Posts Tagged ‘ACT!’

Sage Hits a Milestone

Posted: September 5, 2012 in CRM, Current Affairs
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Today Sage North America announced the 25th anniversary edition of ACT!, the contact management software.

What were you doing for a living 25 years ago?  That would be 1987 and I can remember vividly.  I was selling software for a company whose offerings ran on DEC VAX and PDP-11 mini-computers.  We had a fax machine, VT-100 terminals on everyone’s desks and we were thinking about getting a phone system.  Remember those pink message slips?

The VAX was the primary development machine and it hosted all the people in the company for things like word processing and spreadsheets.  My company had been founded by a smart programmer which meant the VAX was his and we just lived on it.  Whenever he wanted to compile a program the lights dimmed, screens froze and we went out for coffee.

I saw an ad for ACT! in an in-flight magazine next to some ads for steaks flash frozen in the mid-west and rushed to your door.  As a sales guy, the load of paper on my desk and in my briefcase was killing me.  I’d experimented with keeping data in a spreadsheet but it seemed like more work than it was worth. I’d also recently taken a relational data base course and dreamed of a simple database that could track my contacts and remind me when to call them again.  I’d gotten far enough to convince my SE to write something like it.  I almost got fired for using precious resources in such a profligate way too.  Good thing I was crushing my numbers at the time.

Ah, the good old days.  I looked at the ad with longing but knew that our CEO would never let a PC into the building and ACT! ran on DOS so all I could do was look and wonder when I’d be able to get my hands on it.

Twenty-five years is a very long time in this industry and it is a testament to ACT! and Sage and Pat Sullivan who invented it that ACT! remains relevant.  Sullivan got it mostly right when he built the first version and Sage continues to keep it relevant for a large and loyal customer base that needs just what ACT! delivers.  Congratulations to Sage.

Sage Charts Its Course

Posted: August 22, 2012 in CRM
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Pascal Houillon, the CEO of Sage North America, has been at the job for a bit over a year.  He took over the reins at last year’s Sage Summit where he famously introduced a new branding exercise.  Houillon’s idea was to make Sage a more prominent brand by de-emphasizing the individual product names, in many cases renaming them.

For a little background, remember that Sage grew by acquisition, one product and its development and marketing team at a time.  By last year, Sage had become the Babel of the software industry with a mix of products, mostly ERP, with different code bases and even file systems.  Notice I said file systems and not databases because some products were, and still are, running on flat files.

When a company rebrands it can either be interpreted as a positive and forceful thing or it can be seen as something else.  The idea last year was to replace a product name with a unique Sage brand name containing a number like Sage 50 for instance.

Since Sage has multiple overlapping products, tongues began to wag.  Would ACT! become known as Sage CRM 101, for example?  We didn’t know.  To many of us, the rebranding resembled chair rearrangement on the deck of the Titanic.

But fast-forward a year and things have worked out.  The rebranding was not an isolated exercise and the company has asserted itself by identifying products that are core to its mission and those that are not.  Non-core products, which tend to run stand-alone, are not destined for the dustbin but they are being treated differently than the core products, which can be combined in an integrated solution.

Sage has three CRM-ish products, ACT!, SalesLogix and SageCRM.  ACT! is CRM-ish because it is billed as a contact manager, not specifically SFA.  SalesLogix is an older CRM product built for a Windows client-server world that has received many upgrades and SageCRM is a SaaS product that can also be installed on-premise.  And the winner is?  Well, there are no winners and no losers.  But if you want Sage’s most modern (and I didn’t say feature rich though that is a debating point) CRM you’ll want to go with SageCRM because it is the one that is “core” and will receive the lion’s share of development dollars and integration support with ERP going forward.

The old Sage approach was to sprinkle development dollars across the whole portfolio sometimes paying different brands to reinvent the wheel.  That was necessary because each product had a constituency (read reseller network)  brought along in the acquisition.  While some resellers carry multiple products, many just focus on one or two products on which they base their business and this is key.

So all this preamble was needed to say that one of the biggest areas of re-thinking for Sage is not about any single product but about its go to market strategy and its resellers.  Sage doesn’t sell direct and over time, its resellers may have gained the upper hand in driving product development and enhancement for their pet products regardless of the overall good of Sage.  It’s human nature.  As Sage tries to rationalize its product set and brands, it is slimming down the number of code bases it has to support while trying to bring along its partners — a non-trivial task.

Nonetheless, Sage has to deal with (and has begun the process over the last few years) a marketplace that demands social, mobile, analytic and real time solutions.  And it’s core/non-core strategy is focused on freeing up the resources needed to give the partners products with the ability to compete in the years ahead.

Does everyone like this strategy?  What do you think?  But more importantly it’s working.  During Houillon’s keynote, they showed a powerful video of customers using Sage products from the iPad driven customer meeting to the back office do-we-have-it-in-stock query, to placing the order and billing.  It looked very cool and was especially impressive because the technology was focused on the SMB market with the clear message that almost any business can afford to work this way and this is how it will be done in the years ahead.

Partners that have become successful writing programs for reports or managing systems or just running cable might bristle but there aren’t many of them.  Most understand there are major changes happening in the industry and the name of the game is “adapt”.  Most worry about driving enough revenue from continuing operations because they are accustomed to the license and services model.  I would only suggest that there is an important difference between revenue and profit and everyone would be well served to revisit that distinction.

There is a raft of new thinking about ideas like churn, monthly recurring revenue, deferred revenue and other things that are common to the subscription economy. The information is out there and I have to believe that the more progressive partners are doing everything they can to learn about it.  For now it was good to see a CEO like Houillon use words like “tough love” to give the troops the idea that the path has been set and they aren’t going back.

Sage ACT! Turns 25

Posted: April 2, 2012 in CRM
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Seems like ACT! has been around forever.  Actually, it’s just 25 years and while that’s an eternity in software, kudos to Sage for keeping the technology up to date with improvements like social and mobile access.  The company has released a short video commemorating the milestone.

Today’s ACT! is a far cry from the product I first used in the 1980s running on DOS.  I remember reading an ad for it in an in-flight magazine and thinking, this is it!  Back in the day, there was no such thing as SFA or CRM and contact managers like ACT! and Goldmine were amazing.  They ran on your desktop and soon your laptop computer and they became places where everything you knew about a deal was stored.  No more lists, spreadsheets, and legal pads with cryptic notes and scribbled phone numbers.

Sure, CRM would follow with even more functionality but for many organizations and individuals, a copy of ACT! and a laptop were about all you really needed (add Word, PowerPoint and Excel or if you’re a geezer like me Word Perfect, Harvard Graphics and Lotus to complete the ensemble).

ACT! has a remarkably loyal user base and over three million deployments.  And while most of those deployments are for individuals, a growing cadre of businesses — tens of thousands, actually — are now using the technology to support sales workgroups.

ACT! has prospered despite all this competition because it fits a big niche that demands simplicity, economy and that keeps up with the times.  So, good on you SageACT! and happy birthday.

New Groove, Sage ACT! 2012

Posted: September 6, 2011 in CRM
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For a long time it has been conventional wisdom that ACT! is one kicking good deal for people needing a contact manager.  But over the last few years it seems the company has been playing a game of one up with the rest of the market and even challenging the SFA/CRM players over the difference between a contact manager and SFA.

ACT! has always been a price performance leader and this year’s version (2012 that is) clocks in at $239.99 which amounts to twenty bucks per month, if you could buy it that way.  That compares favorably with the legion of SaaS based SFA out there, but more important than price is the functionality and that goes to the idea of one-upmanship mentioned above.

The newly announced ACT! 2012 (you can watch some informational videos here) has some valuable and not often considered capabilities like a scratch pad that lets you take notes and then use them as a todo list assigning data to a new or existing contact or just letting you work through the todo’s.

Universal search helps you find documents or other information within ACT! and filter search results by relevance and click items of interest to go to those fields or attachments.

There’s also integration with Google apps.  This is a nice bi-directional integration that lets you send email from within Google Mail for instance and have it recorded as history in the ACT! application.

ACT! has been mobilized in the best sense of the word to work with Android devices, iPads and other tablets and it checks out in browsers like Chrome and Safari.

Finally — and I think most impressive for ACT! 2012 — there is something called Sage ACT! Connect which makes it easy to access your ACT! data from the road.  Connect also puts your instance of ACT! 2012 in touch with a fast growing list of added services that Sage is now offering for things like marketing and lead generation.

All in all this is rather impressive.  We won’t touch on the user interface and all the hours Sage spends with customers and users making sure not a mouse click is wasted.  Nor will we mention the 2.8 million individuals and 59,000 companies that use ACT! in their businesses.  But suffice it to say, this is not your father’s ACT!

There is a lot of unspoken information in last week’s announcements by Sage More about Sage Software (NYSE: CRM) More about about their respective contact managers. Each is creating a disruptive innovation that affects the other, and the symmetry of these dual and dueling announcements is frankly beautiful in a funny way.

To review, Sage announced the 2010 version — with new bells and whistles — of its flagship contact manager ACT!, and a day later Salesforce introduced its Contact Manager Edition (CME). On the surface, it looks more like Sage introduced its routine annual update and no more, while Salesforce jumped into a new market. However, if you look closer at the two situations you might get a different impression.

Price Competition

For a long time, Sage has been adding functionality to ACT! that has made it a very powerful and complete contact manager, and some would say that it crosses the line into SFA (sales force automation). If that’s so, then Sage has a major price advantage in the SFA market and can steal SFA business from any number of vendors, including Salesforce.

However, Salesforce’s CME announcement does to Sage what Sage has been doing for quite a while to SFA vendors. At a mere US$9 per month per seat, Salesforce CME is a no-brainer for individuals and entrepreneurs who want to keep track of customer information on-demand but whose businesses are small and do not require all of the functionality of CRM. ACT! could fit the same need and usually does, but now there’s price competition.

Both companies face other competition from vendors like Microsoft(Nasdaq: MSFT) More about Microsoft and Outlook, which is a virtually free, though limited, repository of basic contact information. But for our analysis, a customer still using Outlook or Apple’s (Nasdaq: AAPL) More about Apple Address Book is outside of the discussion.

Market Disruptors

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christenson described the phenomenon of disruptive innovation in which a new entrant to a market disrupts a well-established vendor by providing a stripped-down product at a lower cost. The reasoning is that the established product vendor has, over time and because of increasingly demanding customers, over-engineered a product to meet the needs of the most demanding users. The disruptor enters the market with the advantage of having a smaller product that meets the needs of a large segment of the population and an upper price limit of the established vendor.

It is never a problem for the challenger to make money below the cost level of the incumbent, and frequently the incumbent flees the lower end of the market to chase the more profitable customers up market. That’s what Salesforce did to Siebel and what it is attempting to do with Sage right now in the contact manager space. However, Sage is more or less doing the same thing in SFA. ACT! is not a full-function SFA product, but it has a lower price point than even a Salesforce, Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) More about Oracle, Siebel or NetSuite More about NetSuitesubscription, and it offers a lot of functionality that many SFA customers might find adequate.

There are many complications having to do with the idea of product line cannibalization — each company has an SFA/CRM product with better margins to protect, for example. So Salesforce limits its CME offering to two users; if you need more, you need SFA, they believe. The same is true for Sage. SalesLogix More about SalesLogix is their full-function CRM package with SFA. So neither company can swing for the fences with their disruptive innovation strategies. Success for either of them at the low end would result in some takeaway business from the other guy, but it would likely hurt the house brand SFA too.

Room for a Third?

There is a danger in this thinking because it leaves the way open for a third competitor to enter the fray unencumbered by a need to protect an up market product. I am not sure such a vendor exists — at some point you get to the top of the food chain. Nothing hunts lions other than humans, but that’s a different story.

It’s hard to say which vendor has an advantage. Salesforce has well over 1 million seats deployed, and ACT! has about 2.9 million licenses under maintenance contract. Salesforce is a sales Download Free eBook - The Edge of Success: 9 Building Blocks to Double Your Sales and marketing juggernaut, and Sage sells through a channel that is the envy of many vendors in the space.

This situation is the picture of yin and yang and should be entertaining to watch. Meanwhile, the competition definitely benefits the customer.

Contact management war revival

Posted: September 2, 2009 in CRM
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Two days in, September has been a busy month for contact managers.  I haven’t seen this much activity in years.  On September 1, Sage announced its ACT! 2010 release and then dropped a small bomb — as of today they’re into the contact manager space too.

Contact management has been a poor cousin to sales force automation (SFA) for many years.  Initially, there wasn’t much difference between the two.  Contact managers were sort of a subset of SFA which tracks deals, opportunities and leads as well as contacts.  For many sales people, the choice — if the choice was theirs to make and not the company’s — was largely one of work style.  You could organize your work around the stair-step categories or just glom it all together in a contact manager through your own system of user defined fields and notes.

Real SFA also offers the important ability to connect to the broader CRM suite thus making the information collected by the sales person more useful and available to the rest of the company.

The two announcements — so far — this week blur some distinctions and to a degree trade roles of the leading vendors.  Sage has been around for a long time and ACT! has gone through several ownership changes but has resided with Sage for many years.  The ACT! 2010 release is a luxury edition, if you can call it that, which includes integration with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Plaxo.  Sage has also introduced an optional integrated subscription-based E-marketing service, a very nice and new user interface and fully customizable opportunities to support multiple sales models.

All told, this isn’t the stripped down contact manager that was introduced in the late 1980s and you might quibble about whether ACT! 2010 is really a contact manager or if it has crossed the line into SFA territory.  I don’t know.  I am a realist and not too interested in theoretical issues like that.

Interestingly, Sage went out of its way to benchmark the new UI with a Keystroke Level Modeling study conducted by Measuring Usability, LLC.  The company claims in its press release that the new UI achieves up to 35% better productivity than competing products.  Clearly the company invested significantly in the new release to send a message to its 2.9 million users and any competitors, that contact management is a viable category and one that it intends to compete aggressively for.

You could say similar things about today.  The company had been testing a small version of its SFA product for some time and the announcement of its Contact Manager Edition culminates that process.  There are several advantages that Salesforce brings to the table with its approach including its increasingly popular Cloud Computing Platform and easy migration to full CRM capabilities if and when the customer chooses.

How much upgrade or up sell business Salesforce generates over time is a question without an answer now.  Contact managers tend to support two very different segments — small users like entrepreneurs who intend to stay small and for whom CRM would be overkill and large sales groups that are disconnected for many reasons from the rest of the company.

The later group might include the sales team of a partner in an indirect channel, for example.  Such groups rely on internal lead generation and OEM marketing programs that are fairly detached from day to day selling.  I am not saying this is a good idea, just reality.  The first group, entrepreneurs and similar people, keep their own counsel and may not do much formal marketing preferring instead personal relationships, so they don’t need CRM.

Nonetheless, the recent announcements by Sage and Salesforce serve to blur many distinctions.  ACT! is a high-end contact manager these days capable of taking on some of the less complex SFA functions and Salesforce, with its upward compatibility now reaches from the smallest to the biggest users.  Salesforce may have an advantage in pricing at nine dollars per seat/month but at that level the cost differential is much less than a daily latte and I doubt it will affect many buying decisions.

Sage Insights Observations

Posted: May 27, 2009 in CRM
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A lot happened at Insights, the Sage partner meeting held in Nashville earlier this month, though not necessarily at the press release level.  I was there and got a sense of change happening.  It was the first anniversary of new CEO Sue Swenson coming on board and our first opportunity to see the imprint she is making on the company.  Last year Swenson had been with the company for only a matter of weeks and as CEO could only talk about the future.  With a year behind her some results are apparent but the expectation is that there is a lot of work ahead. 

The big takeaway I got from attending Insights was of a slumbering giant was waking up.  I was a bit surprised but also happy to see Sage embracing social networking in ACT!.  Twitter and Facebook integration are on the agenda followed by other social media.  As social media continues to increase in popularity you can bet more CRM vendors will take it on.  My big question is how will Sage partners deal with it?

One of Swenson’s early moves was to bring in a new CTO, Montasim Najeeb.  He’s taking a hard look at products, architectures and all the things that go into making whole products.  Importantly, he’s a technology guy with business street cred.  His resume reads like a mini-biography of Silicon Valley with senior positions in product and product strategy for such companies as Oracle, PeopleSoft and WebMD.

One of Najeeb’s challenges, which I think he acknowledged in his keynote is reviewing at a product portfolio that grew by acquisition and now looks like the Noah’s Ark of accounting and front office software.  Noah had it easy by comparison — he could keep things apart.  But in this era, companies are looking for economies that come from consolidation and part of Najeeb’s job is to modernize products and rationalize the portfolio while balancing the needs of the partners who sell the products.  As G.H.W. Bush might have said it — Tough job. Gotta get it done.  Wouldn’t be prudent not to.

Another new face in the executive ranks is Jodi Uecker-Rust President, Sage Business Solutions.  She was previously corporate vice president of Business Solutions with Microsoft and COO of Great Plains Software.  That’s a good background in this space.  Uecker-Rust has a lot on her plate and will be working closely with Najeeb, I think.

The portfolio strategy left the company with many products that were and are architecturally distinct.  The overhead associated with managing so many code sets must be pretty big.  At some point, a prudent manager needs to take inventory and begin a consolidation process and that’s been over due at Sage.

One reason consolidation has not taken place, I think, is the way Sage goes to market.  The company sells through a reseller channel.  The model has some definite strengths and Sage is not the only company in the market to employ it.  There’s no question though that an indirect channel adds complexity to decision-making.  You can’t change a product too much, regardless of how beneficial the change might be, if the partners are not behind you.  Not surprisingly, the company made multiple gestures of support to the partners and tried to reassure everyone that any changes moving forward would be net positive.

All that being said, the CRM/front office applications seem to be in good shape.  Last year the company announced a multi-year plan (the 2010 strategy) to rationalize the CRM products, making ACT! work better with SalesLogix and incorporating new Web technologies.  So far all that seems on track.  I think there’s more work to be done relating to Web-based applications and no one debates that.

The next one to three years will be important for Sage.  The company needs to make progress on some product upgrade and migration issues that, in truth, are over due.  The good news isn’t hard to find though.  Swenson appears to be making some good moves and tough calls and the partner channel is global and energized.