A CRM Showdown in Times Square

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Well, no one can say CRM’s annual CRM Evolution conference was boring. Held the first week of August at the New York Marriott Marquis, the event’s most-anticipated panel lived up to its hype: For the first time ever, executives from four of the industry’s top firms—representing Microsoft, Oracle, RightNow Technologies, and SAP—gathered on one stage to field questions, duke out competencies, and tussle over CRM’s biggest trends. 

Moderated by Paul Greenberg, founder and president of consultancy The 56 Group—and, incidentally, the chairman of the event and CRM’s most recent inductee into the CRM Hall of Fame—the panel comprised Greg Gianforte, RightNow’s founder and chief executive officer; Anthony Lye, the senior vice president of Oracle CRM; Jujar Singh, the senior vice president of CRM at SAP; and Brad Wilson, the general manager of CRM at Microsoft.

Given the vendors’ long-standing competitive friction, attendees understandably expected a little heat in the well-air-conditioned space, but what they got more closely matched the weather outside, where it was particularly steamy, even by New York–in-August standards.

While the panelists generally maintained their composure—and their objectivity—a handful of tense moments raised a few eyebrows in the room full of CRM pundits. Marshall Lager, a principal at Third Idea Consulting and a CRM columnist, acknowledges the “heated comments,” but says that the panelists actually had little to fight about. “Each one’s making smart moves and has a good CRM product,” he says. 

But vendors will be vendors. “Everyone had an agenda—and it was laid out,” Greenberg says. “No one asked them to hide that.” The most pointed comments dealt with integration, and how to fit a CRM solution within a given software ecosystem. Each panelist’s view, however, seemed largely determined by his respective employer’s software strategies. “They didn’t say, ‘This is why you should buy our software,’” Greenberg recalls, “but they still were reflecting what the companies did and what the companies’ strategies and approach to sales were. That’s why you heard ‘hybrid’ from SAP, ‘single-suite’ from Oracle, ‘cloud’ from RightNow, and a mixed thing from [Microsoft].” 

The panelists themselves insist their answers were more than mere marketing. “We did not see this panel primarily as a forum to promote our product,” Singh says, “but to share SAP’s perspective on some of the key CRM trends and to provide answers to specific questions from the audience about SAP’s CRM product vision and roadmap.”

While Singh stressed the importance of integrating CRM and other software systems, Gianforte spoke of the benefits of seeing customer experience through the customer’s eyes and making software-as-a-service solutions as easy to maintain as they are to deploy. Lye outlined Oracle’s software stack but also explained how to mimic successful consumer Web interactions and support cross-channel strategies. Wilson spoke with gusto about analytics and re-evaluating best practices to incorporate social media. 

Greenberg admits he found the topics of conversation a bit surprising, and that he was shocked when, after the discussion opened to audience questions, most were related to hard-core traditional CRM—integration, analytics, and e-commerce, to name a few. “The audience questions did reflect real issues, though there were still a lot of foundational questions,” Gianforte says. “I was expecting more discussion around social.” 

Nevertheless, Gianforte says that, for the most part, he found the discussion quite even-keeled, though it did get a bit livelier around the integration question. (When Lye suggested that buying a single suite from one vendor had its advantages, Gianforte was the one to remark sarcastically, “We should just buy everything from Oracle, then.”) Wilson says that he made an effort to approach the event from an industry or customer point of view rather than through the lens of a vendor. “We’re all tackling these issues together as a community,” he says. 

Lager echoes Wilson’s point, noting that he sensed a “we’re in this together” attitude during the panel—alongside a sliver of “one-upsmanship,” that is. Combativeness, Lager notes, was to be expected, given these executives’ roles and responsibilities. “There was a lot of brain power up on that stage,” he says. Still, though the panel included some of CRM’s biggest movers and shakers, Lager was among several analysts and bloggers to observe that one CRM player was notably missing. “Salesforce.com was very conspicuous by their absence,” he says. (The company declined an invitation to participate in the event.)

Greenberg takes an even firmer stance. “Salesforce[.com] needs to rethink some of their marketing strategy at this point,” he says, “and make sure they start showing up to things like this, which are important.… These are companies they compete against…. Salesforce[.com] didn’t look good by comparison.” 

One thing’s for certain: As the CRM industry continues to evolve, so will the CRM Evolution conference. Next year’s event (http://sn.im/crmevolution) will bring new ideas, new conflicts, and—since Greenberg and the Enterprise CRM panelists all say they would return if asked—another chance to hear from the industry’s top dogs.

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