Zuora Moves to the Center

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Zuora, the company that made its bones in subscription billing and payments, held its annual Subscribed user meeting in San Francisco last week and staked out some new turf.

It always has been focused on the back office, but its latest messaging included elements of the front office. Perhaps it's no surprise given CEO Tien Tzuo's history as an early luminary at Salesforce, rising to the CMO position before he left.

The new turf straddles the two worlds we're most accustomed to dealing with -- the front and back offices. This area, let's call it the middle office, takes data from either side, changes it and passes it on to processes that go in both directions.

Among the applications that act this way are compensation management, subscription billing, customer success management and possibly HR. Each application area does different things for different reasons.

Xactly may be the best example of a pure-play comp system, though certainly CallidusCloud should be included.

Sales incentive compensation used to be a pure back-office thing because it tallied up sales and applied some algorithms then cut checks. Today, however, comp management is also about motivating people within an active quarter by identifying best opportunities and ensuring appropriate resources are applied.

For that, the marketing and sales automation data is useful, and derived information is fed back into SFA. That's a long way from pure compensation.

Of course, you need to make the subscription bills accurate and get them out efficiently, but those systems throw off huge amounts of customer data concerning uptake and use, which are valuable in helping to sniff out early-warning signs of disaffection, churn and attrition -- all things to avoid if you are a subscription company.

It is in this area that Zuora is making a bigger footprint thanks to its acquisition last year of analytics company FrontLeaf. The subscription data run through analytics can easily kick off processes that use billing, sales and service, another front-to-back situation.

Full-blown customer success takes a page from subscriptions by capturing subscriber data and marrying it to other client data to produce compound metrics that can give managers a better understanding of how well a business is doing with the customer base.

This area might see renewed competition with subscription billing vendors in the months ahead.

Long associated with payroll and mainframe back-office systems, the HR or HCM systems today are lending their data and insights to front-office processes such as field service and professional services automation, influencing deal structure and reporting.

We easily could add CPQ to the list too, because back-office catalogs, price lists and pricing algorithms come to the service of SFA via CPQ to close better deals.

All of these application areas are staking out positions that are neither fully back office and certainly not fully front office either. They are opening up new territory, and that is potentially very exciting because the other territories are rather full of settlers and we need somewhere else to occupy.

I don't know what to call it, but that will come, and I hope we avoid something as cliché as the middle office. The new area strikes me as another dimension. We've talked about systems of record for a long time, and those systems belong to old-school front- and back-office systems. The new territory embodies more of what you'd expect from a system of engagement, a system that leverages all the data businesses collect and actually turns it into unique and valuable IP.

That's what struck me about Subscribed last week. In so many words, Zuora said it has done a pretty good job since 2007 of building a solution to the subscription billing problem, but now there are other challenges.

Sales compensation added several important business processes once businesses were able to take their eyes off the quarterly challenge of writing commission checks quickly and accurately. Incentive comp became all about doing the right business and boosting profits through being more intelligent actors in the market.

Something similar will happen with subscriptions, I think. Now that the billing and payments issues are resolving, Zuora is training its guns on pricing and packaging. Think about it: When your products are more or less electrons, innovation can happen easily around how you package and price, and it can happen at much faster rates than we see in traditional product development -- if you have agile systems.

That is why the emerging middle ground is so important and why it's one more thing to keep an eye on, even if you're not an analyst.

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, writer and speaker. His new book, Solve for the Customer, is now available on Amazon. He can be reached at [email protected] You can also connect with him on Google+.

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