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Bill McDermott

Bill McDermott

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Trendsetters: SAP's CEO Bill McDermott Urges Business to Emphasize Customer Empathy & Co-Innovation

SAP is one of the world's largest enterprise software companies; in fact, 76% of all transactions run on SAP systems, which tallies to roughly $39 trillion in global commerce. The software giant has flourished in today's digital economy by dedicating its resources to helping businesses "run simple." Bill McDermott, the company's charismatic leader, and very much a self-made man, outlined a new vision for the software maker last month at SAPPHIRE NOW, SAP's premier customer event.

Marketers who lead consumer-centric or customer-focused business lives, will certainly applaud McDermott's emphasis on customer empathy as a mandate from the corner office. As marketing leaders play a larger role in contributing to the corporate vision and as their functions become more technology-dependent, it is well worth considering Bill McDermott's thoughts. He admitted before a SAPPHIRE NOW audience of more than 30,000 (with an additional 300,000 watching virtually) that the challenges and unpredictability of today's economy is a stark reminder that the customer determines whether businesses win or lose.

"Everything has to start with empathy for the end user and the experience they are getting from your company," said McDermott. "We feel strongly that design thinking and innovation is the way forward. So we truly have to understand that every encounter with our customers means that we have to understand their customers. We have to make the world run better, we have to improve people's lives one customer at a time, and that's the commitment I give to you today." Without question, empathy for the customer, and empathy for a customer's customer, represent a big shift for an enterprise-driven, global B2B operation.

McDermott predicts that the next five-to-ten years will be far more disruptive than the previous decade with Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality as the next game changers. He said, "I believe very strongly that intelligent applications will fundamentally change the way you do work in the enterprise and the way to collaborate with your trading partners."

He added, "We believe that the IT industry will be shaped by breakthrough partnerships that unlock new productivity for customers beyond the boundaries of traditional platforms and applications." This simple sentence literally marks a paradigm shift for enterprise thinking, but it also underscores a mindset marketers have worked to adopt as a pillar of both internal and external communications.

In fact, to underscore the significance of co-innovation at every level, Bill McDermott asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to share the stage with him—visibly reshaping how an audience views the significance of partnerships. Nadella told the audience: "At Microsoft, we are focused on empowering organizations to build systems of intelligence that advance their digital transformations. Together with SAP, we are bringing new levels of integrations between our products that provide businesses with enhanced collaboration tools, new insights from data and a cloud to grow and seize new opportunities ahead."

Transformation isn't easy. Corporations today are grappling with multiple issues to become genuinely data-driven and customer-centric, and they're doing so amid constant change. Their customers' habits, desires, and personal technologies are evolving at a faster pace than ever before. Marketing leaders, in particular, have to not only keep pace, but anticipate what's next as they steer a company's image, reputation, brand value and communications.

Bill McDermott clearly knows that there's often a disconnect between understanding technology's capabilities and its implementation, so that an enterprise of any size may find new roads to innovation. Often, it's not the cost of the software, but the cost of managing technological transformation that confounds most organizations. With sincerity in his espousal of SAP's "Run Simple" mantra, he has repeatedly talked about how complexity can suffocate organizations as they seek growth and scale. He is a CEO who takes personal ownership for the company's mission and its need to innovate. And is not shy about citing how 40% of the S&P 500 will no longer exist in the next decade if they do not keep up with technology trends.

As businesses have learned repeatedly, digital technology has changed the game. Bill McDermott often likes to add, "But customers changed the rules." And today he might also remind us that co-innovation partnerships are helping to level a very complex playing field.

Bill McDermott ran his own business through high school and college, then began his professional career at Xerox, where he worked for 17 years. He rose through the ranks to become the company's youngest division president.

He then served as President of Gartner and Executive Vice President of Worldwide Sales and Operations at Siebel Systems. He joined SAP in 2002 as CEO of SAP America, then soon added South America, Asia Pacific and then Global Field Operations to his responsibilities. In 2008, he was appointed to the SAP Executive Board, and in 2010, became co-CEO of SAP AG. He was promoted to the position of sole CEO for the company in 2014, now known as SAP SE. Bill McDermott is the first American to hold this CEO position.

His memoir, Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office, written with Joanne Gordon, was published in late 2014 by Simon & Schuster. The book won an Axiom Business Book Award.