The taxman v Tom Siebel - no contest!

It was with some trepidation that I set out for the Siebel User Week event in Cannes this week. As long time readers may recall, the last such occasion we covered ended up in an international incident with a highly vocal Spanish contingent taking slight on behalf of Barcelona over incompetent hotel staff and a lack of appreciation of Audrey Hepburn. (If you weren't there, it's a long story, probably best left to lie!).

But in the interests of European relations, it might be as well to assure French readers at this stage that the venue and hotel and residents of Cannes were nothing if not exemplary in their handling of this week's gathering - although the free taxi from the airport to Cannes - you cheeky so and sos! - didn't make an appearance.

As for Siebel, well, something of a mixed bag to be honest - some good, some not so good. Bizarrely enough the not so good came from CEO Tom Siebel himself. Now, whatever your opinion of Mr Siebel, he is nothing if not an interesting and opinionated fellow. It's just as well I knew that beforehand as on the basis of the rambling, lacklustre keynote he gave his customers, you certainly wouldn't have got that impression.

Looking tired, clearly reading from his PowerPoint presentation - had he seen these slides before? - Siebel embarked on a near 90 minute review of ten years of Siebel history, customer namedropping and an amble through the current company product portfolio. Vision? Nah, not today. Thought-leadership for the industry? Er, not so you'd notice. Half-hearted sales pitch? There ya go!!!

CEO keynotes at these sort of events are always a hit and miss affair. Some - like Apple's Steve Jobs or Oracle's Larry Ellison - are natural performers and orators and command the stage with agenda-setting presence. Others - such as HP's Carly Fiorina and Microsoft's Bill Gates - do not.

Tom Siebel usually belongs far more in the Ellison-Jobs camp - maybe it was a just an off-day. But it was a poor performance that left sections of the audience shuffling uneasily and occasionally sniggering. "Was that it"" asked a woman in the row in front of me to her colleague at the end. Well, yes, unfortunately it was.

In stark contrast, the other keynote speaker was everything that you could possibly want at these events. Energetic, amusing, concise and with a great, agenda-setting story to tell. Ken Jarvis of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) took half an hour to demonstrate the kind of mighty gains that can be made through successful and forward thinking deployment of CRM technology. All the more remarkable when you consider he was effectively doing PR for the tax man!

We'll cover Ken's presentation in more detail next week, but suffice to say for the moment that what SARS - they had the name first! - has done puts to shame the tawdry technology 'strategy' adopted by the Inland Revenue in the UK. In the UK, the Revenue struggles with online filing; in South Africa, the taxman is set to be able to SMS you!

Elsewhere it was a conference of solid announcements, but not exactly earthshattering. One of the things from Siebel's speech that was of interest was his repetition of the argument that adding more functionality to software was not the priority now; it was total cost of ownership. Safe and steady and making solid progress is the kind of message that Siebel needs to put across at the moment as the economy picks up.

That I suppose was the main message I took away from the conference. The inspiring stuff came from the customer, not the vendor - but maybe that's appropriate for a customer conference anyway. Just a bit more fire in the belly next time Tom please...

Oh, and I'm still waiting for that taxi....

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