relevant, integrated partners – almost every vendor there had products that already possessed pre-built, in-production APIs to Intacct. Some of the integrations appear like native Intacct functionality. There was also lots of choice within a category of add-on technology. For example, there were numerous Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable solutions to see. Ditto for products to expedite financial closes, consolidations, sales/use tax, payroll, HRMS, etc.
  • Expo Hall interaction always works better when food is available – attendees are much more talkative and attentive if they can nosh and watch a fast demo. When attendees have to chose whether to stay in the Expo Hall or go elsewhere to eat, food wins most every time.
  • The liquor at the end of the day Wed. probably got people doing even more talking – booze is certainly a great sales lubricant. This event even had a booze cruise kind of thing one night. Like food, it’s amazing how long people will stick around and interact with vendors if they’re nursing a drink or two. The open bar helped, too.

The breakout sessions

The breakout sessions were the most uneven part of the show. I thought some were great. I especially liked a three-customer moderated discussion on improving month-end closings. But there were clearly some dogs, too, with vendor/partner led talks being some of the worst. Honestly, if your tech firm is supposed to be a visionary or an industry leader, then why can’t you even come up with a couple of slides or graphics that help attendees grasp net-new concepts?

What I saw were:

  • Customers speaking to other customers were the most helpful talks - there’s a degree of authenticity and a willingness to help other customers that makes these talks resonate well.
  • Real consultancies (not undifferentiated implementers) generally did well and offered up lots of thought leadership - while the education factor was present, some of them really need to work on making the topic more interesting/engaging though.
  • Technology partners were the worst overall – Ii they weren’t patting themselves on the back throughout the talk, they were incredibly light on useful information for attendees. The best partner firms DON’T let sales people do these talks as they turn a great brand building and education opportunity into an uncomfortable and unwanted infomercial.
  • Last second, half-a##ed presentations – these were a spectacular waste of time.

I’ll be doing a separate piece on this topic very soon

The COVID situation

Like many of you, I enjoy interpersonal interaction and have been looking forward to reconnecting in person with others in the industry. But, I’ve also been leery of such events as I don’t want to risk infection from COVID. 

I’ve been to a couple of smaller and larger events in the last month. I definitely feel more at ease at the small events, especially if the meeting rooms have been open to the outdoors. However, I don’t see the smaller events being meticulous in demanding proof of immunization or a recent negative test result. The larger events, like Transform, did require attendees to use the Clear app and provide this proof.

The larger events tend to be held almost entirely indoors and in places like Orlando and Las Vegas where people move through, around and back and forth between hotels, amusement parks, casinos and other very public and crowded places, where large numbers of people may not be immunized or recently tested. If you go these places, you can bet you’ll pass by someone who may be problematic.

Nevada is doing contact tracing and one person at this show did pop up with the virus. Apparently, their contact with others at the show was very minimal and they were quarantined.

I will say that attendees were, on the whole, very good citizens. People wore their masks indoors, except when eating and drinking. No-one was being a jerk and I really appreciated that. There was one notable jerk on the flight to Vegas and I really thought the pilot was going to have him removed. I guess I’m saying that the flight to the venue may be riskier than the venue itself.

But when you get right to it, attendees at the large shows will be in rooms with dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Worse, these attendees will likely have been on a crowded plane with people who didn’t have to provide any proof of immunization or recent negative test results. There will be risk in attending any event and that must be factored into whether the risk/reward tradeoff favors attendance. For me, I’ll remain selective in what I attend for the near future.

My take

I’m glad I went to Transform. Will I do the in-person thing next year? Maybe. If I’m still being sparing in my choice of shows to attend in-person, I might do next year’s event virtually. It’s that thought process that makes me believe that vendors will need to offer in-person and virtual access methods to their events for the foreseeable future.

I don’t the kinks are all worked out though re: Covid precautions and I’m not sure people/firms have really rethought how a show should work to accommodate virtual and in-person content today.

As to Sage Intacct, the customers were the star of the show for me. They had great content, attitude and presentation materials. They also dressed well. But back at the airport, I saw people show up in their pyjamas, fuzzy slippers and their own pillows and blankets. Things are definitely changing folks!

Check out this other diginomica coverage:

https://diginomica.com/sage-transform-can-we-tie-finance-software-issue-digital-trust-and-does-ai-and-blockchain-play-role

https://diginomica.com/sage-transform-knocking-down-barriers-theme-how-do-finance-teams-change

https://diginomica.com/how-mob-scene-went-pandemic-low-point-towards-continuous-close-hollywood-type-finance-story-sage