SAS CEO: Know your customer, know your market

From the Road

SAS CEO Jim Goodnight has led the $2.7 billion company to a leadership position in the business intelligence and analytics market. I sat down with Goodnight to talk about the changing BI market, his skepticism about the cloud computing environment and why the perception lingers that BI has failed to deliver for IT and business. One key to success in a fast changing market: a deep understanding of how your strengths align with customer needs.

Focus on What You Do Best

Companies must be clear about what differentiates them from the pack of competitors. In the depths of the recession, SAS made its case to customers based on “our depth of analytics and our deep involvement in the banking space, from credit card fraud to risk computations — credit risks, market risks, operational risks,” Goodnight said. The company continued to invest in risk analysis, looking for ways to make computations faster for customers, and it capitalized on fresh demand for tools that helped companies root out financial fraud.

As Oracle, SAP and IBM moved into analytics a few years ago, Goodnight kept an eye on where these companies decided to focus. “Remember, we compete with 200 or more different companies in the anti-money laundering, in the fraud stuff and the risk stuff,” he said, but the enterprise software companies weren’t targeting those types of applications. “Just because some big companies bought some of our smaller competitors hasn’t really changed the landscape for us that much.”

Don’t Succumb to Hype

Some technology trends are more relevant to your customers than others–and it’s up to you to figure out which should be a priority. For example, it was obvious to Goodnight that SAS would have to adapt its products to run in grid computing environments, because these were becoming critical tools for customers to solve problems with ever larger amounts of data.

How the company would incorporate cloud computing in the early days wasn’t as clear. Banking customers, skittish about security, weren’t about to hand over their data to store in the cloud. But SAS had the infrastructure, Goodnight said, to offer software as a service if customers demanded it.

See Yourself as the Customer Does

For much of its history, SAS concentrated on analytics, and it considered business intelligence merely as reporting tools But customers didn’t make a distinction between technology for back-end number crunching and front-end reporting, and they were frequently disappointed by the returns on their BI investments as a result.

“I think most people think that business intelligence means data mining and stuff like that,” Goodnight said. About a decade ago, SAS decided to respond by developing its own reporting tools. “Now we’re thought of as one of the big BI vendors,” says Goodnight.

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