The first time I ever attended a user group meeting was way back at the dawn of my career, when I was managing a pioneering print-on-demand/desktop publishing system for a specialty publisher. I went to the meeting to find out if the vendor was ever going to fix the latest version of its software, which was basically dead-on-arrival. To my surprise, the CEO took to the stage, apologized profusely, begged forgiveness, promised to fix the problem or else, and otherwise completely humbled himself in front of his irate customers.
I remember being surprised both at the fact that he would do that, and the fact that the audience wasn’t throwing tomatoes or setting fire to their chairs. Software CEOs do mea culpas? And customers, pissed off to the nth degree, can still walk away feeling that they’d been heard and understood? Really?
What I’ve learned in the ensuing years is my incredulity wasn’t misplaced. It’s extremely unusual that there is any dialogue of substance between customers as a collective entity and their vendors. There are lots of conversations, particularly between the CIOs of very large accounts and top software execs, but in too many cases the word dialogue, which implies a two-way street, isn’t the right one. Monologue, diatribe, condescension, marketing-BS are the better terms, and sometimes there’s bits of all of them in the same conversation.
This is what makes the two biggest SAP user groups – ASUG in North America, and DSAG in Germany – remarkably different. They actually do the dialogue thing with SAP, and SAP dialogues back. It’s not always perfect, it’s not always successful, but it’s a whole lot better than the industry norm – orders of magnitude better.
Part of the reason for the relative success of these user groups is that SAP actually cares enough to care., not always perfectly, not always successfully, but, trust me, SAP’s paying attention. The other part is that the users care enough to support these two user groups – and the result is a dialogue that sometimes has the user groups playing along with SAP’s strategic initiatives, and sometimes has them playing the loyal opposition.
The other unique aspect to this relationship is that SAP’s massive user conference – SAPPHIRE – coincides with ASUG’s massive user conference – ASUG Annual Conference. The former tends to get more play with analysts and press – SAP’s consistent marketing efforts with analysts such as myself and the press ensure that there’s a fair amount of pre-conference buzz, while ASUG has tended to fly under the press and analyst radar and focus on direct outreach to SAP’s users. (Fair enough, the difference in marketing budgets between SAP and ASUG is incalculably vast.)
The result is that ASUG, with its 100,00 members and a conference brimming with great, largely marketing-BS free presentations and workshops, tends to get short shrift in the pre-SAPPHIRE buzz. But if you drop by the ASUG side of the conference, you’ll see that ASUG has its own pre-conference buzz, the hordes of users crowding the ASUG sessions is testimony to ASUG’s draw.
The short shrift can even extend to the conference itself. I had the opportunity at last year’s conference to introduce ASUG CEO Geoff Scott to a relatively new senior exec at SAP. Upon learning of Geoff’s title, the SAP exec asked in all seriousness – mind you, this was at an outdoor event, SAPPHIRE/ASUG Annual Conference flags flapping in the breeze – if ASUG put on any big conferences like SAPPHIRE. To his credit, Geoff laughed it off, but in the end it was no laughing matter.
Regardless of any benign neglect both inside and outside SAP, ASUG and DSAG are emerging as increasingly important components in both the customers’ and SAP’s success. The bottom line is that SAP is asking more of its customers than ever before. Pretty much every initiative I highlighted in my last post requires customers to not only extend their already extensive relationships with SAP, but to do so with a greater degree of uncertainty as to the path they need to take and the potential results they can achieve.
As much as we analysts think that we’re the go-to folks for advice on how to navigate this increasingly complex SAP world, at the end of the day one good peer-to-peer interaction is worth a thousand analyst reports (this might actually be empirically provable, though it may say more about analyst reports than anything else.) And the ASUG Annual Conference is pretty much designed to provide that peer-to-peer interaction, formally through presentations and informally through the schmoozing that, in my opinion, is the sine qua non of any conference.
I will add that my conversations with ASUG are an increasingly important part of my research as an analyst. There’s no better way to get a concentrated dose of SAP customer reality than to spend some time with ASUG. Knowing that “loyal opposition” is part of its DNA means that there’s a truthfulness to what ASUG members and its leadership says that strikes a balance between calling SAP on its mistakes and helping make SAP, and by extension its customers, successful.
As much as SAP may grumble when the user groups challenge them on licensing, upgrades and support, the cadence of new technology adoption, and the like, SAP’s pretty lucky to have this “loyal opposition” in its camp, and at its conferences. While it’s relatively easy for a small to mid-sized vendor to maintain a high-touch relationship with its customers, a behemoth like SAP simply can’t do justice to this high-touch imperative at scale. A well-run and credible user group can fill in a tremendous amount of that missing contact, and, frankly, smooth the edges around initiatives that might come off as more ham-fisted than user-friendly.
It’s not always perfect, and it’s not always smooth. But look around the industry and see if you can find anything like ASUG and DSAG. Once upon a time Oracle had a similar user organization, and they would stage a wonderful “Ask Oracle” session at their conferences, open to all, where the execs would sit on stage and face an auditorium of open mics and disgruntled customers. (That took courage – seriously. Those sessions could be brutal).
Now, like everyone else, Oracle has subsumed its user group into an extension of its marketing efforts. It’s not even clear if any of the other top vendors even have user groups – if they do you can be sure they’re nothing like ASUG, and their influence on real change is probably nil.
I’ll refrain from offering ASUG CEO Geoff Scott advice on what he should say during his keynote. In general his message is pretty much in sync with the one I advised SAP CEO Bill McDermott to feature in his keynote – whatever your path to innovation, ASUG is there to help. And if you need to find your path, ASUG can help with that too.
One last point – the one trend that ASUG is bucking, and that it should succumb to, is the branding of its conference. It’s almost silly when you think of it, but in the game of brands that we all play it’s a requirement to have a relatively snappy name – SAPPHIRE, Dreamforce, Envision, Inforum – that you can build a brand around. It’s hard to say – and write – I’m heading to the ASUG Annual Conference. Oh, really? I’m going to the ASUG Annual Conference too. Just doesn’t flow trippingly off the tongue, if you know what I mean.
Whatever you call it, ASUG’s conference is the place to go to see what customer engagement really means. There’s plenty of pontificating in the industry about the use of technology to help get a vendor closer to its customers, but the ASUG Annual Conference goes one better by getting customers closer to each other, and by extension, closer to the vendor. In the process, both sides stand to win, even if an occasional mea culpa is in order. A little dialogue can go a long way.