Following its recent Insights partners' conference in Denver, Sage North America appears to reaching out to its partner network more than ever - and to the CPA community in particular - for direction and growth as it works towards getting back on a profitability track and clear product direction.
It's hardly news to Sage resellers that the company has had its share of tough times over the past 18 months, including major changes in the executive suite. Sage chief executive Sue Swenson (pictured at right) gave her first keynote address at Insights 2008 just 60 days after taking the helm, while Tom Miller, vice president of channel management, joined in June 2009. The previous chief executive, Ron Verni, had been ousted in 2007.
But by all accounts, partners and company executives attending this year's four-day Insights confab agreed that now is a period of overall renewal - of commitment to product strategy and the channel, with CPAs playing a much larger role in both.
Last month, Sage added an accountant advocate team to augment the services of its existing Sage Accountants Network, focusing on working with accountants, bookkeepers and CPAs. The advocates are familiar with Sage products, and the goal is to assist and guide network members with basic installation support and running marketing campaigns in their local areas for lead generation.
The SAN currently has approximately 20,000 members, all of which are from accounting firms, according to Jennifer Warawa, director of partner programs. She claims that for Sage, the CPA relationships are "the most important towards long-term viability."
"We are looking for alliances with state societies and the American Institute of CPAs, but most importantly, we want to build relationships with the CPA community," said Warawa. "The SAN makes sure it's easy for accountants to get access to our software, products and training. We also want them to partner with existing resellers in their area so we can help [CPAs] to retain and attract new clients and see in what ways they can, in turn, help our resellers."
Some of Sage's product units have had connections to the accounting community for years, but Miller claims the renewed focus is "all about making sure we had the right value proposition, I firmly believe we have that now. We have the right leadership team now that understands both the accounting profession and the reseller channel."
At Insights, Sage, for the first time ever, put in place 20 information tracks aimed at CPAs, accountants and bookkeepers from across North America, whether they currently support Sage products or are just interested in learning more about the Sage portfolio.
Long-time reseller, CPA and Business Partner Advisory Committee member Lisa Kianoff, president of Birmingham, Ala.-based L. Kianoff Associates, felt positive about Sage's overall direction and focus on the CPA community, though for her it wasn't entirely new. "Way back in the 1980s, when many of their products were under State of the Art [one of several precursor brands], they had an unparalleled connection to the CPA market. But over time, as the products became more complex, they didn't change the rules for CPAs and it wasn't just accounting software anymore," explained Kianoff. "Now [Sage] doesn't need them to be implementers, but rather understand how its products can help their clients and how they can partner up with an implementer. It is the strongest foothold a software company has in the middle market. I think it's very smart to have the focus they do for the long term."
Kianoff also said that she liked that Sage is taking steps to make it easier to do business with the company. Simplifying its maintenance plans was a big step that she felt could help Sage make considerable inroads across its business units. There are currently a total of 41 service-level contracts for customers, which has made it challenging for partners and customers. That will downsize to three primary levels of service: Bronze for basic software assurance, Silver for extra support and service, and Gold for premium status.
Swenson admitted in her opening keynote that there was more work to be done internally in order to continue growing as a company, not the least of which is having some unity among its numerous brands.
"When I first came here, there was a broad patchwork of vertical brands, and I'm not critical of that, but it is time for a change," said Swenson. "It's not easy to become one face from being a federation of business units, but it is happening."
On the product side, executive vice president of product strategy and marketing Himanshu Palsule stressed to Insights attendees the company's plan to focus on three key areas: maximizing the performance of existing products, adding cloud-based offerings, and strategies for new customer acquisition. He admitted, like Swenson, that Sage "lacks a joined story" for its products, but echoed her message that "delivering an exceptional customer experience" will be a key step in retaining and acquiring customers.
"Sage is steadily stitching together compelling product portfolios, and while we've had a difficult year or so, the average revenue per customer is increasing, as are customer renewals," said Palsule. "We also realize that the cost to upgrade can be expensive, so we are going to help ease that transition and make it easier overall to do business with us."
Palsule noted that another key product focus for Sage would be in hosted or cloud-based software, delivered through a new program known as Sage Connected Business Solutions. The most recent examples include Sage Exchange, a new secure payments system to allow small and midsized businesses and organizations to accept all forms and methods of payment, and Sage Fundraising Online, a Software-as-a-Service application that will allow nonprofits to create multiple giving forms with marketing messages to better reach new and existing donors.
Partners and analysts alike were encouraged by the company's product roadmap, particularly in Internet-based services.
"I've been saying to them for years that they can't come out with a Web-based product initiative fast enough. While the Exchange and Online Fundraising initiatives are good, I'm more excited about what X3 and Accpac 6.0 will be able to do [on the accounting/ERP side of the business], as both are Web-ready," said David Cieslak, CPA and principal at Simi Valley, Calif.-based Sage product consultant Arxis Technology Inc. "The challenge is to get those out the door as quickly as they can. The market is clearly saying, 'If we are going to implement a new product, it will need Web deployability and accessibility. If they are able to connect with that message it will be a home run."
Cieslak admitted that one of the biggest current challenges for Sage will simply be delivering on its promises, both on the product and partner side of the business.
Doug Sleeter, president of Pleasanton, Calf.-based tech consulting concern The Sleeter Group, who was both a speaker at some SAN sessions and an attendee, said that he was "very positive" about what he saw. As a partner, his main concerns were similar to Cieslak's and others', in that Sage remains focused on delivering Web-based offerings. "It remains to be seen if Sage will develop a compelling new product strategy, including solid SaaS offerings, fast enough to keep partners investing in their portfolio," he said. "I think they will, but time will tell. They have the right people, the right partners and, apparently, the commitment to get things right."
Other partners, such as Manny Buigas, CPA and principal at Miami-based Axis Global Partners, were encouraged by Sage's renewed commitment to CPAs, and to the channel in general. However, he was more pleased by its product strategy. "I really like what I saw with its Connected Services offerings and Sage Accpac ERP 6.0. Sage serves millions of customers in the SMB space and some of these offerings play well across their entire product lines, such as FAS, Sage Payment Services, Sage CRM, etc.," said Buigas. "I think we will see more of a focus on getting more attachment in these types of products across all product lines. In addition, the ability to offer our customers marketing, recruiting and payroll services in the future will enable us in the VAR channel to deliver ongoing value to our customers."
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