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SAP's New Year's resolution: Work more closely with customers than ever

It's New Year's resolution time, and SAP wants its customers to lend it a little more trust in 2010. Check out what some SAP customers want from their vendor this year and how SAP plans to deliver.

As technologies like the cloud, in-memory databases and mobile dominate SAP's software development roadmap in 2010, there's one old-fashioned element that the vendor says will also play a role -- better customer relationships.

"From a development point of view, we have not been close enough with our customers for a while, and I think we are ready to engage [in] a different way for our customers," said SAP executive Jim Hagemann Snabe when asked about his New Year's resolution. "I would love our customers to grant us trust that we have a lot of innovation for them, that we are willing to work closer with them than ever before."

SAP's resolution in the New Year is clear -- getting its customer relations right again, according to Helmuth Gumbël, partner at Strategy Partners International and host of the recent Sapience event in Boston. The SAP Enterprise Support affair and broken promises on product roadmaps have left customers upset, he said.

"Without that, everything is moot," Gumbël said of better customer relations. "I think the company needs to reinvent itself. That has become almost common knowledge in Germany."

Snabe said he thinks SAP can "add significantly more value" to its customers' application landscapes. Customers have plenty of ideas of what they'd like to see from SAP in 2010.

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About two months ago, Paris Fogle, senior systems specialist with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, sat through a webinar demonstrating SAP Direct Store Delivery, an SAP-developed mobile solution that would help customers get products straight from the warehouse. Fogle was impressed with the product but was left somewhat confused, because when it came to mobile technology, he thought SAP was getting away from organic development and moving toward partnering with mobile vendors like Syclo and Sybase.

"To me, it's just kind of like one more thing that shows they really don't have a clear vision," Fogle said. "That's what I'd like to see in 2010 – some clear vision."

Joerns Healthcare CIO Partha Biswas wants SAP BusinessObjects integration for SAP ERP available as a packaged solution. Joerns Healthcare, a Wisconsin-based company that makes high-end beds, medical products and furnishings for long-term care facilities, is an SAP Business All-in-One customer and currently needs to buy integration components such as Rapid Marts separately.

"[It] makes it difficult for small to midsized companies like ours to take full advantage of SAP's BI solutions quickly and cost effectively," Biswas said in an email interview.

In turn, when investing in its SaaS model, SAP needs to make software that is easier to implement and learn, he said. Many SaaS vendors are providing software that not only looks more modern but is easier to implement and configure.

"People are losing interest in solutions that take months to implement," Biswas said. "To stay competitive, SAP needs to innovate and bring solutions that can be implemented in days. Speed to value is critical in today's business environment."

For GT Solar, another SAP Business All-in-One customer, a bigger global presence is planned for 2010, according to IT director Thomas Doyle. GT Solar, which is based in Merrimack, N.H., makes the equipment used to produce the key ingredient in solar cells and panels.

SAP could help the manufacturer by providing more guidance for smaller companies that want to become global. For instance, instead of having to find consultants in different countries on his own, it would be better if SAP could direct him to certified local partners he could hire to supplement his own team, Doyle said.

"For us to compete in the future, we need to become more global," he said. "[SAP] really needs an office for the global enterprise. I'd like to see SAP address that and give us more guidance in that."

Some of these items are on SAP's roster for 2010. At the recent SAP Influencer Summit, SAP CTO Vishal Sikka outlined four dimensions by which software development would proceed at SAP -- using in-memory databases and in-memory analytics, mobile platforms and the cloud to extend innovation, all with interoperability around SOA.

In turn, SAP's on-demand strategy includes delivering on-demand, line-of-business applications in 2010 that will integrate with and augment functionality in Business Suite deployments, according to John Wookey, head of SAP's on-demand effort for large companies. SAP currently sells e-sourcing, carbon management and CRM applications via the on-demand model. Customers can expect new applications in sales automation, travel and expense, and service management, and an application called Project Kona that will allow users to quickly adopt SAP BusinessObjects software.

SAP is also planning to release a multi-tenant version of CRM on-demand and a new on-demand SCM product. Moreover, the vendor plans to release Business ByDesign, its suite for small to medium-sized companies. Currently, Business ByDesign is being sold on a limited basis.

Much more of this development will happen in an agile manner. Teams will work with customers on new iterations of the software every four to six weeks.

This focus will offer more opportunities for customers to get involved, according to Ray Wang, partner at Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.-based strategy consulting firm. There may be programs to extend verticals, and there are opportunities to get in early on some of the Microsoft collaboration technologies coming down the line.

"Figure out a way to partner with SAP," Wang said. "I think there are entry points into SAP now they're spending a lot more time listening to customers."

But delivering on these promises, particularly innovation using in-memory technology, will be the big test for SAP in 2010.

"The big question is when," said Warren Wilson, research director with Ovum. "It's a big enough change that we may not see much more concrete next year, but it's certainly something customers should be aware of and asking about."

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