Another week brings another conference. This time around I headed to Boston. (Which is enemy territory for a Rams fan! But I digress.) There I attended Sugar Connection, hosted by SugarCRM. Sugar launched 15 years ago. But the last two years saw a serious transformation, including private equity firm Accel KKR making a strategic investment in the company, a shake up to the executive team, and making three strategic acquisitions.
During the event, my CRM Playaz partner Paul Greenberg and I got the opportunity to sit down with co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Clint Oram, Chief Technology/Chief Product Officer Rich Green, and new CEO Craig Charlton. We learned more about how the company looks to transform itself from a CRM system into a customer experience platform.
Check out the edited transcript of our conversation with Craig Charlton below. Watch the full conversation on the video above, or click on the embedded SoundCloud below.
Building the Perfect Customer Service Platform
Paul Greenberg: How are you thinking about go-to-market, the leadership, outreach, everything? How are you thinking about all that?
Craig Charlton: We’ve had the opportunity, by virtue of our new owners, to completely level set everything. And I think a huge amount of opportunity. And considering the power of technology these days, the sort of products that we’re bringing out, like Discover. I mean that for me, I was almost tearing up when they presented it back to the executive team. Because I said, “That’s exactly what I’ve been asking for, for years.”
In terms of go-to-market, not a lot is going to change. But obviously we’ve done the rebrand. We’ve done the relaunch, new mission, new vision. And we’re really promoting all of the things that have been great about Sugar that we probably haven’t done a very good job promoting. And you’ve talked to Rich [Green, CTO and CPO]. He’s a rocket scientist. And he’s got an amazing team of people.
Putting the Pieces in Place
They’d been working on this stuff for years. I’m just the beneficiary coming in as the CEO at the end of the day, with a good, healthy checkbook, and writing checks. We bought three companies. Which I think all of which have paid dividends in a major way for our customers. And we’re going to go out and buy some more.
But I think products like Discover; incredibly transformative. Because it’s questions that people have been asking for an extended period of time and not getting the answers. And even more importantly, it’s answers. They haven’t been asking the question where they should have been asking the question. So we’re super excited about that. I mean it really does change the game.
Gathering the Customer Feedback
Brent Leary: What kind of feedback have you gotten over these six months from customers and partners on this new direction?
Craig Charlton: Incredibly positive. Interestingly, whenever I’ve started a company, I spent a lot of time getting out as far as I can to everyone and just asking questions and talking. And our partners in Europe were quite vocal saying, “You need to get moving, Craig. You need to do some stuff.”
And the next time I went back out there, we presented everything what we’d done, and particularly the acquisitions, and they said, “Craig, you need to slow down, because you know, we got to catch up.” But we’re not going to slow down. I mean the pace of innovation is going to continue to accelerate. And I’m excited by that. And I think we’ve got an amazing team of people; and we’ve got great backers; and effectively an entirely new executive team with the exception of Clint [Oram, cofounder and chief strategy officer] and Rich more recently. So I think there’s a huge amount we can achieve.
Creating a No-Touch Customer Experience Platform
Brent Leary: So, I like to go back to this no-touch information management pillar, because that seemed to resonate quite a bit. And let’s face it, over the decades that CRM has been around, nobody likes spending time putting in data, maintaining data, searching for data. And that’s probably been one of the main reasons that a lot of sales people just don’t like using CRM.
So what are the different ways you go about executing on this no-touch strategy? And I’m always interested in where does voice fit in? Because you’re seeing a lot of… The last four or five conferences I’ve been to in the last couple of months, voice has really played a really significant piece in shaping the customer journey or at least being a part of shaping the customer journey. So when you think of no-touch, what does that mean in general from a Sugar perspective? And then how does something like these voice devices and voice interfaces, how does that play a role in that?
Creating Real Value
Craig Charlton: From our perspective, no-touch, and I’ve been around, you know, a long time in terms of CRM, and being in many environments where the salespeople, they’re very creative, they’ll find ways not to be a system. They’re very creative, right? But the balance was completely wrong. Where it was all effort and you can get out what you type in. There’s not value in that.
Brent Leary: What every word maybe…
Craig Charlton: So we want to turn the tables, and it’s all value and virtually no effort. And if we can do that, then people are going to embrace the system. In fact, demand the system, because it’s a tool that helps them to be successful. So the examples of no-touch, you know, that we’ve already got within the application. It’s obviously tying in all of the applications that someone’s already using. So that it’s data entry is the last resort. You should never have to reenter any data.
Building the Customer Experience Platform of the Future
Brent Leary: I like that, data entry as a last resort.
Craig Charlton: Last resort. Yeah. I mean, occasionally it has to happen where we’re not hitting the clouds, and completely disconnected from reality, but data entry is a last resort. So if it’s entered somewhere, get it into the system. But then more broadly, there’s just so much information out there today. Why should you have, as a salesperson, have to go trolling the internet to find information when there’s publicly available sources that can give you a complete refresh, an ongoing refresh, and an update of everything that’s pertinent to that customer, whether it’s a newsfeed, whether it’s a changing personnel. I mean, all of those sorts of elements. And then, the next level of that. Is that proactive insights that we were talking about earlier today.
Brent Leary: Right.
Getting a 360-Degree View of Your Customers
Craig Charlton: It’s to be able to surface information that I wouldn’t possibly, unless I was incredibly gifted, or had machine learning DNA, that I wouldn’t be able to actually ascertain from the data that I’m looking at. So it’s surfacing critical information, about you need to action this, this is your next best action, this leads just come in, and it’s a really hard probability of close, you need to be working on it.
So it’s using that 360-degree view of the customer, combined with AI and machine learning, and telling people what is it that they should actually be paying attention to. I think it’s two elements. It’s not having to enter into the system, but it’s also then, not having to go hunting and pecking through the system to find information, or go hunting and pecking through other systems, be they LinkedIn or whatever else to find newsfeeds. Having all of those feeding into your one portal, which is your customer experience application.
Determining the Kind of Customer Experience Platform You Need
Paul Greenberg: Graham Hill and I were tweeting this morning; and I said something about unified data on my tweet; and he responded, and he’s right, “Customer 360 isn’t always necessary, a lot of times people just need parts.” Basically, I’m clearly interpreting his tweet, but a lot of times they just need parts of that. They don’t need all of it, right? They don’t need the full profile end to end; they need pieces of significance at a time. And as he said, “Remember data is a cost.” And that was a very smart statement and he’s totally right.
Now in our world, the world we’re all in, we hear customer 360 non-stop, when we’ve heard it for 20 years, right? It was the Holy grail. Now it’s kind of necessary. But how do you take what Graham said and put it in terms of what Sugar is talking about? Because he’s making a really important point there. What we need is the data we need to get the insight we need to take the action we need to take. We don’t need all of it. We just simply need what we need.
Having a Different Opinion
Craig Charlton: So I have a very different opinion on that because ultimately if I need 90 degrees, I need 90 degrees. Take that out of the 360.
Paul Greenberg: Right.
Craig Charlton: You need to have the 360 in order to provide a foundation to answer every single question with that business. And the piece that I’ve always found with every CRM system I’ve ever dealt with, the piece that’s always missing, is time. The time dimension, that time fidelity. CRM systems are great at telling you the state of the nation now, they’re really poor at telling you historically what’s happened. And so the answer for a number of CRM systems is we’ll take a snapshot of the pipeline on a daily basis. That’s my contribution to history. That’s Frankensteinian right?
Being Able to Pull the Information You Need
I mean really, to be able to pull the information, you need to have time, and you need to have that 360-degree pool of data to get the answer to any questions, whether it be a really, really linear question or something far more holistic.
Paul Greenberg: Michael Wu, who was at this time chief scientist at Lithium, now chief AI scientist at PROS, said something very… He used to go around and talk to big data, small insights, which is really what we’re looking for, right? Ultimately, we’re looking for insights of importance to us, based on the data we need to get those insights.
Brent Leary: And time.
Paul Greenberg: And that’s where time does come in. Because one of the things I think you guys do, which no one else does, and it’s very powerful, and if you want my advice make more of this, is the way you look at anomalies, which we talked about with Rich too, because that’s really what you’re saying. You surface an anomaly, you see if it has any substance or validity, and if it does, you’ve got something that will effectively help direct you where you’ve got to go next, and that’s where that’s next action can come in or whatever. But at that point, surface that anomaly is what you’ve got to do first. And that really is always a measure of time, because it’s consistency versus some differential. Right? And so, you guys do that. You’re talking about that.
Learning Something from the Breakdown
Craig Charlton: We are. And, I mean that was an amazing acquisition, and when we looked at and started doing the due diligence, all the things that they were talking about, were the things that had been my ongoing frustrations as an executive in business, there were things that I couldn’t get answers to. And things that the human mind can’t comprehend because of the amount of data that’s actually available. Because it’s machine learning, it’s compounding, right? So you learn something from the breakdown of what’s happened with a pipeline this quarter, where the forecast ended up being off like the 48% we were talking about in the presentation, that’s been built in for what was the anomaly? What, were the characteristics, what were the changes in those a hundred different data dimensions that we’re tracking in order to lead to that anomaly?
Brent Leary: What do you see for the year ahead for you guys? Is it going to be some more acquisitions? Is it going to be more stabilizing and adding to the platform, organically? What do you want to see in the next year?
Acquiring the Resources You Need
Craig Charlton: We’ve done three acquisitions in the past seven months. The team asked me to hold back on acquiring anything else, while we get everything battened down. And that was primarily to launch [Sugar] Discover and Connect, which we’re doing now. So we’ve now got an appetite for what’s next. We’ve got a large pipeline of opportunities. We don’t want to buy disparate pieces of technology, which don’t fit well together, because I’ve been the unfortunate victim of systems that are like that. But there’s some great tech out there, that’s available at the moment, tech that we can assimilate into our platform very, very easily. So we’ve got a strategy session coming up in a couple of weeks, where we’re going to go back and revisit what do we build? What do we partner, what do we buy?
Paul Greenberg: Ecosystem.
Filling Out the Ecosystem
Craig Charlton: Yeah, exactly. Filling out the ecosystem. We’ve got backers that are prepared to write checks, and it’s going to be an exciting year.
Brent Leary: That’s always a good thing.
Craig Charlton: It is.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.