As Sage’s annual Insights partner conference comes to a close, the consensus among solution providers that work with the business applications vendor is that the company is moving in the right direction. And that Sage executives, particularly the new channel management regime, are hearing partners’ concerns.
“I feel a lot better about who’s in charge,” said Wendy Gorrie, general manager with Plus Computer Solutions, a Vancouver, B.C.-based solution provider that resells Sage Accpac ERP, SageCRM and other Sage products. “They’re good at listening to what the partners need.”
By all accounts, the past couple of years haven’t been easy for the company or for many solution providers in its Sage Partner Advantage program. Sage North America, which accounts for about 40 percent of parent company U.K.-based The Sage Group Plc’s sales, reported a 10 percent revenue decline in fiscal 2009. And hundreds of employees at both Sage North America and Sage Group lost their jobs in layoffs in December 2008 and May 2009.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty happy to see the economy improving,” said Sage North America CEO Sue Swenson in a keynote speech at Insights in Denver Monday. “Choppy, bumpy, but choppy, bumpy on the way up.”
Along with the recession, Sage has struggled with a number of internal issues. The company’s broad -- some might say disparate -- product line, built through a series of acquisitions, takes a lot of resources to maintain, and even the company’s CTO has admitted that some products are falling behind the technology curve.
“We needed a cohesive and compelling product strategy,” said Himanshu Palsule, executive vice president of product strategy and marketing at Sage Business Solutions, in a keynote speech Tuesday. “We needed to go from being known as a company with a product portfolio to a company that had a Sage business solution strategy.”
Many of the company’s channel partners are likewise focused on specific products, such as the Accpac ERP application set or SalesLogix CRM software, rather than Sage as a brand. Several Sage executives included in their keynote speeches pleas for resellers to expand their businesses to cross-sell a wider range of Sage products.
NEXT: New Channel Initiatives, Product StrategiesBut the company has undertaken a number of initiatives -- some unveiled at Insights -- to improve the competitive position of the company and its channel partners.
Of most direct interest to channel partners are a number of new leadership and business strategy training courses, marketing assistance programs, and efforts to help partners hire marketing and consulting talent. Those initiatives were detailed by Tom Miller, vice president of channel management, in a keynote speech Tuesday.
“It really helps us to put together our marketing plans. They’re really giving me the tools to run my business more effectively,” said Mark Dresser, president of Dresser Associates, a reseller of the Sage Abra human resource and payroll management application, praising the new channel training and marketing assistance programs. “We’ve had to become more customer-centric and they’ve had to become more business-partner-centric.”
On the product side Sage has consolidated management of its ERP products, a move the company hopes will result in more efficient product development and encourage channel partners to cross-sell more products. The company also is focusing more on markets rather than individual products. At Insights, for example, opening night receptions for partners were organized according to product groups, rather than specific products, bringing together resellers of the company’s CRM products: SageCRM, SalesLogix and Act, for example.
The company has beefed up its product review processes to improve the quality of new and existing software products. And it’s improving links between its products, such as its CRM and accounting applications, to broaden sales and encourage cross-selling by solution providers.
“They been doing an impressive job,” said Sam Biardo, CEO of Technology Advisors, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based Sage partner, of the CRM development and product integration efforts.
Sage is also trying to build up the “Sage” brand name and Swenson said a company survey of SMBs in the company’s target market found a 33 percent improvement in name recognition. Plus Computer Solution' Gorrie said, however: “There’s work to be done on the branding side.”
The company also unveiled a “connected services” strategy to expand into cloud computing. But Sage executives were careful to say channel partners would play a major role in selling cloud-based products.
And under the ubiquitous mantra of “extraordinary customer experience,” repeated by Sage executives throughout the conference, Sage is making it easier for customers and channel partners to work with the vendor. Sage, for example, previously had 41 customer support and maintenance plans. Those are now consolidated into a simple Bronze-, Silver- and Gold-tier support program that spans all of the company’s products, Palsule announced.
NEXT: Management Changes Win Partner ApprovalMany of the changes stem from an almost complete management change at the company, beginning with Swenson, who took over as CEO in March 2008. Last year Miller, a Great Plains Software and Microsoft channel management veteran, was brought on board to oversee the company’s channel operations.
Miller, in turn, has filled out Sage’s channel management ranks with industry veterans with years of channel experience at Sage, SAP, Microsoft and Great Plains. They include Ron Johnson, a 12-year Sage manager, as senior director of partner programs and readiness. “I’ve got high expectations for our team, and for me as well,” Miller said in an interview this week. “I didn’t come here to be average.”
Channel partners have taken notice. “In the past year they’ve hired some really dynamic senior executives,” Dresser said.
And while the company has business partner advisory councils for specific products, Sage is now organizing a business partner advisory council to deal specifically with channel-related issues. “We’re trying to encourage more interaction between our partner groups,” Miller said. “Build some camaraderie around the community. We have very small partners, we have very large partners, and we have everything in between. We value all of them.”
The company still has a ways to go and is still making some missteps, however. In her keynote Jodi Uecker-Rust, president of Sage Business Solutions, acknowledged that there are still “issues” with the partner portal. And one channel partner, who asked to remain anonymous, said the company angered partners recently when it accidentally posted some solution providers’ customer lists online -- where everyone could see them -- for a brief time.
“Do we still have work to do? You bet,” Swenson acknowledged in her keynote.
So far, though, the changes being made by the company are resonating with channel partners and they think the company is on the right track.
“There’s a refreshing sense of reality with Sage today,” said Anthony Castle, CEO of Castle CRM, a New York-based Sage SalesLogix reseller. “It’s really starting to click. The technology is right on, the programs are right on. I actually see a cohesive vision.”
Castle predicts that within a year Sage will be seen as a more equal competitor with Microsoft, NetSuite, SugarCRM and others that have been trying to recruit Sage channel partners.