SugarCRM sweet-talks Relationship Intelligence with a spoonful of AI

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton June 26, 2017
SugarCRM CEO Larry Augustin discusses AI, automation, GDPR, and some big name customers. Just don't mention Apple...

Larry Augustin

With an AI pitch now compulsory for all enterprise software vendors, SugarCRM is stepping up with what it calls Relationship Intelligence via its latest offering, Hint, which debuts worldwide today.

For data-rich, time-poor marketers, Hint is designed to automate the lengthy process of drawing together personal information about contacts, customers, prospects, and business partners. The smart crawler pulls in a range of public-domain data associated with, for example, a contact’s name and email address. This might include their Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, and around 70 of the other most common data sources that would be laborious for marketers to research, input, and collate manually.

Hint spearheads Sugar’s new Relationship Intelligence product line which, over the next few years, will feature more AI, machine-learning, predictive analytics, and natural language-processing elements, says the company. It replaces the ‘Sugar Intelligence Service’ branding that the company recently introduced.

Over time, marketers will be able to use Hint, and other technologies within the Relationship Intelligence line, to build richer profiles of their contacts automatically. This will include data from their own interactions with them, such as private emails.  In an exclusive chat with diginomica, Sugar CEO Larry Augustin explains:

This is the first step for us in moving towards a new product line and a new category, Relationship Intelligence. We focus on the core aspects of CRM, the core elements that people care about: the actual relationship management. The aim is to provide intelligence and insight, telling you more about who that person is.

If you’re doing business with a consumer, it’s a one-to-one conversation, but even with business-to business-enterprise sales, it still comes down to conversations between people. The idea is to help individuals to better understand other people, whether it is via phone, face to face, email, and so on.

In short, users can spend less time searching for data, and more time acting on it. Hint, and the wider Relationship Intelligence line to come, tap into the company's recent acquisitions of Stitch and Contastic.

Privately-held SugarCRM has been quietly raising its game in recent years, to counter the higher profiles of competitors such as Salesforce, Oracle, and Microsoft. The company has long made a deep focus on the ‘relationship’ part of CRM its core driver, as opposed to the broad cloud platform approach of its peers.

AI arriving?

For Sugar, which can run on premise, the breadth and cloud platform generalities of its better-known competitors are anathema when CRM ought to be about focus, depth, and insight –although integration with other business functions remains important, of course.

But how far do Hint and Relationship Intelligence take Sugar towards that key CRM market differentiator in 2017, Artificial Intelligence? The company has been reported to be developing its own Siri/Alexa-like virtual assistant, Candace, but Augustin now appears to row back on that commitment:

It’s our intent to work with and integrate with a number AI and natural language-processing systems. For example, Sugar already integrates with IBM Watson, making it available, with Hint, to do personality profiling. Our intent is to work with all the different AI and machine-learning systems out there... IBM, Google, Amazon, and others. Being able to integrate with those services is important.

But our own expertise is really in how people use that information, to make it available to people in a business context, whether it’s a relationship around product, services, or sales. [For us] it isn’t in the core technology of AI and machine learning, but rather in how you apply that in a business relationship context.

Trying to go off and build your own technology isn’t always sustainable, it’s about the companies that have the data reach to accelerate that. We want to take advantage of that, rather than compete with them.

So is Candace off? Augustin doesn’t say that, but building a brand new AI assistant clearly isn’t the priority:

We’re developing our own virtual assistant capabilities, but we’re going to reuse and leverage third-party machine learning capabilities. For us it makes a lot more sense to add value around the relationship management piece, rather than to be an AI player.

We’re still deciding whether to call the system Candace. We’re still trying to figure out the right way to pull those things together. We still have that virtual assistant vision, that path, but the first step along it will be using the Hint service.

This may suggest that Sugar plans to rebadge, licence, or buy in an assistant as a front end to its deeper Relationship Intelligence capabilities, or push development back to focus more on its core business: adding depth to conversations.


But zoom out from the nitty gritty of technology development, and there are much wider issues at stake for all businesses that are intent on pulling together data sources and mining them for information. One of those is the question of consent, and another is the stated purpose behind the data gathering and analysis.

All of which brings us to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and to organizations’ readiness (or lack thereof) for the new regime of consent, social purpose, and the right to be forgotten. GDPR comes into force next year for anyone who is based in, or does business with, Europe – Brexit or no Brexit. A large majority of UK organizations host data in Europe, and many of them are neither ready nor well informed when it comes to the new regulations.

So how will all this affect CRM providers and their customers – wherever they’re based? Augustin says:

We have the option of hosting on premise, for those customers who are concerned about privacy and GDPR, by running Sugar on their own servers. Hint itself doesn’t store data about people, it provides a summary/correlation of data that is already out there on the internet. If someone withdraws their data, as is their right... we’re providing intelligence as a service, but not storing the data.

But yes, with GDPR, companies are going to have to begin implementing things they haven’t done in the past. The idea that people can be forgotten, a lot of companies still need to understand what that means. GDPR will change the way you manage your data and interact with your customers Even assuming the British exit from the EU, they will still be subject to GDPR. It doesn’t obviate the need to comply, as there is a lot of business that crosses borders.

All companies still have to decide what they can store on their own servers. Our goal is to give customers the flexibility to do that in whatever way works best for their business, the flexibility to make those choices. We ourselves [at Sugar] have to look at the regulations and at those data privacy regimes, too. It’s getting harder in some ways, but the technology to manage it is also getting better and better. Making sure that we keep people’s data secure.

When diginomica last spoke to Augustin in June 2016, he had this to say about the challenge of data location and transfer in a CRM space that is becoming increasingly dominated by large cloud platforms:

The more data becomes remote, the more problems proliferate with vertical SaaS vendors. Customers want to be able to drill down into the depths of their data, and that will force SaaS vendors to rethink.

Vendor-managed and operated data centers made sense for a time when consolidation and managing the resources suited the vendor. After all, most of those SaaS models started before there was a proliferation of IaaS options and cloud portability. But now it makes sense for countries and companies to have their data locally.

As we said at the time, that may have been the right strategy all along. Since then, the CRM and cloud suite space has become smaller and more intensely competitive, with the likes of NetSuite being acquired by Oracle and Infor upping its CRM game with the purchase of Saleslogix.  So how much pressure does this put on SugarCRM now that Oracle, Salesforce,and Microsoft are becoming even more platform focused and have been buying up the pureplays? Where does its focus now lie? Augustin says:

Our business continues to grow and develop and focus on the larger enterprise. We started downmarket a few years ago, and since then we’ve made a consistent push upmarket, with clients such as Audi, MGM, Sennheiser, Siemens in the healthcare space...

And then there is the customer that Sugar just won’t talk about: Apple, perhaps the biggest customer in the world. In March 2017, Apple launched a new internal CRM platform which – according to an Apple source in the US – is based on SugarCRM and for the first time links up every part of Apple’s business worldwide, from its online presences to its shops and Genius bars.

But Sugar has always refused to confirm or deny the story, or to be drawn on any detail of the reported relationship. Has that changed? Augustin says discretly:

Thanks for the question, but you’ll have to ask Apple.

My take

Augustin and his company should be commended for having a corporate story to tell that has consistently been about depth, focus, subtlety, and quality in an age that often favours surface, breadth, noise, and expediency. That’s a respectable achievement and – as the world of politics has shown us – sometimes a quiet, consistent focus on core values can create unexpected results and a marked change in fortunes.

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