Times like these require a different kind of cloud ERP partner - Acumatica's Geoff Ashley explains why

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed March 25, 2020
These turbulent times certainly include cloud ERP services partners. How should a modern VAR respond? Geoff Ashley sees two things we must revive: ROI selling and, brace yourself, business process re-engineering - with a remote twist.


Software vendors tend to portray themselves as the wizards of transformation, here to help their customers change. I push back on that.

I don't care how modern or cloudy the vendor is - a successful cloud project is a group effort. All must change and adapt to get to the finish line. One key player that never gets enough editorial attention: the services partner.

We talk about the project impediments of technical debt and legacy software. Well, services partners can be legacy too - I don't care how shiny and well-known their names are. 

Acumatica's VP of Partner Strategy and Programs, Geoff Ashley, hasn't made that mistake. Ashley is passionate about helping VARs modernize, as you can see from his diginomica series (start with The modern VAR - it's time to transition from professional services to a 21st century business model).

But now is obviously - and suddenly - a very different time for cloud ERP sales. Project delivery is challenged also, though cloud project delivery often has a good-sized remote component. Maintaining our social distancing and then some, I got Ashley on the phone for an update.

I told Ashley about a recent conversation with my mother. She's seen some turbulent times in the U.S, from the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, to the Vietnam War and 9/11. She believes what the U.S. is going through now is the biggest thing we've gone through since World War Two. Ashley said to me: "No disrespect to your mother, I would say this is the biggest thing since the Great Depression."

The remote surge poses a cloud ERP challenge

That's something for history to (eventually) judge, but here's what I really want to know: what is Ashley hearing from Acumatica's partners? They tend to be a pretty happy and upbeat group, but what about now? And what is he telling them? At the time of our talk, Ashley told me Acumatica was still talking internally on an upcoming announcement planned for customers and partners. That wasn't finalized yet, but he gave me some of his views.

Ashley believes that cloud-based solutions like Acumatica are in a better position to help customers right now, given that users are much more comfortable with accessing cloud ERP remotely, including via their mobile devices. As Ashley said to me:

I've told partners -  as well as customers - the same thing. Whether it's Coronavirus, whether it's a flood, whether it's a hurricane, whether it's a fire, whether it's any kind of natural or unnatural disaster. The fact that Acumatica is positioned the way that it is, makes us absolutely positively unique in our industry, as far as being prepared to help companies either survive during all this, or potentially thrive immediately following it.

I don't think it will be thrive-during-it. But: thriving as we come out of this.

Ashley acknowledges, however, that all ERP vendors - no matter how modern - are going to be challenged by this. Why?

If you think about people working remotely, there's nothing new about that concept. Salespeople have been working remotely since before I got into sales, which was, you know, a millennia ago. And so has customer service, and so has support organizations.

The financial core goes remote - and BPR is back, baby

Historically, some of ERP's most important processes haven't operated remotely:

The shift now, and it's a big shift, is that [now we need to empower] a subset of a company that historically hasn't worked remotely: it's finance, it's administration. it's operations. It's AR; it's even, to some degree, order processing. Because of micromanagement, they always wanted the order people right there in the building. But there's a whole series of people that will, after this, most likely also be working remotely from home.

We've never implemented that core group remotely before. They've never worked remotely; we don't know what the best practices are. We don't know the cultural issues they're going to face - there's a ton of stuff. I actually believe that Acumatica, and our solution, is very uniquely positioned to be able to help that environment, or that culture that has never been asked to do this before.

Remember business process re-engineering? It's back:

We're gonna have to do something now that we haven't had to for about 20 or 30 years, which is business process re-engineering again. We're going to have to take processes that have always been internal, and figure out how they shift to remote. You know -  they've always just printed the report, got up, and walked to the next cubicle and handed it to somebody. They've always had a "sneaker net."

ROI selling is the only way now

Ashley thinks this challenge plays to Acumatica's unique strengths. But hold up: Acumatica is not the only cloud ERP solution out there.

No, we're not the only ERP solution in the cloud. But that's not necessarily the biggest advantage we have. There's a reason why we [focused on the user interface]. We have a powerful mobile solution, and the fact that 100% of our software runs remotely on any device. 

I found this point interesting, because I've talked to a ton of Acumatica customers, and not all of them, historically, have taken full advantage of Acumatica's remote or mobile access. It depends on the customer. But Ashley believes this emphasis on remote functionality/UI will pay off now:

We've been touting it all along, and people have been saying, "You know, yeah, that's kind of cool." But it's now going to get tested like never before.

Still, Ashley acknowledges: no one has all the answers right now.

I'm not trying to minimize what we're going through. I'm not I'm not trying to suggest this isn't awful, because it is, and I'm not trying to sugarcoat anything.

His message to partners? Don't be paralyzed into inaction:

I do tell our partners, "Look, you can't just roll over. You can't just decide, 'I'm not going to talk about these things with somebody.' How do you tell somebody who's losing x thousands of dollars a day to buy cloud ERP, when the state won't even let them open their front doors? How do I tell them, 'They should buy software?"

That, folks, is the killer cloud ERP sales question right now. But Ashley has a potential answer. And that's the second thing we need to relearn:

Now we're actually learning the second thing: ROI sales, which we also haven't done for twenty years, right? How do I tell them, "Look, I can show you how you can save $80,000 over what you have today; I can show you how in this particular process, we can save you that money now."

We haven't done this for so long. And we're going to have to do this for people. When you say, "What are the opportunities," those are them. When you say "What are the challenges," those are them.

My take - cloud ERP sales tactics must change, immediately

Typically, cloud ERP sales is done in an environment where some discretionary budgets are available. In recent years, excitable banter on AI capabilities and real-time operational analytics might have opened some doors. Now, if you assume frozen budgets, Ashley is telling his partners you can still go in.

But: the onus is on you to sell how the project can pay for itself - and then some. As I see it, this is the "fund from within" sales model, combined with elements of The Challenger Sale, which requires considerable expertise and creativity on the sales team's part, showing customers vividly how they can fund their own project, in a way that resonates in their industry. And yes, they better be able to work their roles remotely.

This doesn't seem too far from the "prescriptive sale" Ashley wrote about in 2018 (see: The 21st Century Buyer's Journey: The Difference Between a Prescriptive Sale and a Complex Sale). As Ashley wrote:

A Prescriptive Sale can focus your prospect within their journey, and it can continually reinforce for them the experience that THEY chose. In both situations, they feel empowered, and they will gladly continue on this journey with you. To keep them focused, you must keep reminding them of the reasons they chose a Prescriptive Sales journey in the first place. They chose it because they wish to accomplish four key goals:

  • They want to reduce costs
  • They want to reduce complexity
  • They want to increase predictability
  • They want to significantly reduce the time to value

That holds up pretty well to what is needed now, perhaps with "They want to reduce costs" elevated to ALL CAPS status. And: a human connection on both ends of the phone. "How can I help?" is the question that matters most, and our answers may need to be unconventional.

Ashley told me about a recent customer visit in Montreal, where they have been modifying their warehouse to hold more SKUs in Acumatica, using custom-built forklifts and doubling up on shelf space - without adding to headcount. Helping customers understand how others in their industry are maximizing efficiency, even in these times, will be a key to any cloud ERP sales that happen. Ashley:

We need to get back to the ability to be able to actually help our prospects document what the potential savings might be. Because, again, people are hurting right now. And they're not going to be investing unless there is a true return on that investment. And we're going to have to actually be able to show that and demonstrate that. This is our big challenge as an industry.

Of course, we're too early in the Coronavirus era to offer specifics on deals closed under these conditions, how "remote work BPR" might play out - and how VARs can help. I'll return to that as we learn more. But most of Ashley's advice on VAR modernization still holds. But now there's even more expertise to cultivate, and even less margin for error. Anyone who claims a clear way forward is a fool. But I know that paralysis and fear-based passivity is not the answer.

Other cloud ERP vendors might take issue with Ashley's assertion that Acumatica is uniquely positioned, but that's for customers to decide. Each software vendor must figure out how to serve their customers better during this unique time, whether it's providing free licenses, extended trial periods, unlimited support for remote workers, or what have you. Proper support of your partner or VAR community is a big part of the puzzle too. Too many vendors seem to be waiting to speak until they are more clear on their answers. I prefer Ashley's approach: share the best plan you have now, and let's put it to the test.

Updated 7am UK time, Thursday March 26, with a few tweaks for readability.