For some time now, it’s been my impression of the CRM market that all, or at least most, of the good ideas have been taken. It’s been a long time since we saw a new systemic solution that approaches front office business. It’s even been a long time since we saw a major innovation at the department level.
CRM itself was a systemic innovation in the last decade of the last century. Cloud-based CRM was the innovation of the new millennium and since then, marketing automation would count as a departmental innovation. You can also look at analytics as a systemic innovation because although it straddles departments, it has become a department itself.
This is not a bad thing, just the opposite. As CRM has been built-out it has opened new market niches which has maximized the number of solutions and, more importantly, it has made all of them affordable to just about any business. As I’ve said before, cloud computing is the commoditization of IT. It has made information processing both simple for a lay person to use and so affordable that all those who want it can have it.
CRM is far from done as an approach to business and as an economic driver, but we must acknowledge we’re at a turning point. Behind the scenes the major vendors, among whom are Salesforce, Oracle, and Microsoft, have gone a long way toward consolidating the industry by platform and from here that will be the dividing line.
So far this spring I’ve attended two conferences that illustrate my point, SuiteWorld and Financial Force’s analyst day. Each company has financials and ERP solutions that address the needs of small and medium and in some cases larger businesses. Each is deployed on a specific platform: NetSuite on its own which it announced is moving aggressively toward the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and Salesforce whose solution encompasses development platform and infrastructure.
While it’s quite possible that many customers will continue using hybrid solutions such as NetSuite for back office operations and Salesforce in the front office, it’s already easy to see that situation morphing. Oracle has for many years used the logic of running a suite of related software over an integrated solution made up of best of breed apps. It is continuing this logical progression with NetSuite both on its own and as a member of the Oracle family.
Salesforce is using a derivative of this logic too. While Salesforce is and will likely always be a front office company, its powerful platform and AppExchange gives partners the ability to build completely compatible applications that help customers achieve suite status. After all, that’s the logic of having a platform to start with. A platform supplies a consistent set of programming tools, interfaces, objects, data structures and more—standards—so that apps built on it can interoperate. It’s the same logic as building a hardware bus so that manufacturers can build to common standards. It’s popular because it works.
So, the play as I see it for any software companies not named Oracle, Salesforce or a small group of others, is to pick a platform, become intimately involved with it, and pursue the surrounding ecosystem as your market.
Some vendors have begun working with two or more platforms and that’s fine if they have the resources, but I see that as a short-term gambit designed to see which platform vendor is the best partner.
All of this is vitally important. As I mentioned last time, the meme making the rounds is that it’s easier to start than grow a company, especially in tech. I can see this and deciding on a platform and an ecosystem to work in is one of those things that can help reduce overhead and enable a business to better focus on the things that really matter for growth, like markets and customers.
My two bits
CRM has been a wild ride for two decades and the ride continues. At this stage it’s important not to get sucked in to the latest discussions of digital disruption, IoT, analytics or anything else that looks bright and shiny. They’re all important as secondary considerations but I think the most important thing, and in some ways the least glamorous, to concentrate on is what vendor and which platform you want to work with over the next decade and beyond.
Markets converge. Fifteen years ago, few vendors had complete CRM suites and now they all do. Today we’re looking at far more complex and sophisticated front office applications as vendors take on vertical market apps. These apps combine back office data, front office processes, intelligence and machine learning and highly specialized subsystems for everything from manufacturing to healthcare. In this new environment who has time for platform incompatibilities?
The software platform is likely to be the new battleground in enterprise software. This is not to say that analytics and security are not important but they are being handled in different ways. Security is being handled in ways that address both hardware and software vulnerabilities but these things aren’t what customers or consumers spend their days thinking about. While everyone wants security, few know enough about it and the attitude is that security is someone else’s job. So both of these topics will be dealt with but they aren’t likely to be competitive differentiators, at least not yet.
But platforms affect more people and importantly they are key to making and saving money, topics the C-suite cares deeply about. Some of them might not know data from database but they all know profit and loss.
The software platform can be directly linked to making and saving money, which is why it is such a potent potential differentiator. We live in an era of commoditization. It’s hard to find true differentiation among competing products, which naturally leads to price wars. More than that, the pace of new product and new category introduction has declined precipitously over the last decade meaning that vendors find themselves in zero-sum competitions in which winning new business means poaching someone else’s customer.
So if there’s a lack of strategic differentiation there’s a load of tactical opportunities. Without strategic differentiation we face a market in which the first to react often wins the prize. And since so much of business is undergirded by information technology, the most adaptable technology—embodied in a platform—is the one most likely to help a vendor either make or save money. So we have the platform but where do platform wars come in.
A generation ago we faced a similar situation in which the answer was not the platform but the whole product. However, in retrospect they are the same. Whole product refers to all of the things a vendor in a mature market hangs to attract customers aside from the core product. Whole product consists of not only the core but the policies and procedures, financing and documentation and many other things.
The need for whole product was a driver of CRM’s evolution. Systems were imagined and built to capture customer feedback and to support employees striving to satisfy them. But CRM was an expensive proposition, especially in customer service, which required agents initially. It’s one reason so much energy has gone into developing indirect and self-service support.
Today’s problem is slightly different in that vendors all more or less recognize a need to alter their processes on the fly. It’s no longer enough to offer the support a vendor feels is right even in multiple channels. We must now support and service customers as they wish to be treated and that dimension is always changing. Such change happens at the platform level.
In this scenario it stands to reason that a vendor with a superior platform will be likely to succeed more or more easily in tight competition. But that’s not the end of the story. You can’t logically run a business on a platform unless your people know how to use it and that requires training—ongoing training.
All of this came into sharp relief last week as I attended the annual analyst kick-off event sponsored by Salesforce. The company has been developing its platform for a long time and just as importantly over the last 2-3 years it has brought forth an online training utility that develops platform skills in the rank and file. Giving customers a usable and powerful platform is the future in my mind. Interestingly, I don’t think the messaging has come together fully.
There’s more substance than shine to the mix, an enviable situation for any vendor. In detail there’s a fine platform and a very useful training utility in Trailhead. Also, there is an extensive list of plug and play platform based applications on the AppExchange. Think of it as the three-legged stool we’ll all need in the future.
What’s somewhat missing in most quarters is the realization and effective communication that this stuff is no longer optional, that business supported by platform fundamentals is what successful vendors will be using for the foreseeable future.
Other vendors, for instance Amazon with AWS and some others, see a different need and work to meet it. But primarily providing cloud infrastructure only addresses half of the challenge and amounts to saving money. That’s a great thing but when faced with making or saving money, 10 out of 9 (I said that right) executives who are given a choice will opt for making in money over simply saving it.
That’s why platform is so important today and why I think the decision point for many business leaders in the next year or two will be over which platform to select. It’s a choice that will have far reaching consequences because platform is foundational and not easily changed.
So welcome to platform wars. It will be a thrilling time if you are a software vendor and you have one. Other vendors, not so much.
The platform land rush is definitely on. You can’t swing a dead cat, as the saying goes, without finding an announcement about some new platform or some established vendor’s attempt to enhance its existing platform. Some sorting out seems to be in order.
What’s not a platform these days?
Well, if you can easily substitute the word application for platform, then use application because it will be more accurate. We’re suffering from word inflation all over the place and application has been split into apps, those things you run on your phone, and applications which vendors shy from preferring platform when they should know better. For the record, an app is still and application and a platform should be more. A lot more.
Platforms don’t grow on trees.
Building a platform takes work. It is doubtful to me that you can declare a platform into existence as a startup. Chances are good that a new platform is really a standalone application whose investors don’t want to see it become orphaned. But platforms take time and effort to build. If you look at the majors—Oracle, Microsoft, Salesforce, and SAP, they’ve been in the business for decades acquiring and integrating solutions to make something with a large footprint that they call a platform.
But it’s not just about quantity of functionality, there’s quality to consider too. For instance, in addition to all of the integrated apps, a platform ought to have a really good tool set that enables users to maintain what they’ve got and build new things including simple database apps as well as sophisticated processing apps that incorporate the social, analytic, integration, workflow, mobile, and other capabilities that make a platform real.
To be sure, there’s more than a casual difference between the majors and their offerings, but generally speaking, each is trying to become the one-stop-shop for customers needing software technology. Each also differentiates itself through emphasis on different aspects of deliverables while hewing to the cloud mantra.
Is it too late to become a platform?
Well, quite possibly it is too late. It takes a very large amount of investment and the time and talent of scarce and very smart people to make a platform, and while all that development is going on the market is not standing still. So recently we’ve seen some successful companies being acquired by large platform providers and I suspect the rationale for the sellers was that it was time to join rather than attempt to compete.
Microsoft bought LinkenIn recently but they’ve also bought large numbers of other technology companies that more or less fit their vision of platform. Oracle has bought more companies than I can count and continues to fold them into its platform or suite of clouds. Same for Salesforce, which just completed its acquisition of Demandware an ecommerce product.
As large as these collections of applications or platforms are, they can easily get bigger. We’re already at the point where very few businesses would likely use all of any vendor’s platform offerings because there’s just too much stuff. Many of these vendors have provided multiple tracks such as SMB and enterprise offerings, which would seem to automatically disqualify an organization from taking on everything on offer. Still there’s the grey area where an emerging business has one foot in each camp so hybridization is a definite possibility. It’s in the hybrids that the true value of a platform emerges.
Hybrids can also mean mixing offerings from multiple vendors and the gob smacking reality of today’s platforms is that as huge as they are, they are still not big enough to crowd out the competition. That’s a tough reality because part of the reason for embarking on the platform trail is to help lock out competition. But no such luck.
All vendors know they have to provide an elegant approach to integrating whatever is on a customer’s site. Of course, this goes double for the legacy systems every business runs. The legacy systems might have analogs on every vendor’s platform but legacy systems also go by the name of foundation systems, responsible for a business’s bread, butter, and profits. Businesses are thus naturally cautious about upsetting the apple cart so integration is a critical need.
Ecosystems come into focus
The platform wars are in full swing but the outcome seems assured. There will be several major competing platforms and we know which providers have them. Resistance is futile, announcing a new platform today is spitting into the wind. But at the platform level the group of applications made by third parties, commonly called the ecosystem, there’s plenty of opportunity.
In the bad old days, third parties couldn’t commit to a single vendor because markets were not big enough. Today though, committing to one vendor’s platform is smart business. Committing means abandoning the need to maintain source code tuned to this or that operating system, database, hardware, and even language. With that, it seems to me that smart startups should begin life with a commitment to an ecosystem and thus a platform. It also means figuring out a useful offering in a market that seems to have everything, that’s a story for another time.
A couple of weeks ago Allison Arieff wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Solving All the Wrong Problems” that gets to the heart of the technical times we live in and its focus is not what you might think. She includes a long list of things we can buy or subscribe to such as:
A service that sends someone to fill your car with gas.
A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car.
An app that analyzes the quality of your French kissing.
A “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down.
A sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing.
It goes on but you get the idea and you can always read the article here.
All of these things have in common the idea that just because we have the ability to make them doesn’t mean we should. Presumably the ones that got venture capital financing had someone asking, how does this make money and receiving an acceptable answer.
At about the same time this article ran, I needed a water heater so I went to a big box store and searched for—wait for it—someone to wait on me, to answer a few questions in other words. There were three models on display but in a perversion of good, better, best, there was standard, deluxe, and WiFi. The top of the line water heater could send information to my smartphone about, oh, I don’t know what really.
In my long life I’ve noticed that water heaters either work or they don’t. When they don’t work, I take a cold shower and summon a plumber to rectify the situation. The idea of having a water heater that I could interrogate through my smartphone seemed importantly like a moment in history when a new neurosis is proclaimed—hydrothermia gondii, perhaps.
But I have an explanation or actually two that seem to pacify my mind. The first harkens back to Linus Pauling, a two time Nobel Prize winner who once famously said that if you want to have good ideas, you need to have a lot of ideas. Translation, it’s a numbers game and most inventions don’t make the cut. Of the long list in the Times article, most if not all but the one that evaluates the quality your French kissing, are bound for history’s ash heap.
But Pauling’s point was that you never know what’s going to hit so you take the risk of ridicule and ruin for the chance of success and all that attends it. Still, some of these inventions up to an including the WiFi water heater strike me as over the top science fair faire.
The other reason in my mind might be closer to the truth. It’s that we’ve reached the end of the current paradigm. By paradigm, I mean the thing that frames our economic and social lives, the technology boom. According to the late Russian economist, Nicolai Kondratiev, a paradigm animates our economic lives and lasts between 50 and 60 years before another replaces it. Within a paradigm you can have trends and business cycles but the paradigm is ascendant.
You can know when the end is nigh because it gets really, really hard to innovate around the core tenets of the paradigm without bumping into something else that does pretty much the same thing. In other words, all of the niches are full. When that happens people try to invent niches which is why you get online water heaters and French kissing apps.
Eventually Kondratiev’s wheel turns again and we start anew with a different paradigm. But new paradigms are expensive; they result in what another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called creative destruction in which some of the earlier and perfectly good established economic order is trashed. So, not surprisingly, the establishment will resist change which brings on a period of stasis.
You know you’re there when someone invents something equivalent to a sensor placed in your child’s diaper that sends you an alert when the diaper needs changing. Come to think of it, that’s a perfect metaphor for the times we live in. We’re waiting for change.