One interesting aspect of commentating about a number of vendors in a particular space is that I get to sit in the middle of some competitive mud-slinging. Of course, no one really gets offended by vendor A trying to rain on vendor B's parade -- it's all part and parcel of the thrust and parry of the industry.
I remember a year ago when ERP vendor NetSuite was holding its annual SuiteWorld event. FinancialForce, a competing ERP vendor, made a big show of choosing just that week to release a new marketing campaign -- the "FrankenCloud" campaign was all designed to cast aspersions at the alleged complex and badly integrated solution set of its competitor.
This week marks the 2016 edition of SuiteWorld, and so it is perhaps a little unsurprising to see FinancialForce come up with another announcement. Sad to say (at least for the popcorn brigade), this time it is less about comedic critiques of the competition and more about articulating some interesting new product features.
For reference, FinancialForce has been growing like weeds in recent years. Many readers will be aware that FinancialForce was initially a creation of European software vendor Coda back around 2009. After some strategic investment by Salesforce, and a decision to build an entirely new product on top of Salesforce's platform, FinancialForce has grown up to the point where it feels justified to use the acronym "ERP," indicating that it now meets the needs of larger and more complex organizations.
In terms of traction, FinancialForce now has over 1,200 customers, of which over 750 are in financials and 450 or so use the vendor's Professional Services Automation (PSA) product. About 15% of FinancialForce's customers are non-Salesforce customers -- an interesting data point as the company tries to grow not only its Salesforce customer base but also its standing as an ERP in its own right.
The great benefit that FinancialForce has over other vendors is that it can leverage the core aspects of Salesforce's platform and apply them to its own customer base. A good example is the addition to its PSA product being announced today.
FinancialForce will now offer PSA customers Communities, a social project management platform that can be utilized not only by PSA customers themselves but also their own customers and partners. Communities is built on top of Salesforce's community cloud and is aimed at helping PSA organizations break down the communication barriers between the various stakeholders they deal with.
If that sounds like a common theme, it is. This is pretty much the value proposition that Salesforce's Chatter product offered up a few years ago. Despite much attention and a fair amount of hype, Chatter never really found its legs and Salesforce is having another go at it, albeit in a more consistent way.
And that consistency might be the reason that Communities (both Salesforce's own and, in context of this announcement, those of partners like FinancialForce) actually gains more widespread use this time. Communities aims to cover the various collaboration-related needs that organizations have. In FinancialForce's case, PSA Communities offers:
- Document sharing -- The filing component allows for sharing, storage and management of project-related files. Versioning functionalities help everyone keep track of changes and updates to documents as a project progresses.
- Greater visibility into partner data -- Communities serves as a central hub for all interactions -- and associated data -- with partners and subcontractors. It allows project leaders to quickly determine who's available, and when, and enables partners and subcontractors to enter time and expenses straight into the system.
- Access rights -- Project teams can set access rights based on roles so that given parties can access only the information they need.
- Brand your community -- PSOs can customize Communities with their own brand elements to deliver a consistent brand experience for their clients.
- Social collaboration -- Communities has also built in the enterprise social network Chatter to enable real-time communication with other employees, customers and partners within the same app.
- Access it anytime, anywhere -- Communities is built for an increasingly mobile workforce so users can access and update project data from anywhere via the Salesforce1 mobile application.
Customers seem to be singing the right message about Communities, perhaps indicating that, this time at least, the mark has been hit:
"We see Professional Services Communities as an important part of our customer engagement initiative. It helps us create a more personalized, transparent and collaborative experience with our clients and allows us to better manage and communicate with partners," said Jim Murray, chief technology officer at USDM. "Communities help bring together disparate pockets of data and insight to help us better serve our customers, provide real-time updates to projects, exceed their expectations, to build a stronger, long-term relationship. What's more, it opens up a new marketing channel on which we can share information about new services to customers. This new platform will be integral to helping us grow our business."
For its own part, FinancialForce is channeling Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his themes of an increasing need for customer-centricity:
"Businesses across the board are adopting more customer-centric approaches," said Lori Ellsworth, general manager of professional services automation at FinancialForce. "Yet the increasingly dispersed, interdependent nature of the modern workforce complicates this, especially for services organizations where constant collaboration with customers, partners and employees is key. We built our new Professional Services Communities offering with this reality in mind, and we've already seen an incredibly positive reception from early users."
There is always the risk for technology vendors to overstate the customer demand for new technologies and approaches. The rise of the "Enterprise 2.0" movement a few years ago and the headfirst rush into enterprise social messaging was a good example of this, and many vendors saw little uptake for their new technologies.
In recent years, however, social channels have started to become more widely adopted -- the success of products like Slack and HipChat, and organizations' greater awareness that effective collaboration can be a driver for agility and, by extension, innovation, is a greater trend than it has been previously. Also helping is the fact that vendors are seeing these social tools more as a core part of what they do than a bolt-on solution.
FinancialForce's PSA Communities product makes total sense. The reality is that uptake will likely be slow for more conservative customers, but for those organizations already "all-in" about innovation and agility, this is a toolkit that hits the spot. It's going to be interesting to watch how quickly the company sees customers take up this offering.
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