John Oechsle of Swiftpage: How Act! Transformed After 30 Years to Help Serve SMBs For 30 More

Act!, the pioneering contact management application that helped usher in the CRM era, celebrated its 30th anniversary last month. During this span of three decades more than six million people have used the application to manage interactions with their customers and prospects. But much has changed since Act! came on the scene in 1987, especially the way people use software to keep up with customers. Which meant Swiftpage, the makers of Act! since it acquired the brand in 2013, needed to bring the venerable application into better alignment with the needs and expectations of the modern customer – from the way they access the app, to the way they pay for it.

Moving to a Software Subscription Model

John Oechsle, CEO of Swiftpage, shares how they transformed Act! from an off the shelf software app bought in stores, to a subscription-based cloud offering customers pay to use by the month; increasing it’s subscription customers by 140% and annual recurring revenue by 131% over the past year. And how that transformation has changed the way the company interacts with customers today, and how they’ll interact with them tomorrow.

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Brent Leary: You had to go through the process of making Swiftpage align with modern customer behaviors and expectations. Talk a little bit about that transition and why it was so important to do now?

John Oechsle: When we acquired Act! in March of 2013, we acquired a closed desktop system. It was very popular, and over the years over six million customers have used this to grow their business. But as you take a look at where the industry is going today, just being a closed desktop system was probably not going to be something that was going to allow us to grow Act! and continue to keep this great brand going. So, one of the first things that we had to do is change the technology.

The functionality was all there. But the problem is the way people were beginning to interact with the software was becoming very dated. People didn’t want to buy software, and download it to their desktop, and run it on the desktop, et cetera. There was a whole different way of people interacting with that. But at the same time, we had hundreds of thousands of users that were very loyal to the brand, and very loyal to the company, and were using it that way.

We were faced with how do we transition to a more contemporary technology, and do it in a way where you don’t spook the customer base; where it gives them an opportunity to run off to something else. Our concept was obviously take the platform and cloud enabled it.

Our relationship was around once every three years for having a conversation with this group. Because that’s about the period of time that you buy a new device. So every time you bought a new desktop or you bought a new laptop, guess what – you had to interact with the company because the software didn’t work anymore.

It was a loyal relationship, but it wasn’t a relationship that was very fulfilling and very intimate. It was like ‘oh okay, yeah I knew you three years ago, you know come back in’. So now you basically have to go from talking to them once every three years to convincing them to come into the club, if you will, and pay a subscription; and then continue to have an ongoing relationship almost on a daily basis that you’re interacting with them. So that’s kind of how we set out to do.

We said we’re not going to force people over to go over here, or you’re not going to be a customer anymore. That’s just setting ourselves up for failure. We said here’s our value proposition. Here’s why we want you to come with us. If you come with us, here’s what you get. If you don’t want to come with us, that’s okay. We’ll deal with you as a customer, and interact with you. Oh by the way, here’s a very good incentive price to come with us. So that’s how we got the base moving, and we started in May of 2015. It took us about two years to get the platform right, to get the pricing right… to change entire set of processes inside as a company on how you’re going to work. So we had to take our time and do that correctly.

Brent Leary: How has the relationship between the company and customers changed as you went through this process?

John Oechsle: If you look at, you’ve got groups of people inside of your company that normally have some kind of connection with the customer. You have marketing that connects on some kind of a level as you’re trying to market different things with them. You have sales obviously when they’re trying to sell them something. Then once you sell something now all of a sudden you have to service them. So you have all these different types of interactions.

In the past, before we went on this journey, it was three different types of conversations and interactions that we had with our customers. Once we made this change, it is really one basic message that we have. You really have to take marketing, sales, service, even something as far as the billing department inside of finance. All of that has to become a single face from the company to the customer with a single message, with a single type of interaction, and a consistent interaction.

That’s really the kind of interactions and conversations that we have with our customers, which are totally different than what they used to be three or four years ago.

Brent Leary: Yeah, that leads right into you know customers are much more tech savvy. The technology has put a lot more power in their hands so to speak. So how is it meeting their expectations now? Is it more challenging because now they have these expectations and they’re ramping up, and they know what’s possible? Or is it easier to predict where they’re going, and be able to provide them what they’re looking for on a consistent ongoing basis?

John Oechsle: It’s both easier and challenging at the same time. It’s easier because you’re having this more frequent interaction with them, you’re getting that information in more real time. So it’s not like oh let’s wait for a conference, or a user group, or this or that, or to hear things and bring them back in. I mean you’re literally hearing stuff every single day, which then enables you to take that information and very quickly analyze it and determine are we moving in the right direction, or did we completely miss the boat with something, et cetera. So that’s the easier part.

The challenging part is because you’re doing that, the folks have an expectation that you’re going to do something with that. If you’re talking to me every day, and I’m telling you the same thing every day, and I don’t do anything, well guess what I’m probably not going to be a customer of yours very much longer. So there is that, you know an expectation that okay I’m not going to wait six, eight, nine months for a release to come out. How come you can’t get this stuff faster type thing. So it’s easier and challenging all at the same time.

Brent Leary: What kind of opportunities can Swiftpage take advantage of now that you have a system in place like Zuora that helps you manage your subscriptions?

John Oechsle: First of all, we would not have been able to make this journey without Zuora. They’re just a great partner, it’s a great set of software. Now yes, as you’re gathering all this information, I think the number one thing that has helped us on this journey with Zuora is the ability to make it really easy for our customers to do business with us. If you think about it, it’s like okay I just subscribed to ACT!. Great, okay, well I want another seat, or I want another ‘this’, whatever. No problem, boom. You can put that right on very, very quickly.

It’s that ability that can go all the way down to a sales person. So I got a sales person on the floor that can actually do this very, very quickly.

The next step we’re working with internally and with Zuora on is literally putting that portal out into the market so that a customer can self-work on their account at the same time, self-administer that.

Brent Leary: So give us a little peek into the future. What are we going to be seeing from Swiftpage?

John Oechsle: We see three distinct segments of customers that we’re focusing on. The first one is somebody that needs full blown functionality of CRM, and they need customization.

The second group are folks that need the full functioning CRM, but they don’t need customization. They just need it to run in the cloud. They need to get access to it, and you know, go after it.

The third set, which I think is the most exciting and I think the fastest growing, is a group of customers that want all the functionality of CRM running in the background somewhere in the cloud, but they don’t want to have to pull it up and look at it all the time. They want to access it in small little chunks, which really fits the way that they do business. We call it little purpose-built apps. You’re going to see an enormous amount of that happening.

I think the other cool thing is the way that people interact with software is changing dramatically. There’s one common theme that’s beginning to come through and that’s voice interaction. That started with cell phones, you’re like hey Siri. Then all of a sudden Amazon came out with Alexa, and there’s other things. So you know that’s really what you’re going to see.

People are dabbling with it here and there, but you’re going to get to the point where people are going to ‘say ACT! how did my marketing campaign go?’. It’s going to say ‘hey, your marketing campaign did this. Oh by the way John, you should do this, this, and this’. So I think a combination of voice interaction with artificial intelligence and recommendation architecture, that’s where everybody’s going to go, and we’re on that path as well.

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.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

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