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Celebrating 50 years of SAP. What will it take to make it to a century?

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of attending SAP’s 50th anniversary gala in Germany. The event brought together colleagues, current and former, who have played a part in SAP’s journey. Stars of the show were of course SAP’s founders, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and celebrities from all walks of life.

At the evening celebrations, I was asked to share an anecdote from my time at SAP. As I trawled through years of memories, trying to settle on the right story, I was struck by one overriding theme. Every moment and milestone I experienced at SAP had the customer at its heart. As I told the assembled guests that evening, the premise was simple: “We loved the customers. We did everything for them. And they loved us back.”

Left: Tom Pfister; Right: Johannes B. Kerner

The power of listening

I believe this unique customer intimacy is the secret to SAP’s success. From the very first day the company opened its doors, employees were far more likely to be with customers than sitting idly at their desks. In those days, SAP was already doing what many companies still struggle to achieve today – talking with, not at, customers and building solutions around their needs.

The story I shared at the anniversary gala is a perfect example of this customer-centric DNA. I explained how the idea came about for SAP’s first international event. This early forerunner to today’s legendary SAPPHIRE was hashed out with an R/2 customer over dinner. The 1989 event became the first SAP user conference, at a time when these were few and far between. It was another shining example of SAP excelling at customer intimacy.

A couple of years later at “SAP USER91” in Nice, I remember an exchange between a customer and SAP co-founder Klaus Tschira. When Tschira was asked why a particular function wasn’t in the system, he simply responded, “We’ll start working on it next week.”

This speed of response was typical of a time when everything was centered around the customer. In marketing, this meant far less focus on brand-building and more time getting out to meet customers. With the customer at the heart of every initiative, our focus was always clear and simple – to support and drive new sales, and to build customer intimacy.

Share in the experience in this video of the SAP 50th anniversary event (German language only).

Make the customer the hero of your story

Today, SAP marketing is forever transformed – and, for the main part, all the better for it. But the challenge for the company going forward will be retaining this closeness to the customer. After all, it’s SAP customers, not the brand, that are the heroes of this story. Protecting this incredible legacy will be critical to SAP’s future glory.

This means walking a different path from so many large companies today, who are so bogged down in their own self-image that they lose their connection to the customer. The key is to spend less time talking at customers, or ruminating on what they want, and instead getting out there and asking them directly. It’s this level of customer intimacy that has characterized SAP’s incredible rise. If the company can keep this going, a century is well within its grasp.

Paying it forward

From my side, I’m proud to have been part of SAP’s story and to continue contributing to its future. And I’m also honoured to count the company among Nytro’s most valued customers. The lessons I learned in those early days of raw excitement and boundless opportunity have continued to guide my career going forward and nurture my entrepreneurial spirit. The freedom to be creative, be bold – and make mistakes – is something I encourage in all our Nytro employees. But most of all, we carry forward that SAP-born DNA – to always focus on the customer.

What did you learn from your time at SAP or from the outside as an observer? Share your thoughts on what makes the company great and what it can do to keep on getting better.

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