SAP user groups have made good progress in improving relationships with SAP in the past year, says Alan Bowling, chairman of the UK & Ireland SAP User Group.
The most important gains are getting greater insight into SAP's product roadmaps and SAP's decision to forge ahead with a customer engagement initiative, he told Computer Weekly.
The conversation is no longer as one-sided at it used to be, he said, with the flow of information in both directions.
According to Bowling, other big software suppliers would do well to follow SAP's example in both greater collaboration with end-users and top management structures.
The return to a joint-chief executive structure has had a positive effect for SAP, which may be simply due to greater leadership capacity, because SAP is such a big company, he said.
"It must inevitably mean there are more checks and balances, which is good for SAP users who typically do not like risk and are looking for stability," said Bowling.
The improved collaboration with end-users, he ascribed to SAP going back to basics and reflecting on what its customers do.
"SAP is no longer focused on selling software like most other suppliers, but instead now see its role as supporting business processes," he said.
The dispute over SAP's now-shelved plans to impose a single enterprise support option across all customers led the company to re-evaluate its role, which has benefited both the company and end-users, said Bowling.
In the past year, he said, it has been encouraging to see SAP listening to customers and taking action based on that input.
There is now a lot more willingness to engage with user groups, he said, and in the coming year, Bowling hoped to see that expand even further.
"What I would like to see in 2011, is SAP opening up and sharing who its customer are with user groups," said Bowling.
In his keynote at the opening of the UK & Ireland SAP User Group Conference 2010 in Manchester, he called for SAP support in engaging its customers.
User groups need to work with SAP to bring users together, he said, but this will be possible only if SAP helps identify those customers who have yet to join the user group community.
Bowling wants to communicate with SAP's entire customer base in the UK & Ireland in the coming year.
"The bigger the end-user community, the greater positive influence that community can have," he said.
Bowling believes that end-user groups provide a unique forum to share problems and solutions, bringing together people and industries that would not otherwise interact.
Jim Hagemann Snabe, co-chief executive of SAP, attended the UK & Ireland SAP User Group annual conference for the first time.
"We have 105,000 customers and I would love to reach out to every single one of them, and I know Bill McDermott has the same passion, but it is just not possible, so having a user group that speaks on behalf of multiple users is a huge benefit for us, and we certainly want to serve them well so that they can add value to their members," he told Computer Weekly.
User groups help us interact with many customers in very efficient ways, he said, but of course it does not take away the need to talk to individual customers as well.
"You can see patterns much more clearly when you have multiple customers saying the same thing, and the co-operation with the user groups has been instrumental to that. The UK & Ireland market is one of the largest in Europe, so it was very easy for me to accept the invitation," he said.