At last month's Sage Software partner conference here, chief executive Ron Verni spoke to the 3,000 attending partners about freedom of choice for Sage customers.

That phrase became a recurring theme within the three-day conference, amidst the unveiling of new products and services and new sales programs.

"By talking and listening to your customers, you'll see they are changing," said Verni. "Think of the industry in the last 15 years: We could build it and they would come - every door was open to us. From a sales standpoint today, customers are saying, 'Unique, tailor, deliver and communicate.'"

Freedom of choice, Verni continued in a keynote address, enables customers to pick from such choices as Web or desktop-based products like Sage's new CRM solutions. Sage now offers Sage CRM and, a re-branding of their already available Accpac CRM applications, with being a hosted/online CRM application. customers can choose if they would like to keep their CRM solution Web-based for a licensing fee of $69 per user per month, or, if they want, to switch to Sage CRM, the in-house desktop version.

Dubbed a rent-to-own model, Verni explained that if online CRM customers choose to switch to the desktop version within the first year of service, they would receive up to 50 percent of their payments back.

Another new product announced at the confab allowing customers the freedom to move online is Sage Payroll Services. Previously, the only payroll service offered from Sage was Peachtree Payroll Services, for small businesses. Now Sage has extended its payroll services to encompass the mid-market as well.

The system has specific editions that integrate with Sage products Abra HRMS, MAS 90 and MAS 200, or the service can be used as a stand-alone product, able to integrate with other companies' enterprise resource planning systems. However, the new system will not be ready for installation until September, but it can be ordered today.

"Four years ago, we started recognizing a lot of customers were using payroll systems, just not our payroll," explained Jim Foster, executive vice president for the mid-market business unit of Sage. "The integration is in real time, since it's online services, and it's available 24/7 - not standard in the marketplace."

After acquiring Accpac in 2004, the notion of freedom of choice became the No. 1 vision for Sage, Verni stated. Being "application and database agnostic," a large part of the freedom of choice vision means giving customers the option between technologies like a DB2 or Microsoft SQL database, or running programs on the Linux or Microsoft Windows operating systems.

"Customers want to move data seamlessly through applications with a single user interface, but they want full functionality," Verni continued. "Customers want applications with freedom of choice, they don't want their business and technology to be tied to anyone. Whether it's Web-top or desktop-enabled, they want that choice, not to be chained to someone's model who's trying to build a stack."

Customization is an oft-repeated word in this market, but Verni believes that customers also need commonality between such things as their user interface for ease of use. The common user interface project was born with the acquisition of Timberline Software Corp., a construction business software company, in 2003. The first application using Sage's new common interface will be unveiled later this year with the release of Sage's newest point-of-sale application, Accpac ePOS, the beta release of which is scheduled for July.

Timberline president and general manager Curtis Peltz also announced in a one-on-one meeting that document management capabilities will be added to Timberline's capabilities in June to better handle the paper flow involved in construction projects.

"An average paper document is copied 17 times," said Peltz. "There is a lot of litigation in this field. People start to fight it out, and if you don't have the original on paper, you're in serious trouble."

New programs for partners were also discussed at length during the conference. Along with another $1 million invested in the second annual 100/100 sales program - a program aimed at giving $10,000 to 100 participating partners to hire and train 100 new sales executives in 100 days, Sage is also investing in a new sales program for smaller partner organizations called the Fast Track 100 Program, said Taylor Macdonald, executive vice president for channel and sales operations.

The Fast Track 100 partner program combines sales and lead generation training with benchmarking tips from iLumen - a financial information network company - as well as consulting training and mentoring. Sage partners, Macdonald said, will pay $5,000 for the program and can pay in installments of $500 a month or one lump sum. That's a deal, said Macdonald, for a program with a retail value of $8,000, and with the possibility to earn it all back by gaining $1,000 credit for each new customer the participating partner obtains while in the program.

"This is a good incentive," explained Macdonald. "You can earn your investment back. Partners need to be more successful [financially], then they can implement for, train and satisfy their loyal customers."

Along with the Fast Track 100, he also announced the creation of the Sage Partner University, which combines the Sage Consulting Academy, expanded programs from the Sage Sales and Sage Leadership Academies, e-learning modules, a new course on managing salespeople, and two new boot camps - the Sage Alliance Boot Camp and the Sage Project Management Boot Camp.

The new Alliance Boot Camp is a program set up to teach partners how to create mutually beneficial relationships with other partners and CPA, law and technology firms, while the Project Management Boot Camp focuses on the basics of project management for software implementation projects.

"The biggest crime in our world is to lose a customer," said Verni. "People want things delivered in different ways today, and it's our job to find out how to address them and speak to them."

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