"Hang on there with us - we have got to do better in the CRM space!" says Infor's George Wright. But will honesty be the best policy for Infor, and how will new CEO Charles Phillips fit with the firm's focus on innovation over acquisition?
No-one expects the Spanish inquisition, but still less do we expect the Spanish confessional.
But 'Infor: mea culpa!' was the unexpected message from Infor, owners of the Epiphany CRM offering, at a customer gathering in Madrid last week where the main theme was 'things are going to get better again, honest'.
Such honesty is refreshing – and enabled by a change of top management with the new regime seemingly intent on distancing itself from the errors of the past and making up ground in an ever more competitive mid-market. But too much self-deprecating honesty can border on self-flagellation. Has Infor really messed up its CRM offering to such an extent?
Back in time
Let's nip back in time a few years. Once upon a time there was a standalone CRM firm called Epiphany that carved itself a nice little place in the market. It was never as high profile as Siebel and it failed to generate the frisson of excitement of les enfants terrible such as Salesforce.com, but it was a good solid firm with customers who were happy with their investment.
Then came the acquirers. In recent years we've become accustomed to the notion that Oracle is the arch-gobbler-up of ill-considered software trifles in the market but before Oracle got into the swing of things there was SSA Global and there was Infor. So no-one really batted an eyelid in 2005 when SSA swooped on Epiphany and absorbed it into its belly. A year later and SSA was itself swallowed up by Infor.
So what happened to Epiphany, now buried two deep in a corporate stomach? Well, not much it seems from last week's confessional. "Hang on there with us – we have got to do better in the CRM space," said George Wright, general manager global for CRM, to his audience of customers in Spain. "What we've seen at Infor is that the folks there worked hard, but maybe not as smart as we needed...You will see progress over the next six months."
What's inspired this attitude is a changing of the guard at the very top of Infor. Last year's unexpected departure from Oracle of its co-president Charles Phillips led to him turning up as CEO at Infor. In this role, he's been wooing some of the Oracle alumni into his new team as well as winning back people such as Wright who had previously been part of the founding Epiphany team before quitting for personal reasons.
"Epiphany always felt like unfinished business," Wright told his customers. "When I saw what happened to the assets in my absence, I was not happy. I felt like a father who'd raised a beautiful girl who went to Harvard, then got herself arrested and went to prison. I did have conversations with the previous management and we were not aligned with where CRM needed to go. With Charles, all that has changed. When I sat down with Charles, it was important to me to know that he meant it when he said that Infor would focus on CRM again."
Wright insists that the 'new Infor' will once again not only excel, but be seen to excel. "The previous leadership of Infor decided it was not a good use of their time to spend time with industry analysts," noted Wright, recalling that Epiphany had previously won Gartner CRM Excellence awards eight times – up until just after the Infor acquisition in fact. "We are gong to be involved with the industry again. We are going to talk about the good things that we're doing. If you did something great and didn't talk about it, did you do something great? We want to over-communicate.
"From a thought-leadership perspective, we are going to be back in the leadership position we were into through to 2005," he insisted. "I want us to be a leader in CRM as measured by industry analysts. Phase one for Infor was to acquire lots of companies to give it an enterprise scale and global reach; the next phase is about innovation. We're moving from aggregate to innovate."
From acquisition to innovation
In itself that's an interesting message to pitch given Charles Phillips background as the arch-aggregator over at Oracle, the man who executed most of the firm's multi-billion acquisition spree of recent years. So has that particular leopard changed his spots? "Charles would take those acquisitions at Oracle and turn them into something successful," argued Jackie Palmer, CRM product manager at Infor. "He sees acquisitions as a means to an end. At Infor, he's already said we won't be acquiring as much as we have done.
"Thought leadership has come with the change of leadership. The previous managers were very focused on acquisition, not on innovating with what they had acquired. The first time I met Charles he asked me lots of questions. He's very knowledgeable and he know hows important the product is.
"There's a shift in emphasis from acquiring and then doing something with what you have to advancing and innovating with what you have. That's a shift we have to make clear to the customers. There is a feeling that Epiphany has not innovated. We have been doing a lot but we haven't been able to leapfrog [the competition]. But we have innovated, we just haven't advertised it."
So is this the birth of New Infor? Only time will tell of course, but there are tangible actions to back up the rhetoric such as the hiring of 500 new developers and a hush hush new advertising campaign to propagate the new image to which the firm aspires. The question now has to be how far the firm has slipped in the consciousness of the market and whether it can match (a) the spending and marketing clout of an Oracle or a Microsoft and (b) the agility and sheer nerve of the new generation of Cloud CRM players.