Briefing Season: Novices and Ninjas

This is one of my favorite times of year because it’s announcement season, the time when all sorts of vendors book briefings to tell me about what’s new in their worlds. It has been a busy couple of weeks, and I expect the briefing deluge to continue for the rest of the quarter.

I love this because I have a ringside seat to what’s happening, and I get to see first, or at least early in the cycle, some cool new technology ideas. Some of the new ideas will stick like cooked spaghetti to a wall while others won’t. I write about some of the best, but that needs to be tempered by the reality that it’s just my opinion.

I will have a few things to say about individual vendors in the next few weeks but the thing that got me thinking this week was how all this relates to a maturity model of the industry. Where are we in the life-cycle of CRM? Early-middle? Middle-middle?

Halfway There

The trouble with keeping score is that before CRM gets old it morphs into something else, and though we don’t start over, we don’t seem to get any closer to an end either. That is as it should be because CRM is a process, not any one product. Taking a maturity model approach tells me that we mostly end up somewhere in the middle, no longer neophytes in CRM, but few of us reach the ninja state either.

This year’s crop of briefings can be divided into two classes — the really new, and some good but unexciting announcements from the majors. I suspect that some of the announcements coming out of the big CRM and SaaS vendors lack a little in the oomph department because we’ve heard the announcements before.

Companies like, NetSuite and Microsoft have all made official announcements in the last few weeks that were pre-announced or leaked some time ago. Salesforce announced a tighter integration with Google, but that had been revealed a while ago when some of Google’s on-demand applications had not been released yet. Now we all wonder about a future merger of the two.

NetSuite intimated a while ago that it was working on a capability that would give its users access to company-wide roll-up data across multiple countries and currencies. It was an announcement that lacked a little in sizzle but had plenty of steak. In fact, the official announcement was held back until the company could say it had more than a score of customers implemented. It was a good strategy and something that will be important as NetSuite tries to bring the innovation to market.

Finally, in what must be close to a world record for rollouts, Microsoft re-announced its on-demand CRM with a new name — “On-line CRM” — and re-emphasized the importance of its integration with its office products.

Startups Galore

None of this was particularly earth-shattering news, and I got the impression that it didn’t make a lot of sense to announce really new news given the state of the economy. That’s a debatable point because on the West Coast, where these and many other software companies are from, it’s hard to see the effects of recession.

What is more surprising to me is the number of companies that are springing up. The people who I have known when they were at large and successful post-IPO companies like Siebel and Oracle and who are now forming new companies is impressive. Mark Organ, who started Eloqua, has a very new company. Andrew Salzman, who ran advertising at Siebel, is CMO of a startup. Cary Fulbright, who ran marketing at Salesforce and several other places, is at it again. Tien Tzuo came from a senior strategy position at Salesforce, and he’s got a new company too. In the last year there are even more names we could call attention to.

My list is far from exhaustive, but you get the idea. On one hand you might look at all this activity and say the economy must be doing pretty well, but I think smart people like this take advantage of a downturn to reposition themselves and get ready for the next upsurge. Buy low, sell high.

What’s most interesting to me is how, in their own ways, each of these new companies is building something new, taking advantage of the buzz in social networking and community and applying it to the old problem of making money. The first generation of CRM applications that addressed social networking made rather tentative efforts, but from what I am seeing in some briefings, the next generation will begin to put more wood behind the arrow.

Briefing season, like spring, re-starts a cycle, and I am not surprised that the two coincide.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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