Meet-Up Month: RightNow, Sage and Microsoft

Colorado Springs is an interesting place. Despite the name, there are no “springs” — it’s an arid place in a valley surrounded by the southern Rocky Mountains and Pikes Peak National Park (for sticklers, “Pikes” really should be “Pike’s,” but the official U.S. naming convention eliminates the apostrophe). The springs were an invention of the railroads seeking to establish a destination for vacationers. Good idea; it’s a nice place.

You can ride horseback through the mountains and see abandoned mines and homesteads as well as some rugged natural beauty. Last time I was there, we rode on some trails that were barely wide enough to accommodate our horses. On one side there was forest and on the other a steep drop-off. RightNow convenes its annual user group meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs next week. By most accounts, it’s been a good year for software, especially SaaS vendors, so the meeting should be upbeat.

Other commitments will keep me from attending the RightNow Summit, but I look forward to hearing about their announcements. In general, there is an unmistakable trend in most areas of CRM, contact centers included, to move more operations to an on-demand footing. Whether it’s called “SaaS,” “managed” or “hosted,” the call center is moving to simpler surroundings — at least for the client organization, and for good reasons.

Driving Change

Owning and operating a call center is a big and expensive undertaking for a company. With all phases of the operation in-house, a company has to be able to support multiple subject matter experts from hardware to applications. The company also has the task of managing an impressive (some would say bewildering) array of gear both telephonic and computer. The same company also has all of the headaches of recruiting, training and managing a sophisticated workforce.

So when a vendor comes along offering to take even a portion of that big job over for a fixed price per seat, it draws a lot of attention. In the not-too-distant past, the number of vendors willing to make such an offer was limited, and RightNow was at the top of the heap. The market is changing, making it easier for vendors to get into the business, and the fact that we are even talking about the difference between on-demand, managed and SaaS solutions is evidence of that change.

But it’s not just changing technology that is driving the market. The core customers, you and me, are smarter and more experienced, and we are beginning to draw less from our vendors’ call centers. Since we’ve all experienced earlier generations of products, we are more likely to solve simpler problems with new products ourselves. Moreover, our recently acquired sophistication with social media makes us more adventurous when it comes to seeking out service and advice from our peers.

It was no surprise to me that RightNow acquired social networking company HiveLive to bolster its efforts in social service offerings. I look forward to hearing what RightNow CEO Greg Gianforte has to say about his company’s direction in socialized service and support. Should be an interesting conference.

Looking Ahead

Also on the docket, the following week Sage Software hosts its user meeting in Atlanta followed by Microsoft holding an analyst briefing in Redmond. I wish I could make all of these events, but they are simply too close together.

Sage is always surprising in part because the company’s business model — selling exclusively through the indirect channel — puts different demands on its products and services. That has frequently meant that the company has held back on major innovations until its partners were ready to get on board. But last year, the company announced a 2010 strategy to bring its multiple CRM products under an umbrella that will enable it to achieve greater economies of scale and better integration capabilities with its back-office solutions.

Also, Sage recently announced a foray into another on-demand style solution to be delivered early next year. Their original notwithstanding, this will be something new for SalesLogix, their high-end product. This is CEO Sue Swenson’s second year at the helm, and it was clear at the partner meeting in May that she’s putting her imprint on the company. She’s tasked senior executives with ambitious plans to update key products and improve partner-facing programs. It will be interesting to see what end user facing changes are in the offing.

Finally, Microsoft is a very important player in the front and back office applications markets today. Their analyst meeting in the same week as the Sage user meeting should generate a few headlines, and I am eager to hear more about their direction, though I will not be able to be there.

All this activity makes me optimistic about next year, and if all this isn’t enough, Intel, AMD and IBM have all reported better than expected financial results for the recently finished quarter. The semiconductor market has always been a reliable indicator of an upturn in the tech sector, and I am hopeful that these results are the first signs of a general economic rebound. But recovery means more than simply reporting better financial results, especially if the increase is from a depressed level caused by recession. It’s clearly a half-full glass, but that’s fine with me.

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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