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Will SAP Hybris’ partner ecosystem support its shift into holistic Customer Experience Management?

I’m attending the SAP Hybris Summit in Munich, Germany this week. Executives spent much of the opening keynote painting a vision for their plans to support holistic customer experience (my words), including marketing, ecommerce, customer service, customer support, billing, and more. You can find more information about those announcements from the various journalists covering the event (many of whom I’d like to link to, but the wifi onsite at the event is prehistorically slow, forcing me to forego such niceties).

I’ve thought for years that when SAP decided to jump into the Customer Experience race, it would be game-over for many other vendors. Now that they have, I’m not so sure. I see that their customer experience strategy has a greater dependence on service provider partners than they’ve ever had, and it’s not obvious to me as to which partners are going to be interested in helping them succeed in this realm.

Okay, park that for a moment. At DCG, we believe that in order to enhance their overall customer experience, organizations need to improve their interactions with customers across all the various customer journeys — analog or digital — as well as retool the internal processes that support those customer interactions. Note that I referred to “customer journeys” in the plural sense, as we draw a very distinct line between a customer journey — meaning a series of steps that substantiate an interaction with a brand — such as checking in one’s luggage or unwrapping a home delivery, and a customer lifecycle — the series of stages through which a customer passes over the course of their relationship with a brand, often an arc of awareness-interest-consideration-purchase-retention-advocacy. Many organizations, in their haste to improve the customer experience, have focused their efforts on perfecting (usually via digital means) the “buyer’s journey” — or that portion of the lifecycle leading up to and including the purchase of the product / service. However, many journeys make up a customer’s experience with a brand, and most of them take place post-purchase. This overemphasis on perfecting the buyer’s journey alone leads to increased consumer expectations at the outset of the relationship. The post-purchase journeys, then, fall flat in the end with suboptimal experiences, thus leaving the customer even more disappointed than they otherwise might have been.1 Organizations following this near-sighted plan can hardly be blamed, as legacy research firms prescribe it as the path to a complete “digital experience”. (They will tell you that “digital experience” is more encompassing, but since all the leading vendors in their plot graphs only support buyer’s journey capabilities, there is little substance to these assertions.)

Now back to SAP: My original thoughts around its having a leg up in customer experience were not because it makes better technology than any other vendor, but rather because its platform already supports so many post-purchase customer journeys. Many large organizations use SAP to support sales, service, customer support, etc., and therefore SAP installations around the world are filled with data about end customers, their preferences, behaviors, needs, capabilities, challenges, etc. I presumed that if SAP decided to offer a marketing stack and an ecommerce platform — thereby essentially supporting the buyer’s journey in addition to the rest — the company would be able to offer a “holistic” customer experience platform that would be difficult to touch, at least for a substantial portion of its client base. That was the theory, anyway.

However, the biggest challenge for SAP isn’t just that it waited so long to enter the race that other similarly profiled companies such as Salesforce, IBM and Oracle have nipped at a once-considerable advantage. Nor is the big hurdle the fact that honing the buyer’s journey has become the domain of the Marketer, who tends to prefer the sexy capabilities of tools like those offered by Adobe, Sitecore, Salesforce, and even Marketo (a notable SAP partner today), none of whom will easily heed their wedge into the space. Rather, the most impactful barrier to realizing the vision of enabling customers to deliver a more cohesive experience may have always been there from the start: implementation partners.

Which of SAP’s partners are able to, and (more importantly) willing to, help realize this vision? On the traditional SAP side of the company, one finds systems integration (SI) firms and consulting organizations making up the partner ecosystem, most of whom can help piece together the technology and advise clients on process implementations. Examples include Deloitte, Accenture and many of the large offshoring companies such as Cognizant, HCL, or TCS. On the Hybris side of the company, where all the marketing and customer profile capabilities are being built to complement an already best-of-breed ecommerce product, the partners tend to be the large digital agencies such as Sapient, Razorfish, and Accenture Interactive, much as one might find in Adobe’s ecosystem of partners.

But if an organization embraces DCG’s idea of Digital Inside and Digital Outside as the most holistic approach to transformation and delivering on the promise of customer experience, and if SAP is nearing the starting line to be able to offer these end-to-end capabilities [Note: they are missing a number of pieces to their offering to be considered “end-to-end”, including campaign management, full web content management, and others, but that’s not the point of this post.], then buyers must turn to the ecosystem of service providers to evaluate their competence (and desire) to be able to navigate clients through this process. Traditional SAP partners, such as those named above, know little about the buyer’s journey and have minimal if any credibility leading existing SAP customers into this treacherous territory. They don’t know marketing, don’t have the marketer’s ear, aren’t necessarily known for their ability to design great digital experiences, etc. Unless they acquire a digital agency practice, which isn’t altogether unlikely or unprecedented, I don’t know why they would even care about what is going on on the Hybris side of the SAP business. By the same token, the digital agencies who are already partners with SAP on the Hybris side of the business know a great deal about building these seamless experiences, but they don’t know much at all about customer service, or support, or any of the processes that underlie them. Moreover, they are not incentivized enough to care. Neither their campaign-fueled nor their pay-for-performance business models lead one to believe that they would have a remote interest in supporting a client’s Customer Service efforts. We can hope they might, since it is in the client organization’s best interests to do so, but it’s just not how they make money.

I don’t have the answer here. And, given my conversations with SAP Hybris executives yesterday, I don’t believe they have the answer either. Certainly one could look to the overlap of partners between the two ecosystems I describe above and deem the Accenture’s of the world to be the answer, but Accenture and Accenture Interactive aren’t nearly as integrated as their names suggest. This isn’t a knock on Accenture, as the same is true for all the other large consultants-come-agencies out there. But I do know that chasing the dream of providing the most idyllic customer experience isn’t enough to motivate a partner of any vendor — be they an SI, consulting firm or digital agency — away from their center of gravity and into an area they know little about and which is distinct from their traditional business model. Interests and motivations are peculiar that way — if a vendor doesn’t paint a clear path for how its partner ecosystem can serve its own interests through its offering, neither the greatest vision nor the greatest products in the world will stand a chance of realizing their potential. SAP is on the right track product-wise, but so far, the jury is out for me as to whether their partners will join them.

1 For more on this, watch the video of my talk at the NASSCOM India Leadership forum, wherein I relate this theory of expectations to that of James C Davies’ J-Curve Theory of Revolution. I also think this goes a long way towards explaining why nearly 30% of the companies in Forrester’s CX Index have gotten worse at customer experience, while only 2% have improved, in spite of being hyper-focused on getting better.

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