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Sage Moves Forward with Cloud Services, New CEO

[Edited for some small inaccuracies. My bad.]

I recently had the pleasure of attending Sage Analyst Day 2011, hosted in Boston on February 9, 2011. A select group of industry watchers got to hear about plans for Sage North America in the coming year, especially its CRM product line.

One early order of business was to announce (reiterate, actually) the pending retirement of Sage North America CEO Sue Swenson later this year, after nearly three years of service. While I didn’t get many opportunities to speak to Swenson directly during her time with Sage, I was impressed with her focus on moving her division forward, and her success in achieving her goals during a bad stretch for the global economy. The company returned to revenue growth in the second half of 2010 under her leadership.

This summer (the guess is mid-June) Swenson will hand over control to CEO-designate Pascal Houillon, a 20-year Sage veteran who has served as the head of operations in several European countries. His stated primary goals are to match the company’s product line with its customer base more effectively; to make the Sage brand better known on this side of the Atlantic; and to return the company to making acquisitions as opportunities present. Likely targets are Web-based and connected services vendors, as well as regional specialists.

Your ears might have perked up at that last bit about connected services and Web services. I know mine did. Sage has been inching toward the Cloud for a few years now, but it looks like the pace is about to accelerate.

Sage Advisor

The first piece mentioned was Sage Advisor. Users of Peachtree—sorry, Sage Peachtree—will recognize it from a function they’ve had access to for four years. Advisor is a cloud-based data mining tool and recommendation engine, collecting more than 500 data points and using them to provide advice to the user. The advice is delivered (depending upon context and preferences) via Sage employees, a virtual assistant, and in-product chat.

Sage Advisor exists to “create a personal connection to Sage brands for every user,” according to the company. It’s not just about selling more software to expand Sage’s footprint with its customers; Advisor can point out existing (read: already-paid-for) capabilities that aren’t being used and could help with a given task, and can also tell users how to turn off certain functions to streamline their workflow.

Many of you read the words “virtual assistant” and had a bad flashback to Clippy, Microsoft Office’s much-maligned helper. Sage Advisor appears to be much less intrusive, and the company claims more than 90 percent of its Sage Peachtree customers are opted in to the service.

Another function of Sage Advisor is to provide client data to Sage and its partners about usage patterns, third-party applications in use, system specifications, popular reports, and more. Sage predicts this could increase close rates for partners 60 to 70 percent.

Sage Connected Services

Connected services is Sage’s umbrella term for discrete applications provided to its customers (both on-premises and SaaS) via the Cloud. Many will integrate through SData, Sage’s new open-standard Web protocol which allows front- and back-office applications to communicate better with each other and with other apps.

This will be a major area of expansion and advancement for Sage, adding capabilities from the cloud in a modular fashion to serve up what customers need. Payment services, legal counseling, tax compliance, lead generation, and shopping carts are just some examples Sage provided.

Services will be delivered within the main Sage application, with Sage Advisor identifying and suggesting appropriate apps, making it something of an app marketplace. Because SData is an open standard, there is a large opening in connected services for third-party providers, and for integration with non-Sage products. Look for a Google Apps integration very soon.

Acceleration Squared

Sage’s foray into cloud services creates an excellent opportunity for growth, if it can manage the potential chaos. With SData, Advisor, and connected services all turned on, Sage partners and customers will have greater access to the company than ever before, and that’s saying something. Demand for new functions and new products can be watched in real time, and the delivery time is considerably reduced. Sage will be drinking from the firehose in a way that only SCRM- and cloud-savvy companies can; if it uses that information and the dynamic strength of an involved community, we will see a very different Sage by this time next year.

For another (and quite excellent) discussion of Sage North America’s Analyst Day, see Denis Pombriant’s recent article for CRM Buyer. Denis has been watching Sage for longer than I have, and he’s one smart cookie.