Today we have an interview with Larry Ritter, senior vice president of product management at Sage CRM Solutions. The company is celebrating the 20th birthday of its flagship CRM product, ACT! Ritter leads the Sage CRM Solutions product management teams for the company’s ACT!, SageCRM/SageCRM.com and Sage SalesLogix product lines.
Ritter is responsible for development, user testing, marketing and overall product strategy, and led product development efforts for Hewlett Packard and Citrix Systems prior to joining Sage.
FC: ACT! is 20 years old. What has changed and what remains the same?
LR: ACT! has really grown up and has seen a lot of changes over the years. Consider its 1987 introduction as a DOS product that users installed via many 5 1/4" floppy discs. Things are much different now, and ACT! has amassed more than 2.7 million registered users, plus an additional 40,000 corporate account customers.
In 2004, Sage Software introduced an ACT! Premium edition with greater scalability and enhanced security features, specifically for teams and corporate workgroups. Versions of ACT! for the Web, handheld devices and industry-specific versions have also be added as times have changed, yet the product remains true to its core purpose of helping people easily organize their contact data.
ACT! is definitely still for individuals and, while we’ve expanded to cover workgroups, we've made sure to maintain the familiar ACT! experience, or look and feel, as major features have been added over the years.
FC: What are the specific happenings in the software industry that have been the biggest influences on ACT! over its lifetime?
LR: The Web has certainly been the most influential, and the proliferation of Web-based business applications over the years made ACT! Premium for Web a logical step.
FC: When’s the right time in the CRM selection process to start looking for software?
LR: Before you are under a time crunch is best. It is always best to define a true need and scope out a solution, often with a consultant or value-added reseller since they have a wealth of hands-on experience and tend to specialize in customizing systems for particular industries. Many organizations, including small ones, are tempted to skip the discovery stage, which can be costly if they end up implementing the wrong tool, or one they'll quickly outgrow.
FC: What do you see happening in the CRM market presently and in the near future from a technology advancement standpoint? Web 2.0?
LR: Web 2.0 represents what seems like infinite possibilities, and with its proliferation we're looking towards connections between ACT! and Internet-enabled services. For example, with simple customizations, we can take advantage of Web services like having Google Maps/Search or Zillow.com tabs within ACT!. And, of course, moving beyond the low-hanging fruit we'll see a variety of additional Web services technologies making their way meaningfully into business applications, including ACT!.
FC: Are there ACT! features or programs that have been recommended or inspired by your customers over the years?
LR: We routinely survey our customers regarding their desired features and needs. We also have embedded in-product surveys that trigger at 60 and 180 days, which gives us a great connection with our customers. Our customers send in suggestions, and additionally we receive feedback from our active certified consultant community. We also have several customer advisory boards where we share ideas, get feedback and review priorities.
All of this has generated well over a thousand suggestions. It is not uncommon to get lots of informal feedback too. Just mention at a party or to the person next to you on a plane that you work on ACT! and get ready for plenty of feedback. In short, I think every feature in ACT! has in one way or another been inspired by our customers.
FC: You released the ACT! 2008 product family in North America recently. Briefly, what's new this time out?
LR: The 2008 edition sports new dashboard tools to help individuals and teams access critical to-dos, sales opportunities, and contact information in a single view. Dashboards grew up in enterprise-scale CRM systems, like Sage SalesLogix among others, and have become endearing to the mid-market and small businesses as well. I'm excited that we've brought this functionality into ACT! while maintaining the same price point for our users.
There's always a collection of usability enhancements in each new edition of ACT!, and this year we have more helpful enhancements such as editing contact fields in list view for time efficiency, document shortcuts within contact records for storage/memory efficiency, and additional data access settings on the security side.
FC: What's the best music to listen to at work?
LR: That’s the toughest question. I must be showing my years, but what I used to call "hard rock" now seems to be "easy listening." So I take it easy now. I don't think you can ever go wrong with some George Winston or Jim Brickman.
FC: As SVP of product management for Sage CRM Solutions you are helping to guide global development for three product lines. How do you see the market changing over the next 18 months?
LR: Mobile capabilities are going from nice-to-have to must have—handheld devices and wireless connectivity have matured to the point where we can make full-featured CRM an affordable reality for mobile professionals. People want systems without borders and that’s more than just integration with the back office. Connection to Internet services will become common and we'll be seeing a lot more interesting things in the way of integration coming. Watch this space.
The use of business analytic tools will also proliferate. Traditional reports can tell a user that they missed their sales quota, after the fact, but a more valuable report is one that tells them beforehand and suggests what they ought to do about it.
FC: What would a CRM tool need to win in the SMB space?
LR: It needs to work the way a user wants to work. You can call it simplicity. You can call it intuitive, easy to use, etc. We call it "systems that work the way I do." We make it easy right out the box, although to have a CRM system fit your business like a hand in a glove, you’ll also want to incorporate some customizations. Any technology complexity involved here needs to be tucked safely under the hood so users only need to select what information they need and want to see, and how they want to work with it, via a simple user interface.
FC: What features do your customers say they appreciate the most?
LR: Overall, the way ACT! looks and feels remains a big part of the equation. If we can make peoples' work lives easier and improve their probability for success, our success grows too. But, more specifically and ironically, it's the little things in ACT! that bring some of the most praise. Simple things like reducing the number of clicks required for a particular kind of lookup or activity series really get people going. The list editing feature in the new version is another example. I expect this, as simple as it sounds, will generate significant time savings for our customers.
FC: What are the two or three mistakes companies make when selecting CRM tools?
LR: Not assessing their needs beforehand is one. Planning and execution breed success in business, and so it is with CRM implementation. Organizations that do not position their CRM tools favorably and functionally for all employees can also have a rough go of it. This is the classic user adoption concern, and it's as real today as in the early days of CRM. The tool has to offer something for everyone in terms of productivity, not just management rollups.
I also think organizations need to be careful separating their needs from deployment models. Some vendors evangelize that an on-demand hosted product solves all needs and incorrectly paints a picture of panacea. Licensed on-premises or fee-based hosted solutions should be considered after a careful needs assessment including use when disconnected from the network, sensitivity regarding location, time horizon of the investment, availability of in-house expertise and resources, other applications the CRM system needs to integrate with, etc. We see the two options as aids to increasing overall adoption and better customizing CRM deployments for specific business situations.
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