As I noted earlier in the week, this is hardly a problem exclusive to SAP, but the SAP users were particularly articulate in expressing their concerns. I got the chance to sit down later with representatives of both buy and sell sides to get a closer look at the stance taken by each.
First up was Philip Adams, UKISUG chairman, who had flagged up the issue from the keynote stage the day before. He was clearly happy that his message had hit home:
We wanted a bit of a shock factor - that’s the idea.
We are calling on SAP to do more, but the customers also need to help themselves. I’m as guilty as anyone else here. If I wasn’t in this role I wouldn’t know as much. We do need to do a bit more work to help ourselves.
A lot will now hang on the actions of the UKI SAP MD Cormac Watters, a former SAP customer. As he moves from buyer to seller, his view from both sides of the fence will doubtless shape some interesting debate. Adams stated:
We are certainly keen to build on the relationship. It needs to be beneficial from our side. The fact that Cormac comes from a customer background and that he went out of his way to meet us in his first week in the job, I think he’s still thinking as a customer. If that helps us to develop a stronger relationship that that’s good.
I wondered why SAP had decided to look to the customer landscape for its latest MD. Adams suggested that it’s possibly a welcome recognition by the vendor that not everything is about sales:
We clearly said last year when we heard that Jim Hagemann-Snabe was stepping down as co-CEO that there was worry that [now sole CEO] Bill McDermott was perceived more as the sales guy. I expressed the hope last year that SAP wouldn’t become just a sales organization and we were assured it wouldn’t. Twelve months on we are comfortable that this is the case. Now we have the appointment of a customer into what is a sales role. That’s not by accident.
One thing that Adams continues to want to see from SAP is more support in getting customers to sign up to join the user group. a plea that has been heard from his predecessor in the role on a number of occasions. So given the need to keep asking for this to happen, what’s the barrier?
We would like them to drive more of their customers to become members of the user group. We’ve given SAP information packs, we’re made account managers aware. Maybe we need to incentivize the account managers somehow. In Holland, the user group has 90% of the customers in the region. Each region seems to work differently.
The SAP view
One person from the SAP side who’s on the front line on improving communications with customers is Mark Darbyshire, Technology Advisor to SAP UKI. He told me:
My role is working with people and talking to people. Part of that is about communicating SAP technology, maybe 30-40% of the time. But I’m not keen on just standing up and pontificating, I want to be hands on as well. Do, not just talk.
So, with the proviso that Darbyshire is himself new to the job, why after so many years is the user group still grumbling about not enough two-way communication? He said:
I think there is progress. SAP is hiring people like me. We have Chief Innovation Principals who work in pre-sales to help customers innovate. We’re also increasing the amount of training for our sales people in products, use cases and so on.
With a bit of sitting down and thinking and mutual planning. we can reach a common understanding of the way forward. When I meet a customer for the first time, we talk about where they would like to be in five years time, not what’s the next transaction going to be for both parties. I want to understand where the customer is going.
Adams had alluded to experiencing problems of getting past account execs to get at the domain experts inside SAP who could help with business case formation. Darbyshire wasn’t convinced the sales teams were getting in the way:
It’s not fair to start pointing fingers. We are increasing the number of pre-sales people and the number of indsutry and value engineers. It’s not about our sales teams having any reticence.
I put it to Darbyshire that a five-strong line-up of SAP execs on the keynote stage the day before highlighted something else. While all five men were articulate and enthusiastic in their pitches, the presentations were almost entirely built around techn0logy qua technology. There was little or no focus on business outcomes. There is a danger surely of technology fetishizing, I suggested.
Rather to my surprise, Darbyshire replied:
SAP has a wealth of technology and we can get very enthusiastic about technologies.
I could hear similar noises being made from where I was standing in the hall. I don’t think there was anything wrong or inappropriate about what the VPs and SVPs were saying and I was impressed about how enthused they are about the tech.
But that’s my job cut out for me there. The best speaker at SAP Select in Berlin was a man from National Grid who talked about how they improved productivity.
We recognize that we need to be more focused on the solution than the naked technology.
The User Group has rattled the cage quite effectively this year with its call to arms. Taking on a degree of mea culpa and adding that customers need to look to their own actions as well was a welcome recognition that this is not all down to SAP to fix.
But that said, this was just the most articulate expression of a theme that has run through such user gatherings for years now, so something’s not being addressed somewhere. Year after year assurances are given that things are changing, but the complaints remain. No-one's pointing fingers here, but either the goalposts keep moving or not enough genuine action is taking place.
With the arrival of a former customer as the new SAP boss, there’s a fantastic opportunity for genuine improvement to kick in. The next 12 months will be very interesting in terms of observing how relations between the user group and the provider evolve. This is probably the best chance for both sides to benefit from growth. Let's hope both take it up.
Disclosure: at time of writing, SAP is a diginomica premier partner.