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SugarCRM Adds AI to Sweeten the Customer Experience Pot

By Jack M. Germain CRM Buyer ECT News Network
Sep 8, 2020 5:22 AM PT
exclusive interview with SugarCRM CEO Craig Charlton

SugarCRM last month announced its acquisition of Node Inc., an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that leverages customer relationship management data and vast external sources. This marks the fourth acquisition by SugarCRM since the company's investment by Menlo Park-based Accel-KKR in August 2018.

The three previous acquisitions of Collabspot, Salesfusion, and Corvana are part of SugarCRM's collective services for two million enterprise users across 120 countries. The newly acquired technology capabilities from Node could be the ultimate solution to the big data problem CRM platforms face -- and will fuel Sugar's time-aware customer experience (CX) platform.

The bolstered technology will usher in the new paradigm of HD-CX -- High-Definition Customer Experience -- by bringing greater fidelity to CRM. It will also contribute to the platform by automatically forecasting expected outcomes and highlighting previously unforeseen challenges and opportunities.

Time-aware technology is the long-awaited innovation that will hopefully solve the lingering fail point of conventional CRM software. Traditional CRM solutions are great at tracking the current state of customers, according to Craig Charlton, CEO of SugarCRM. The problem is that "current state" is a single point in time -- right now, he said.

"Its solutions are lost the moment something changes. Truly insightful facts emerge when you can track how customers engage over time," Charlton told CRM Buyer.

SugarCRM is the only customer experience platform built on an advanced event stream database that records every change event in the customer journey and then predicts future outcomes, he asserted.

CRM Buyer discussed with Charlton the current state of CRM platforms and how artificial intelligence is key to improved sales, service, and predictability in automated CX.

CRM Buyer: Why does time-aware technology matter to CRM software?

Craig Charlton: Having a full historical view enables time-aware insights, such as the average time that leads spend in each stage of the pipeline, comparing current sales performance to any past period, and knowing when current performance is outside of historical norms.

SugarCRM also extends time-awareness into the future through AI-based predictions. Accurate predictions enable companies to make better business decisions, manage risk, and identify and respond to problems and opportunities more quickly. That gives companies rich insight into the past, present, and future of their customers and customer-facing business processes.

CRM Buyer: How does this time-aware concept differ from other AI-driven CRM platforms?

Charlton: Traditional CRM systems show a funnel, but it is a static view of that funnel. What it does not show you is how that funnel evolves over time, or where and why leads drop out, as well as how long they spend in each section of the funnel.

SugarCRM CEO Craig Charlton
SugarCRM CEO Craig Charlton
With the combination of Node's AI capabilities with Sugar's time-aware customer experience platform, companies can achieve an unprecedented view into the past, present, and future of their customers and customer-facing functions. Node's key differentiator is the accuracy of its predictions.

That accuracy is made possible through model data enrichment. Node augments the data from its customers with people, company, and market data sourced from a variety of public sources. This model data enrichment enables Node to deliver exceptionally accurate predictions, even with limited or incomplete CRM data, and to consider factors in its predictions that aren't typically represented in CRM data.

CRM Buyer: How does the acquisition of Node fit into the SugarCRM environment?

Charlton: Node's AI technology helps complete Sugar's high-definition CX platform we have been honing and are delivering to the mid-market. The value of Node's full deep learning platform enables Sugar to rapidly build, test, and deliver predictive models in Sugar's products, each of which can focus on specific use cases that have challenged sales, marketing, and service teams for decades.

CRM Buyer: Is Node a fully-absorbed part of SugarCRM's business structure or a subsidiary of the company?

Charlton: SugarCRM acquired Node's AI-as-a-Service platform, and its team of 30 are all joining Sugar. Node's valuable skills and expertise will help accelerate Sugar's development plans centered on AI and deep learning.

CRM Buyer: How is Node's technology able to improve on the inherent inaccuracy of heuristic-based approaches produced by deep-learning logarithms?

Charlton: Deep learning models are limited by the quality and quantity of input data, which historically has been inaccurate or incomplete in real-life CRM implementations. Node's deep learning models identify signals with up to 81 percent greater accuracy than heuristic-based approaches to deliver the tangible benefits of heightened performance and true predictability.

Node augments data that companies collect about their customers sourced from a wide variety of public sources. Without this model data enrichment, other approaches are limited to the information that a company had the foresight to collect and is biased towards the data the company felt was relevant at the time they implemented their customer systems.

Enriching the model data enables Node to deliver exceptional predictions, even with limited or incomplete customer data, and it will consider factors in its predictions that simply are not represented in the company's systems. Node will surface answers that the company's data did not cover and raise questions that the company did not even know it should be asking.

CRM Buyer: What has contributed to SugarCRM's popularity over other CRM platforms?

Charlton: Sugar's focus on four key pillars is something we feel passionate about and our customers know it. In fact, Sugar ranked among the highest for customer retention rates of all ranked vendors in the recently released Gartner Magic Quadrant for Sales Force Automation. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) -- a metric for assessing customer loyalty for a company's brand, products or services -- is consistently in the mid-90s, which is unheard of for enterprise software.

CRM Buyer: How significant are the four pillars you mentioned?

Charlton: Our four pillars include time-aware with predictive insight (as core to our products, not an add-on), no-touch information management, continuous cloud innovation, and a commitment to our customers.

CRM Buyer: That sounds like in-house marketing jargon. Are these four pillars actually an essentially guiding technology or fancy product description?

Charlton: Here is a bit more about what those pillars mean:

Time-Aware is an innovative feature where SugarCRM leverages a time-aware event stream database that records every change inside the customer journey, enabling companies to rewind the past, understand the present, and predict the future. Predictive AI will be embedded into our products (core not as an add-on) driving improved customer acquisition, expansion, and retention.

No-Touch Information Management enables users to spend less time entering and finding customer information. Instead, they spend more time actually doing high-value work.

CRM Buyer: So how does that translate into a better CRM product?

Charlton: Here is how No-Touch works:

1) We look for every opportunity to automate the collection of data. We search for ways to make it an automatic byproduct of the user working by engaging with customers, using other tools and systems. We want to eliminate the need to copy and paste, or manually enter information.

2) We look for opportunities to process and analyze data automatically to extract insights and next best action guidance. So a user does not have to interact with the system to get it to do something.

3) Finally, No-Touch is about delivering customer information directly to users in-context with what they are doing, so they receive key insights just when they need them.

CRM Buyer: Now what about the other two pillars?

Charlton: Continuous cloud innovation is a feature not available in other platforms. SugarCRM is built to leverage AWS's cloud computing capabilities. This means that Sugar's cloud solutions can innovate at a pace that is unmatched by our competitors while simultaneously providing best-in-class cloud infrastructure. The Sugar platform does this at a very reasonable price.

Besides hosting, we are currently leveraging 34 AWS advanced computing services, and we are growing that number at a rapid rate. These are technologies that proprietary cloud vendors in our industry would have to make prohibitively large investments to match.

Customer commitment is both a continuous product objective and a solemn business commitment. We do what it takes to help our customers create customers for life. With the highest customer retention of all vendors in Gartner SFA MQ, industry-leading NPS, and rave reviews on G2, our customers tend to agree.

CRM Buyer: How widespread is the use of AI in CRM platforms today?

Charlton: While there are several CRM vendors incorporating AI into their platforms, SugarCRM's approach is unique in three key ways. I already detailed the time-awareness feature. The second unique approach is model data enrichment.

Remember what I said about how Node augments the SugarCRM data with curated data? Competitive solutions rely solely on the more limited information available in their CRM.

By contrast, SugarCRM's AI performance delivers exceptional predictions, even with limited or incomplete CRM data. It considers factors in its predictions that simply are not represented in the CRM. By embedding AI into our core products, SugarCRM enables customers to avoid the time, cost, and technical expertise required by competitive AI solutions.

When you add all these together, we have a solution that democratizes the power of AI, making unprecedented predictive insight obtainable to all companies, regardless of size, business maturity, or technical sophistication.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.


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