SAP chief customer officer Ed Lange offers reflections to ITAC

Last night I joined a hoard of technology executives at ITAC’s AnnualChairs’ Dinner, which caps off a lot of the activities the vendorassociation conducts over the course of the year. They celebrated the IT Hero Awards (Iwas there because I was a judge); they paid tribute to outgoing chairBob Courteau of SAP; and they hosted SAP Americas chief customerofficer Ed Lange as keynote speaker.

You could argue that every employee in an organization like SAP should be a chief customer officer – particularly after a series of maintenance fee decisions that created an uproar –but Lange (who is also considered an executive vice-president)impressed me by talking more like a genuine advocate than the usualcorporate sales guy. Like anyone who gives a keynote speech in 2009, hestarted out by commenting on the bleak IT spending landscape, theglobal economic troubles and the dire feelings of uncertainty andfrustration among the Fortune 500. He followed up, however, with acouple of interesting conclusions I think are worth sharing.

“No matter what customer you go to talk to day, the No. 1 issue theycite is the cost. The cost, the cost, the cost, the cost, the cost,”Lange said. “The other thing they say is, ‘We’re looking for leadershipfrom you. We want to partner with you.”

To Lange, that means not just thinking of customers on asales-quarter-end basis but keeping in mind their long-term needs andissues. “They’re questioning the fundamental model on which we’veoperated for decades,” he said.

The second thing Lange said he’s learned is not to be put off bycustomers who cry poor. “Cost and innovation are not mutuallyexclusive,” he said. “When someone tells me it’s too expensive, they’reasking me to innovate around cost.” Maybe that means offering a deeperdiscount until the recession rebounds, or offering more products on anon-demand basis. Maybe it means unbundling something that could be moreaffordable as a point product.

Finally, Lange looked around the room and said, “I see all kinds ofcompanies here tonight. We’ve got Intel, Microsoft, HP, and so on. Allof us like to talk to the customer as if we’re the only ones they’redealing with,” he said. “We need to work better with other vendors.” Hedidn’t use the words integration or interoperability, but that’s surelywhat he meant. And he’s right.

My only criticism of Lange’s speech is that he didn’t take the nextstep and offer any suggestions on how those in the audience could putthese principles into action. Maybe the job of a chief customer officeris to simply provide a feedback mechanism. Maybe the IT managers he’stalking to aren’t spelling out how they want things to change. Or maybethis is a conversation that is only beginning. I hope those at the ITACevent last night, and all those who didn’t – will join in.

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