Atlanta - Session recommendations made via Twitter, attendee feedback via text message and stories of customer success with social networking were the buzz here at Sage Summit, Sage's annual confab for its users.

For many, the conference traditionally is an opportunity to network and connect with others using Sage products, meet with Sage employees and executives, and perhaps get a preview of upcoming strategies.

This year was no different.

In a welcoming session, Jodi Uecker-Rust, president of Sage's Business Solutions Division, expressed gratitude to attendees and encouraged them to learn from their user peers who were scattered across different industries. "This is our single biggest opportunity to get feedback," she said of the Summit. "We need to work on what's working well and what's not working well. We are here to make it easier for you, our customers, to do your business processes."

Uecker-Rust spoke about the growing phenomenon of social media, and to showcase this, attendees were able to receive conference updates and "tweeted" recommendations on sessions, not to mention updated highlights on a blog that had been specifically set up for the confab. Attendees were also encouraged to share their opinions via text messages throughout the conference.

"[The summit] helps you develop the right questions to ask," said Jeff Livingston, a physician at MacArthur OB/GYN in Irving, Texas. Livingston was spotlighted by Sage execs as a customer who was successfully using social media to connect with his patient demographic: pregnant teens. "You can get your questions answered, but it's more important to stimulate your brain, find out what people are doing and what direction you should go. This is a great place to do that," he said.

Attendees had a variety of sessions to choose from - some were divided into product lines to focus on support and specifics, while others were more general and business-oriented.

Olga Arreguin, an MAS 500 user from the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, said that she was glad to attend for the first time - even if she had to finagle a way to get here. "Cost savings is a big deal, so I had to present an external topic," she said of a project-management session she was facilitating. "That's how I could get my registration paid for."

Arreguin added that she had many missions while at the conference, namely learning about the new version of MAS 500. "We just went on [Version] 7.2 and we'd like to understand why we need to be interested in 7.3," she said. "It certainly piqued my interest so I came to learn more. They just released it, but like a lot of customers, we're paranoid and skeptical, so we need to read about it and test the heck out of it."

FUTURE VISION

During a press briefing, Himanshu Palsule, executive vice president of Sage's Business Solutions Division, discussed the company's product and marketing strategy, centering on five trends that are influencing the software market from a customer perspective - business analytics, globalization, the mobile workforce, social media and cloud computing. "The vision is to take advantage of these trends without disrupting our current customers," Palsule explained.

He said that in the next fiscal year, Sage plans to increase business partner skills, competencies and productivity; improve new customer acquisition channel marketing; and refine business partner measurements and compensation.

Connie Certusi, general manager of Sage's Small Business Accounting unit, said that she's going to be aggressively pursing accountants to join the Sage Accountants Network, even offering free membership during various national events and conferences. Her goal is to provide more online training, including opportunities to earn CPE credit, to help accountants become a better resource for their clients. Currently, the network has more than 20,000 accounting firms in both the United States and Canada, but is looking to grow.

Sue Swenson, president and chief executive of Sage, told Accounting Today that her priorities for 2010 are to start with the customer experience and "understanding what that looks like at all customer touch points."

She said that she will not only be looking at what the company already has in its product portfolio, but also what should be there because of its new and prospective customers. Despite this, she said that the focus now would be on the customer experience, rather than just about the product.

Swenson also said that the company has been accommodating its customers during the economic downturn by helping them with payment arrangements. "People are still in business, but they need more flexibility on how they pay their bills," she said. "Subscription payment methods have been added."

"This has been a year of transformation," Swenson said, adding that the recession was one of the worst she has experienced. "It's been assessment, change. We are well-positioned to start executing what we worked so hard last year to frame up. Executing is where I like to be."

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