'So, what do you use?" That was one of the frequently asked questions floating around Sage Summit, the recent annual customer conference organized by Sage Software.More than 2,200 attendees met here to discuss and dig deeper into their systems of choice, learn about other offerings in the company's portfolio and, of course, network.

Barely one month after a major housecleaning sent four of Sage North America's top executives packing - including North American CEO Ron Verni - not much was said about the executive ousters.

In addition to Verni, those ousted included chief financial officer Jim Eckstaedt; Jim Foster, who had recently filled a newly created chief technology officer role; and Taylor Macdonald, the company's chief channel and strategy officer.

During the conference kick-off, Doug Meyer, president of the company's Industry & Specialized Solutions Division, and Nina Smith, president of the Business Management Division, sidestepped talking at length about the subject.

According to Smith, the move was "more of a next step" from the structural change the company implemented in May. That previous revamp formed her division, which encompasses the accounting, enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management product lines, and Meyer's division, an umbrella for the real estate and construction, nonprofit, and employer systems. The company's other two divisions - Healthcare and Employer Solutions - remain unchanged.

Smith said that a search for Verni's replacement is currently underway, but the company will not replace Foster. Instead, it will use the resources of its U.K.-based parent Sage Group Plc.

"We've actually put everything in the divisions that's required in order to serve our markets," Smith said. "Of course, there's always a reaction when you have a change of this magnitude. First off, I sent a communication out to all the partners. As a result, I got a lot of partners calling me and a lot of them sending me e-mails and I would say that their overarching concern was really one around, 'Does this mean you're walking away from the channel?' I made it very clear that we are absolutely not. We are committed to the channel, our partnership with them is critical. We go to market today through many channels, and we need all of those channels. What I did during that time with every e-mail, I just picked up the phone and talked to them."

While Sage executives welcomed feedback on their products, they are implementing a new strategy to dig deeper into the underlying challenges and problems their customers face in managing their businesses.

Meyer said that one of his major priorities is to nurture "customer intimacy."

"Customer intimacy really is new, it's a big change," he said. "We've always been a customer-focused company. We've done product, we've done well with service, but customer intimacy brings that focus to a whole new level. It's a different way of having a conversation. I'm not going to talk to you about the types of inventory costing that we do, but rather what's the problem in the customer's business managing inventory."

Smith said that her goal over the next year is to get the organization focused on serving the markets. "It's about growing," she said. "If you think about accounting, it is quite saturated; however, there are a lot of companies that are growing their businesses and we need to really get those customers as they are growing. It's how do we get closer to the customer? Just being here [at Summit], it's incredible the conversations I'm having with customers."

WORKING THE FLOOR

Despite the high-level changes, most attendees at the three-day confab were more interested in sharing their user experiences and examining the company's other offerings.

"Having the onsite support center was beyond words," said first-time attendee Denise Brewster of the Lincoln Financial Group in Fort Wayne, Ind., a SalesLogix user for almost three years. "To be able to sit down with somebody who actually knows what they are talking about, that was fabulous."

It took Linda Foster, a financial controller at Windermere Bank & Trust Ltd., two planes from her home in Barbados to attend the confab for the first time. "It's an opportunity to get to meet people who use the same product," said Foster, who has been using Sage Accpac ERP for 10 years. "You get to meet the Sage people. It's a chance to get a one-on-one response."

Many customers felt the same way. Conversations about new discoveries, support experiences and challenges could be heard throughout the halls, at meal times and on the floor of the trade show, as well as throughout the multiple sessions and workshops that Sage offered during the gathering.

Still others were excited to learn about the other software products available - some of which they were unaware of.

Bonnie Power, who works at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., said that she was impressed by how well the conference was organized. A user of Sage's Millennium Fundraising Software, she was interested in the company's plans for the future within the nonprofit sector. "I think it's important to know they have other small entry-level software products. That's really helpful," Power said. "The nonprofit solution seems to be a small part of their business. I'm just hoping they're willing to spend money on it."

Attendee Judy Fritz, who works as office manager at Premier Ink Systems in Harrison, Ohio, labeled herself a "Sage Success Story."

"I was ready to leave Sage and they resurrected me," she said, adding that she has been using Sage PFW ERP for seven years. "I was not happy with the partner [reseller]. I knew my business partner at the time was not up with the changes."

She said that once she found a new reseller, everything changed. For her, the best part of attending this particular conference was the back and forth with other users using the same program.

Laura Maddalone of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors in Arlington Heights, Ill., said that she's happy with Sage MIP Fund Accounting, which she has been using for 10 years, but that she wished the company would address more advanced user needs. "I'm looking to see more of the advanced-reporting options. They are offering different support-type programs for software packages, and we need something to fit the more advanced users, so we can keep learning. The MIP program has come a long way. Ten years ago, it was issue after issue. But since Sage has taken over, there is so much less of that."

Another first time conference participant was Armando Diaz, a systems technician at Harris Construction Co. Inc. in Fresno, Calif. He was one of two technicians from his company to attend the conference to learn more about the Sage Timberline Office system he has been using for almost five years.

"[I came] to get an in-depth look at the software and what it can do," he said. "To provide support for the end users, little tips, tricks and anything they don't know yet. Normally, I sit back in the server room and don't really get to branch out."

Lori Brouse, a controller at Plazacorp Realty Advisors Inc. in Kalamazoo, Mich., said she also uses Timberline Office and is going into her third year with the system. She came to the conference to better learn how to expand the system's reporting capabilities and to create personal financial statements.

"We found Timberline is not the best for some of the cash-flow statements," Brouse said. "Some of their reporting capabilities are lacking. I took some of the classes here to see if we could get more fine-tuned. The classes were actually good; my only wish is that we could have done better with smaller, hands-on sessions."

Despite her critique, Brouse will be going to Denver for next year's Summit. "I'll probably bring some of my bookkeepers," she added.

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