IBM Reimagines the Email Story With IBM Verse

email iconYou’ve got mail! It’s been a long time since most of us have experienced the surge of pleasurable anticipation that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan enjoyed in the 1998 classic, “You’ve Got Mail.”

Instead, if you’re like me and many others, opening your business inbox has become a soul-sucking experience that consumes too much time, distracts you from more important tasks, and leaves you feeling that in spite of all the time you spend in email, you probably missed something important. Yet with all of its flaws, you continue to use email because it has become a seemingly irreplaceable part of the business workflow.

You’ve Got Information Overload!

The feeling of information overload that many of us experience isn’t surprising. According to Osterman Research, most corporate decision makers and influencers view email as the single most important application they have deployed. The typical user spends two hours per day working in the corporate email system and sends or receives a median of 130 emails per day. Email is also the primary method for:

  • Sending an attachment for 94% of users.
  • Sharing files while on a call for 60% of users.
  • Managing a project for 56% of users.

Sadly, much of this time is wasted: According to a 2012 Grossman Group study, middle managers typically spend 100 hours a year on irrelevant email. Many frustrations arise from this sorry state of affairs, including some of my top aggravations:

  • That nagging feeling that I’ve missed something (especially in all of those crazy Google threads!).
  • Spending too much time catching up on email after work hours so I’m not swamped the next day. For better or worse, this is easier than ever because I can do it on my iPhone.
  • Spending too much time searching for that one, elusive email that I really need.
  • Toggling back and forth from my email to calendar to find open time for meetings.
  • Getting back to what I was supposed to be working on after be email distractions.

But, despite these problems—and the emergence of newer digital communications methods (social networking, activity streams, text messages, IM, etc.) touted as email replacements—email is still very much alive and well. While newer methods are making some headway (and in fact, reducing email use in our personal lives), email remains the top form of business communication. In fact, 52% of those surveyed by Osterman Research indicated that their use of email had actually increased over the previous 12 months, while for 44%, use remained the same. Use declined for only 3% of respondents.

Towards A More Intelligent Inbox

To be fair, email has evolved since the first email with an @ sign was sent (reputedly in 1972, by Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor and Internet pioneer). Commercial developers got in the game, and developed folders to organize email, offline synchronization, standards and protocols, web interfaces, search capabilities, spam filters, ways to pre-sort emails into different buckets and more to make email more user-friendly and usable.

Although these improvements have helped somewhat, the original paradigm of looking at a big long list of stuff—emails, files and folders—remains. We’ve gained more ways to slice and dice our inbox, but it’s still served up to us in pretty much the same way as it has always been, in rows of information.

Newer social and collaborative tools, from activity streams to file sharing apps have been developed to make communication and collaboration easier, and to reduce and/or replace email. But while they are a great fit for certain tasks and activities, they haven’t displaced email to any great extent. Email volumes continue to multiple, and email overload continues to plague us.

You’ve Got Focus!

But what would happen if you began with the premise that email isn’t likely to go away? And that since people spend a lot of time in email, it should be a place where people like working and can be more productive, and that easily integrates with newer social and collaborative tools, instead of competing with them? In other words, how can you have an inbox that works for you, instead of the other way around?

This is the premise that IBM team has zeroed in on with IBM Verse. Verse is designed to help people focus on, find and act on the most important things in their inbox in a more intuitive and integrated fashion. Big Blue has invested $100 million to design the solution, which combines its cloud, analytics, social and security platforms.

Initially announced at IBM’s 2014 Connect conference (under the codename Mail Next), IBM Verse replaces those deadly rows and folders with a fresh, visual mental map to help you make sense of your inbox more quickly and easily (Figure 1). With one look at the IBM Verse dashboard, you can:

  • See what replies and tasks you owe others.
  • View meetings and free time.
  • Identify what’s most important in your inbox.
  • View your activity stream.
  • Move over a face to see that person’s emails, chats, invites and more all in one place.

Figure 1: IBM Verse Screenshot

Mail Next screen shot (9)

Source: IBM

From there, you can drill down to different layers to manage things, take action and stay on top of priorities (Figure 2). For instance, you can:

  •  Pull up and attach links to files and manage version control.
  • “Unlock” emails and turn them into social posts to share with a community.
  • Use team analytics to create social graphs to see how active different people are in a thread.
  • Create rules to sort, filter, mute and hide messages.

Focus on Experience, Not Features

IBM Design Thinking, IBM’s design framework for delivering great user experience to users. Is also taking a different approach to designing IBM Verse. Instead of testing the user interface after some (too often) wonky developers come up with it, product management, development and design all work together equally from the beginning.

Using tools such as IBM Digital Analytics (formerly Coremetrics) and other technologies from its portfolio, IBM can continually personalize and prioritize email and social activities for users and improve search. Over time, according to IBM, Watson will provide much of the analytics behind IBM Verse, with the goal of providing users with more insights and less overload from their email.

Coming Soon…

IBM Verse will debut as a cloud service (but IBM is prepping an on-premises version as well). Key sponsor and design advisory users have been reviewing, testing and helping co-create the solution since August. The solution will officially premiere in November as one of just eight IBM “Signature Moments,” putting IBM Verse on par with the IBM-Apple deal. After that, IBM Verse will enter beta mode, with general availability slated for March 2015.

IBM will provide Notes Domino users with a preview and transition to IBM Verse. Notes Domino users will be able to use IBM Verse in combinations with Notes Domino and with IBM Connections.

IBM will also offer a standalone Verse solution of Verse in a freemium model, to compete against Google Gmail and Microsoft Office 365. As an SMB analyst, the standalone version is of most interest to me as this is the first freemium IBM has offered. The freemium model will provide entrée to an app that almost every business needs, and has the potential to generate viral adoption for an IBM product—another first for IBM.

Will IBM Verse Measure Up At the Box Office?

But it’s not a slam-dunk. IBM Verse should provide Notes Domino users a more compelling case to stay the course instead of defecting to Microsoft, Google or other cloud-based mail alternatives. However, most Notes Domino users have a lot of applications, many internally developed, running on the platform. IBM Verse will need to be able to run, expose and interface with these apps to make the transition truly easy.

Meanwhile, as alluring as the IBM Verse demo and interface is, gaining traction outside of the Notes Domino installed base will be extremely challenging. For starters, many companies, especially small and medium businesses (SMBs), are already using cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. SMB Group research indicates that 49% of small (1-99 employees) and 40% of medium (100-999 employees) already use cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. Furthermore, the preference for cloud among SMBs planning to purchase or upgrade collaboration solutions is strong (Figure 2).

Figure 2: SMB Adoption and Plans for Email and Collaboration Solutions

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Source: SMB Group 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study 

In addition, IBM will need to make a strong case to business decision-makers and end-users, as well as to IT. IBM will not only need to create broad-based awareness for the solution, but convey why and how it’s different from other email solutions, and how it directly benefits users—aka “what’s in it for me” to move the needle.

And, while IBM Verse isn’t exactly a new category, it’s a very new approach that goes beyond traditional email. Users will need to develop a new mental map—and IBM will need to help them do so. Going to market with a freemium model will help, but it won’t be enough. In addition, IBM will need to:

  • Deeply internalize sponsor and beta user feedback, not only to influence solution development and design, but also to ensure that IBM Verse messaging, positioning and marketing reflects the user voice and experience.
  • Heavily socialize the IBM Verse concept across events, social media, communities, influencer groups, etc.
  • Maximize conversion of users that try IBM Verse to users that buy, or in the case of the freemium, stick with IBM Verse and make it their corporate mail system. It’s easy to get people to download free apps, but tough to get them to test them and tougher still to displace an existing solution with a new one.

As a solution, I believe that IBM Verse is launching with the right stuff, including.

  • As a cloud first solution, IBM Verse can tap into the growing number of companies that opt to start with or move to the cloud.
  • IBM’s design thinking team aligns with where users are today: helping people get more done, more quickly with fewer menus, mouse clicks and a more visual representation.
  • “Personal analytics” taps into user concerns about information overload, and the desire to manage email more intelligently.

But, only time will tell if IBM’s elevation of IBM Verse to Signature Moment status—and the marketing power attendant with this—will be enough to ensure that IBM Verse will become the blockbuster hit that IBM is hoping for.

This post was sponsored by IBM.

Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game-Changing Technologies to SMBs

This is the second post in a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. The first, A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplaceprovides perspectives from Dell World 2014. This second post, which is excerpted from SMB Group’s April 2014 report, Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs, offers additional insights into Dell’s approach to help SMBs capitalize on technology trends.

delllogoThe writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey, and one-size-fit all doesn’t apply in SMB. Is Dell a good fit for you? Read on for information and insights to help you decide.

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Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs

Dell sees cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies converging towards the next pivotal tipping point, where IT will change the lives and experiences of nearly every industry, country and person on the planet.

Dell articulates its view on top technology trends somewhat differently than other vendors interviewed for this report. However, the same technology trends—cloud, analytics, social, mobile and security—are core to Dell’s top picks. Dell sees the following trends ushering in new wave of business transformation, similar or greater in scope to how the Internet and web affected businesses:

  1. People will increasingly rely on technology to connect, collaborate and accomplish tasks and goals. Embedded in user-friendly solutions, cloud, social and mobile technologies enable SMBs to connect, collaborate and engage anytime, anywhere to better serve their customers and to work more efficiently.
  2. IT is changing from a support function to becoming core most business operations, and business decision-makers are increasingly involved in IT decisions to ensure the business gets the value it needs from IT.
  3. Amidst the growing volumes of structured unstructured data, SMBs that have the rights tools to find the needles in the haystack and uncover useful, actionable information and insights will gain competitive and market advantages.
  4. As SMBs rely more on technology to run their businesses and engage with customers, partners, suppliers and others, taking measures to secure and protect data, information and access are increasingly essential to business viability.

Some of the tangible ways that Dell is helping SMBs capitalize on these changes include:

  • Becoming an über-cloud provider: Dell has been steadily expanding the Dell Cloud Partner Program to provide access and end-to-end support for offerings from multiple cloud vendors.
  • Offering open, private-cloud solutions, which should help give SMBs more confidence in using OpenStack as an alternative to proprietary IaaS and PaaS (infrastructure and platform as-a-service) alternatives.
  • Expanding portfolio of mobile management solutions, such as Enterprise Mobility Management, a unified mobile management solution to managed devices, apps, and content, and Secure Remote Access Gateway to protect endpoints.
  • New intellectual property gained from acquisitions such as SonicWALL, Quest, Boomi, Compellent and Force10 is skewed towards the SMB world. In fact, Dell views SMB and midmarket as an ideal focal point for development and acquisitions since it believes large organizations also want scalable solutions that are easier to deploy and use too.

Changes in SMB Technology Expectations and Behavior 

Fueled by the web, mobile and social access, Dell sees changes in how SMBs evaluate and shop for solutions. Today, SMBs are more prone to have done their homework before they come to the sales table. Armed with a greater understanding upfront, they are looking for vendors and partners that will listen to what they are trying to do and offer authentic, objective and knowledgeable guidance. In addition, Dell believes that simply doing the right things for people works. To that end, Dell prefers having its customers tell its story rather than Dell telling it. For example, Dell cites the tornado damage in Oklahoma City last spring, where Dell served as a first responder, as exemplifying its commitment to doing the right thing to earn customers’ faith in Dell.

Dell sees both the role of SMB IT and business decision-makers morphing. More frequently, line-of-business (LoB) managers are not only customers of IT departments, but also co-owners of IT. This means that IT staff must work harder to meet increasing demands, and become more educated and engaged in business operations and strategy than in the past. SMB IT personnel need more practical and actionable advice and support from vendors and their channel partners to juggle ongoing IT management with innovation.

SMBs are also scrutinizing “calculated risks” much more carefully. For instance, SMBs are interested in the cloud because of affordability and ease of access/use advantages, but want to ensure that cloud solutions are secure and reliable. SMBs are also more likely to factor business disruption into the cost/benefit analysis for any given solution. They are getting wiser about the perils of bad decisions and implementations, so the bar keeps getting higher to deliver solutions with less business disruption and faster time to value.

Finally, SMBs increasingly recognize that the technology-performance connection is real, and can be used to accelerate growth disrupt industry icons with innovation and agility. The perspective is summed up in Dell’s latest ad campaign. SMBs can use new technologies not only to reshape their existing businesses, but also to redefine the economics of an industry and expectation of the market.

However, one constant remains. Most SMBs need capitalize on these opportunities without putting themselves in financial or operational jeopardy. SMB budgets, IT staff and expertise aren’t often able to both maintain what they have and innovate within the window of opportunity. So Dell is focusing on designing, delivering, supporting and financing solutions that take these constraints into account.

Perspective: Dell as SMB Technology Catalyst

Dell’s journey to transform itself has been in progress for a few years. While on Wall Street’s watch, it wasn’t easy for Dell to recast its image from a transaction-oriented hardware company to an end-to-end solutions provider and trusted advisor.

However, Dell’s entrepreneurial heritage is once again alive and well. Michael Dell not only started the company in his dorm room when he was a 19-year old student at the University of Texas, but took it private in 2013 to gain control over its destiny again. With genuine DNA at the heart of Dell’s commitment to SMBs and entrepreneurs, Dell can take a longer-term view on return on investment in new technologies. This should enable it to launch more innovative and affordable cloud computing, mobile, social, analytics and security technologies geared to SMB requirements.

In addition, Dell prides itself on listening to its customers and creating a mutually beneficial dialogue. Dell’s Social Media Command Center is one of the best in the industry, and Dell’s SMB and partner outreach programs are extensive.

While Dell is still in the midst of its own transformation journey, its attitudes and actions when it comes to SMBs should help it to significantly broaden its status as a trusted advisor in this market.

 

A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplace

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from Dell World 2014. The second post, Dell’s Strategy to Provide Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Dell’s approach in the SMB market.

dell worldHow has Dell changed since Michael Dell took Dell private a year ago? A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Dell World 2014 in Austin and find out. As I’ve written in past posts about prior Dell Worlds, the transformation has been underway for several years, since Michael Dell embarked on his strategy to transition Dell from a hardware-centric company to an end-to-end solutions provider.

As a private company, Dell is no longer obliged to disclose financial metrics. But, unleashed from Wall Street’s quarterly pressures, Dell appears to be making excellent progress on its goals. For instance, Dell has broadened its software and service portfolios, and claims significant growth in both areas. According to IDC, Dell is also increasing hardware market share no doubt aided in part by competitors HP and IBM. With IBM exiting the x86 server market, and HP’s recent decision to split itself into two companies (one focused on PCs and printers, the other on servers, software and services) Dell is the only vendor left that supplies an end-to-end desktop to data center portfolio. Meanwhile, Dell has evolved to become a significant force in the channel, with 40% of its sales now going through channel partners.

Dell’s New Cloud Marketplace

One of the most interesting announcements at the event was the beta launch of the Dell Cloud Marketplace, which distinguishes itself from many other cloud vendors by offering customers choice. In Dell’s brokerage model, the vendor provides customers with a one-stop shop from which they can select and manage cloud services from multiple vendors, including Amazon, Google, Joyent and Microsoft. The marketplace is built on technologies from Dell’s Cloud Manager, which Dell acquired from Enstratius in 2013. Key technology partners include Delphix, which supplies data migration services; Pertino, for cloud networking; and Docker, for container and portability services. Dell is also partnering with Foglight to provide developers with tools to improve cloud-based application performance.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.13 PM

Dell Cloud Marketplace is tuned to the different needs of IT managers and developers. IT managers get a single console from which they can provision, manage and integrate private, public and hybrid could services. Meanwhile, developers can get instant, self-service access to cloud services. The concept appealed to conference attendees, with over 400 signing up for the beta the day Dell announced it.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.46 PM

Dell’s vision for its Cloud Marketplace is similar to that of Priceline or Kayak in the travel business. Dell will aggregate, simplify and streamline shopping, selection, purchase and management across many cloud service options. Cloud offerings will initially be sold through Dell.com, Dell’s established, high volume direct sales channel. Over time, Dell is likely to implement reseller programs and possibly even white-label programs for channel partners.

Perspective

Perception is the hardest thing to change. With deep, successful roots in the hardware business, they company has been primarily regarded as a hardware vendor, even though its journey to become an end-to-end solutions provider has been underway for quite a while.

Dell’s move to become a broker of cloud services, highlight the acquisitions, research, development and determination that Dell has been investing in this quest. And, with cloud adoption now mainstream (Figure 1), Dell’s timing for the marketplace is on target as well. The cloud makes it easy for people to buy new services, and more difficult for IT to manage the wide variety of different services that are in play. Providing a solution that gives IT managers more visibility and governance capabilities, while at the same time offering users more choice, promises to help address this challenge.

Figure 1: SMB Cloud Adoption

cloud adopt

Source: SMB Group

However, due in part to the uniqueness of the model, Dell will need to invest in market education to articulate the capabilities and benefits of this new brokerage approach more clearly.

In addition, Dell must create a clear roadmap for what and when it will add to the marketplace to properly set market expectations. For instance, one of the customers I spoke to at the beta would like to use the marketplace to help him manage the wide range of file sharing and collaboration solutions that his users are buying.

Finally with Dell partners accounting for an increasing percentage of Dell sales, Dell will need to come up with an attractive approach to lure partners to resell Dell Cloud Marketplace services.

Disclosure: Dell paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dell World. 

 

 

Intacct Collaborate: Bringing Sales and Finance Together

This video interview was originally posted on SMB Group Spotlight. 

Laurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from SMB Group and today I’m here on the SMB Spotlight at Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2014 Conference.  I’m talking to Aaron Harris, who is the Chief Technology Officer for Intacct.  Aaron, thank you for sharing time with me today.  Can you tell me a little bit about Intacct, who you are, what you do?

Aaron: Sure.  Thanks Laurie.  Intacct is a cloud accounting and finance solution that we have designed for small and medium-sized businesses.  We’ve taken a best in class approach, so all of our resources are targeted at building just what the accounting and finance team needs, the general ledger, payables, receivables.  We’ve got a strong relationship with Salesforce, so if you’re using Salesforce we’ve got a very nice native integration where Intacct and Salesforce synchronize data and processes and it’s a beautiful way to get your front office and your back office working together.

Laurie: So what are you highlighting here?  I know you have an announcement about some new collaboration capabilities with Salesforce.  What’s going on with that?

Aaron:      That’s right.  So at Dreamforce this year we are announcing Intacct Collaborate.  What Intacct Collaborate does it takes Salesforce Chatter and extends it into Intacct so that your sales and your marketing and support people who are using Salesforce today and who are collaborating on Chatter are using now the same network that the accounting team, the finance team, project managers are using on the backend.  So there’s one social network, there’s one collaborative network across the enterprise for the whole organization to work on.

Laurie: Good.  It sounds like that makes it easier for everybody to feed information into the whole financial process.

Aaron: That’s right.  There’s a lot pieces to it.  Obviously there are some great stories, right?  I’m a sales rep, I’ve got a deal that I want to get done, I need to get a 10% discount approved on that deal.  In the old world I’d write an email to the CFO, the CFO doesn’t know anything about what I’m talking about so the CFO has got to go do some research.  She responds to the email, there’s lots of back and forth, none of the communication is captured, right?  So it slows down the sale, it adds frustration, there’s no log to what happened.  So in this world that all happens via chatting and collaborating, and it’s all in real-time, it’s all captured, it’s all part of the record.  We also see this being useful within the accounting and finance team, getting them to collaborate over some of the more tricky business processes.  I was talking to a CFO the other day who said 20% of finance transactions are exceptional, they’re complex.  And we spend 80% of our time on those 20% of the transactions, the exceptions.  We have to find out what’s going on, what do we do?  Having Collaborate allows them to not only more efficiently communicate about these transactions and these exceptions, but it generates a log that you keep the communication around the transaction.

Laurie: I know Intacct is really aimed at small and medium businesses, but that’s a very diverse audience, so what segments of the SNB market are really the sweet spot for Intacct?

Aaron: Sure, so there’s really two categories of customers who are choosing Intacct.  The first is companies who have outgrown their first accounting product, usually it’s QuickBooks.  They’ll outgrow it when they need to automate processes that are manual.  Perhaps they’re now a multi-location business and it’s just too difficult to aggregate or consolidate data across the locations.  It might be that the reporting tools available in QuickBooks don’t give them kind of insight that they need, which product lines are the most profitable, which of my professional services engagements are losing money and which are making money?  This kind of insight is just not possible in some of the low-end products.  Or it may just be that this is a growing company that expects to go public, they need to have proper controls in place, they need to have a certain way they’re going to get through their Sarbanes–Oxley audits, so they need a product that will help them…

Laurie: Even if you’re preparing to be acquired or something like that.  If you sell the business you would need that.

Aaron: Exactly.  You need a product that cannot just assure external auditors that you’re following these controls, but that allows you to provide the evidence that you’re doing it.

Laurie: And that’s about half of your customers are coming from that.

Aaron: About half.  So the other half are people who have embraced the cloud.  They love Salesforce, they love some of the other cloud products.  They can see that with Salesforce they’re getting constant innovation, it embraces mobile technology.  You know what I’m talking about.

Laurie: Yeah, they just want to be able to do things on the fly, they way they want, on the device of choice.

Aaron: And no more headaches about hosting the infrastructure, that’s security, right?

Laurie: No, they don’t want to mess with that.

Aaron: So they want to take their accounting and finance processes and modernize them to the same extent as they already have sales and marketing.  So they’re choosing Intacct not just because it’s cloud and it gives them the same advantages they’re getting through Salesforce, they’re also choosing it because it’s fully integrated with Salesforce.  They’ve got the full front office/back office integration, data synchronization, process integration.

Laurie: It takes the integration headache away too.

Aaron: That’s right.  No more disconnect in the process.

Laurie: So how can a potential customer or prospect learn a little bit more or better evaluate whether this might be a good fit for them?

Aaron: The easiest way is to go to our website, go to www.intacct.com.  There’s a number of things you can do there, but maybe the easiest is just to get a trial.

Laurie: So you do still offer a free trial?  I think a lot of them don’t anymore

Aaron: We do.  We’re very proud of our product, we think it’s very easy to use, so get a trial.  We actually walk you through how to learn more.  It’s actually a really nice way to learn about Intacct.

Laurie: That’s great.  Well Aaron, thank you again for sharing that information with me about Intacct.  I think it will be really valuable for a lot of small and medium businesses out there.  Have a great rest of Dreamforce.

Aaron: Thanks Laurie.

Laurie: Thank you.

Intuit’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs

This is the second post in a two-part blog series discussing Intuit’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. The first, Intuit QuickBooks Connect: Where Small Business Is Big Business provides perspectives from Intuit’s 2014 QuickBooks Connect event. This second post, which is excerpted from SMB Group’s April 2014 report, Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs report, offers additional insights into Intuit’s approach.

intuit_blueThe writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey, and one-size-fit all doesn’t apply in SMB. Is Intuit a good fit for you? Read on for information and insights to help you decide.

Slide1

Intuit’s Top Technology Game Changers for SMBs

Simplifying business life for small business owners is at the center of Intuit’s strategy. Intuit’s mission is to “consumerize” operational functions such as payroll, accounting and marketing so small businesses can focus more on conducting business and less on business process.

Intuit sees the cloud as critical to enabling this, and it views mobile as inextricably linked to the cloud. QuickBooks Online is Intuit’s platform to let SMBs engage from any device, anywhere, at any time to manage their finances and connect to other applications for additional functionality. Today, most SMBs are managing the business through both mobile and traditional desktop and notebook devices. Intuit’s platform can discover, facilitate and customize identity, relationships and roles depending on users’ choices.

Intuit also views the cloud as the foundation to facilitate collaborative, social engagement. For instance, Intuit’s Demandforce marketing solution lets SMBs synthesize social feeds, comments, ratings and reviews to better serve customers and enhance their brands.

Intuit wants to deliver the benefits of analytics and big data solutions to small businesses through its QuickBooks Online platform. Intuit observes aggregated behaviors across its more than 560,000 users to discover patterns and best practices. Using these insights, Intuit simplifies how tasks get done, and tailors processes for different types of businesses and user personas. This lets users set up applications and perform tasks more quickly and easily, and frees them to spend more time focusing on building their businesses.

Intuit is also embedding analytics into its solutions to help SMBs better understand where they should focus time. This builds more value by providing capabilities to identify trends and act on them. For instance, a dentist using Intuit’s Demandforce marketing solution can see when patients aren’t coming in for biannual check-ups, and set up automated reminders to boost regular visits instead of spending time making phone calls. When mundane tasks are automated, customer centricity can move to the forefront.

Changes in SMB Technology Expectations and Behavior

Intuit sees several major changes under way, including:

  • Rising expectations for a “delightful” experience and total solution: Small businesses want to focus on their business, not on figuring out how to use software—whether in the cloud or on premises. Instead of piecing together product components, SMBs want more turnkey solutions, with capabilities to help them automatically integrate applications, and to connect with customers and suppliers. Intuit’s platform and developer network help small businesses extend the power of QuickBooks through third-party solutions by building data integration directly into their mobile and web apps. Project Harmony is a new initiative to make all Intuit solutions simpler and more “delightful” to use.
  • Trust as an increasingly valuable currency: SMBs want technology solutions validated via “social proof,” meaning that vendors must engage in an authentic, ongoing conversation to develop and maintain their trust. Vendors must augment traditional word of mouth with digital word of mouth. Intuit is building trust in several ways, such as increasing involvement with small business associations, such as ASBDC, SCORE and The Latino Coalition, and Hire Smart, a partnership with LinkedIn to help small businesses improve hiring results. Intuit also recently sponsored the Small Business Big Game contest, awarding a Super Bowl ad to winner GoldieBlox.
  • Better-informed advisors: Small businesses want the accountants and other professionals that help them with business decisions and processes to have a deeper view of their business, industry and other businesses like them. In addition to long-term accounting partner programs, Intuit recently introduced the Innovation Catalyst program to offer partners and customers hands-on training on innovative concepts and techniques.
  • Going mobile: In the future, Intuit believes many small businesses will start with and stay exclusively with mobile, and will expect full access and capabilities to run their businesses via mobile devices. Intuit’s internal development and Intuit Developer Network are focused on providing a seamless mobile experience.

Perspective: Intuit as an SMB Technology Catalyst 

With an installed base of more than 5 million small business customers, Intuit’s sphere of influence is enormous. Although Intuit’s legacy is that of a packaged software vendor, Intuit is now fully immersed in cloud and the mobile, social and analytics capabilities that cloud computing facilitates. QuickBooks Online subscriptions have grown by 30% over the past year—and should beat that growth this year now that Intuit has dropped the price from $19.95 per user, per month to $5—or the price of a fancy coffee. This should also help Intuit fend off recent small business accounting cloud entrants such as Wave and Xero. Intuit’s Developer Network has also bulked up. By connecting more partners and customers into this platform and to each other, small business can more easily reap the benefits of these technology trends.

With thousands of hours logged in “follow me home” visits to see how small businesses really work, Intuit also understands the importance of communicating that technology is a make-or-break business differentiator in the language that small businesses speak. Intuit doesn’t underestimate the hurdles it must jump to communicate this message through its web sites, advertising and influencers so that it resonates more meaningfully with small businesses. Instead of leading with technology, Intuit leads with how to take friction out of managing the business and engaging with customers.

But change is hard—especially in established small businesses, where owners are wearing many hats and juggling many challenges. To get past the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality in the very small business market, Intuit must work doubly hard not only to further consumerize the solution experience, but also to help businesses immediately grasp how new technology solutions can help them make real business improvements.

Disclosure: Intuit is an SMB Group client and paid for most of my travel expenses to attend QuickBooks Connect.

Sneak Peak at Dell World’s SMB Focus


mark horanRecently, I had a chance to talk to Mark Horan, Vice President/General Manager at Dell to learn about what Dell World has to offer for SMBs. Here’s a recap of our conversation. 

Laurie: Hi Mark, and thanks for taking time to provide some color commentary on Dell World. As usual, my focus is on small and medium businesses, so can you preview for me what Dell will be doing at Dell World this year that is geared toward SMB customers?

Mark: Just like we purpose-design solutions for SMB customers, Dell World features speakers, sessions, solution showcases, and networking opportunities for SMBs. Two of my favorite things for SMBs are the User Forum, where customers can deepen their technical knowledge around Dell solutions, and keynote speaker Alexis Ohanian, a New York based entrepreneur who founded Reddit.

Laurie: Why would SMB customers and prospects attend Dell World?

Mark: It’s a world-class event and opportunity to network with and learn from not only other SMB customers but other types of organizations from around the world. The diverse perspectives are invaluable. For customers who rely on technology to grow their business, whether they’re Dell customers already or not, it’s a great way to learn about where Dell is going and how that helps customers achieve their goals.

Dell also recently commissioned an extensive research study that explores how respondents adopt, consume, use and influence technology in four key areas – mobility, security, cloud and big data. The research focuses on mid-sized organizations (100 to 5,000 employees) across the globe), and we’ll be sharing and reacting to the results in numerous sessions at Dell World.

Laurie: How many SMB customers do you expect to attend? Do you have any SMB customers being showcased at the event (Executive Track, Partner Summit, Main Track and/or Ancillary events)?

Mark: We expect over 600 SMB customers joining us for Dell World 2014. SMB customers will participate in all of the Dell World tracks: Executive Summit, Partner Summit, User Forum, and more.

Laurie: What particular SMB solutions is Dell showcasing at the event? Addressing which SMB customer problem areas?

Mark: We’ll be showcasing many of our solutions; ones that I think are of particular interest for SMBs include our SonicWALL network security appliances and management consoles that provide industry leading software-designed protection for facilities of all sizes from small branches to massive data centers; our 13G servers and new SC4020 storage array will also be prominent. Systems like these help customers increase performance, reduce their IT footprint, and maximize the value IT can drive for their business.

Laurie: Are there any ‘birds of a feather’ or interactive sessions specifically for SMB customers at the event?

Mark: Absolutely. My team and I will be hosting a reception on Wednesday evening at Cedar Street Courtyard in Austin for SMB customers, channel partners, and Dell leaders in the space. Any SMB customer registering for Dell World should ask their account team for an invite to the reception.

Laurie: I understand that  the Solutions Expo is a bit different this year and geared more around starting with a customer’s problem, then taking that customer down a specific path to a solution. What kind of path would an SMB customer take for the following problem areas at the show:

Mark: It is a bit different this year. It will help customers self-select the most relevant content for them including:

  • Mobility/mobile workforce Connect Journey to Evolving Workforce
  • Security Protect Journey to Security Deep Dive
  • Cloud Transform Journey to Cloud Deep Dive
  • Big data Inform Journey to Big Data Deep Dive

Other Deep Dive areas include: Services, Software, Internet of Things and Data Center.

Laurie: What makes Dell a good choice for SMBs?

Mark: Dell’s ability to provide industry leading and cost-effective solutions from the endpoint to the data center to the cloud that address key needs for productivity, security, data protection, and analytics is world-class. We architect and deploy these systems for SMBs through a dedicated model for sales and support from both our direct sales teams and our channel partners.

Laurie: Mark, thanks so much for the sneak preview, and see you at Dell World.

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Dell.

California Dreaming? Salesforce’s Dreamforce SMB Story  

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Salesforce.com’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from several Salesforce SMB customers on how they are rethinking their business models and using technology to get ahead. The second post, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Salesforce.com’s approach in the SMB market.


dreamforce2014
Each year, the festivities at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com’s annual user event, intensify. At Dreamforce 2014, the entertainment ranged from musicians as diverse as Bruno Mars and the Beach Boys; politicians as similar as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore; Hawaiian blessings and hula dancers; and Salesforce’s erstwhile mascots, Chatty and SaaSy. Beanbag chairs, giant chessboards, free pedicabs, and lots of liquor-fueled parties added to the carnival-like atmosphere.

But there were also many Salesforce-related keynotes, led by CEO Marc Benioff, and hundreds of Salesforce sessions. Of course, I was most interested in the SMB keynote, led by

The Technology Trifecta

Salesforce sees SMBs as being uniquely suited to use cloud, mobile and social technologies to create new business models and to win customers over from larger, but often slower-moving businesses.

As discussed in SMB Group’s Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs report, Salesforce is in violent agreement with other technology vendors. The nine major vendors we interviewed for the report (including Salesforce) all view cloud, mobile and social as providing SMBs enormous opportunities to gain business advantages. With customers and prospects racing into the digital future at breakneck speed, SMBs that use technology to stay ahead of their customers will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

Though many technology vendors offer SMBs solutions to capitalize on these trends, Salesforce’s SVP of SMB, Tony Rodoni, and Desk.com VP, Layla Sekla of course touted Salesforce as best positioned to help SMBs harness technology to:

  • Scale their businesses with one integrated system
  • Gain better visibility into data
  • Engage customers in new ways

The Salesforce worldview (and that of the customers that joined to tell their stories) skew heavily toward what they described as a “typical silicon valley startup.” These are companies that want to conquer a large market using disruptive technology–ones that will launch and soon face a “tidal wave of demand.”

In reality, this segment represents only a tiny fraction of the SMB universe. But, from my perspective, they zeroed in on how businesses of all kinds can think about and apply technology to improve business outcomes.

Differentiate With Great Customer Service

The heat is on for all companies to provide a great customer experience for obvious reasons. Unhappy customers are likely to stop buying and share their dissatisfaction, costing your business money. Happy ones are likely to come back for more and recommend your business to friends and family. Social media of course, amplifies the influence of customer experience.

muncheryWith this in mind, Munchery is bringing new meaning to meals on wheels. Munchery provides meal delivery of “wholesome prepared dinners, handmade by top local chefs using only the best ingredients, for same-day delivery to your home or office.” In 6 months, its revenues have grown by 400%. Munchery credits its success to using providing customer support “that’s as good as the meals.” The company uses Desk.com to:

  • See what social networks their customers are using, and what they’re saying. Are there trends in what foods people want, such as kale or quinoa (they are in San Francisco!)? Once Munchery spots these trends it integrates them into marketing and meals.
  • Intake cases from Munchery’ mobile app to adjust orders on the fly and respond to them. Munchery can provide great service, and happy customers can also add an extra tip if they’d like. This responsiveness is helping Munchery turn customer problems into opportunities, and create evangelists.
  • Streamline internal communications. The company’s 100 drivers use Desk.com to communicate back to headquarters to help optimize routes and deliveries.

Outsmart The Competition By Re-thinking the Problem 

Accessing, analyzing and acting on data can give SMBs a big advantage over the competition. But building and managing infrastructure to do this takes a lot of time, money and expertise–all scarce resources for SMBs.

zenpayrollAccording to ZenPayroll’s CEO, one-third of SMBs get fined for inaccurate payroll. The three-year old start-up the entered the payroll market, which is dominated by big players such as ADP and Paychex, with a strategy to differentiate by giving users “delightful modern payroll” that works right on day one. While competitors position payroll as a chore, Zen thinks of payroll as employees getting paid and employers showing appreciation. It provides SMBs with a paperless, cloud-based, mobile-first solution in 97% of the U.S. Its 60 employees use Desk.com to solve support issues once, and then take proactive measures to ensure they aren’t repeated. Zen also uses Pardot to automate marketing, sales and nurturing and grow its business, which now processes more than $1 billion in payroll annually. Reeves’ advice to other business owners is to rethink the problem you’re tackling.

Personally Engage Customers

Getting the right message at the right time to customers at the right time is essential in today’s multi-channel world. In addition, the more personal the message, the less likely it is to end up in the spam filter. Salesforce introduced both a B2B and B2C customer to illustrate the importance of personalized engagement.

firstmileFirst Mile told the B2B story. When it launched 2 years ago, U.K-based First Mile saw the recycling market as overcharged and underserved. Its mission is to displace entrenched, inefficient competitors by making recycling easy and responsive. First Mile sees customer engagement as its key to its strategy, and uses innovative business practices and technology to power it. For instance, established competitors require long contracts, so First Mile requires no contracts. While competitors never call their customer except when its renewal time, First Mile makes 100 calls a day to get feedback. The company uses the Salesforce platform and apps to get and analyze recycling stats and help minimize attrition. First Mile’s field sales people also recently began using iPads and Salesforce to directly enter leads into Salesforce, “quadrupling the return on investment from field sales,” over the former double-entry paper and pen to Salesforce method. First Mile’s advice to other SMBs? There are lots of free or low-cost cloud solutions out there. Try the ones you think will help you to find out which ones will give you the return you need.
georgestreetOn the B2C side, George Street is putting a new twist on wedding photos and videos by connecting photographers to brides in 50 cities across North America. George Street handles everything but taking the photos or videos. For brides, George Street creates a personalized experience to ensure they have a great wedding photography experience. The company uses several Salesforce and AppExchange solutions, including Pardot, Salesforce and Chatter lead generation, sales and contracts, photographer and shot selection, notifications and sharing photos. George Street has also created a community for brides to talk about everything from cakes to dresses. It helps facilitated last-minute requests, such as a new shot request, with Chatter. Before they used Salesforce, they did a lot of this manually, but by developing a Salesforce app to automate the process, they’ve sped up the process and can provide a better experience. For instance, it used to take 7 days from a bride’s initial appointment with George Street to close a contract, now the average close time is 24 hours. Automation has helped them scale, increasing the number of weddings they handle by 250%. And, they’ve reduced case incidents by 200%. George Street’s guidance for other SMBs is to focus on delivering an exceptional experience. Automate back-end so your people can spend more time with clients, make them happy and generate boost referrals. Finally, if you’re using Salesforce, find a good developer to help you make the most of it.

Perspective

The writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t will face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey. Is Salesforce right for you? Read Part 2 of this blog series, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, to help you decide.

Disclosure: Salesforce paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dreamforce.

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