How SaaS Has Fallen Short of Its Promises—and How to Fix It

Every once and a while I step back and think about the original vision and purpose of SaaS. The idea was to make software a service. Businesses would be able to “plug in” to the cloud and start using their application as quickly and easily as we watch movies today via Apple TV or Roku. After all, the whole concept behind SaaS was to create a consumer-like service experience with software.

SaaS, or cloud computing, came to the world on the shoulders of Salesforce.com and its “No software” ethos. It promised big advantages over on-premises solutions for nearly every business use case. Gone were the huge capital outlays for infrastructure to run your application, not to mention the cost and headache of maintaining, patching, and upgrading software.

SaaS proposed to do away with all of that, and to a large degree it has. But the “as a service” movement promised other things. And those promises have been largely unfulfilled. The three promises that stand out for me follow.

1. SaaS is easy to implement

On-premises software installations traditionally took months (and sometimes years) of work, often requiring on-site teams to live at the customer site until the rollout was complete. SaaS promised a far more agreeable future. SaaS implementations were supposed to be as simple as selecting the features you want and making sure all intended users had a compatible browser. For a few years, that’s how it was. But as SaaS solutions matured, some of the most successful vendors fell into the trap of heavy implementations. Too many of today’s SaaS implementations resemble yesterday’s legacy implementations. Yet the old promises keep getting repeated, even as vendors have a hard time living up to them.

2. SaaS is self-service

No business user should have to code anything, ever. Yet every day I see people scripting their customizations. Why? While organizations across all industries use the same 90% of features and capabilities on a platform, only 10% of usage is specific to their vertical market or business model. That last 10% could easily become a painful customization.

3. SaaS solutions are plug and play

Having an end-to-end, tightly integrated set of solutions still remains a goal for customers. The problem is most SaaS vendors often build out their platforms as a series of point solutions that don’t integrate well with each other, and sometimes not at all.

These aren’t easy promises to fulfill. Taking something that’s inherently difficult (like software implementation) and making it easy is a massive achievement. It requires designing for every scenario so customers have a simple and intuitive way forward.

It’s still possible to make good on those promises, but it requires some fundamental retooling and a return to the original concept of SaaS. Here’s what SaaS vendors must do:

Embed best practices to turn customization into configuration

SaaS vendors should leave traditional customization to hardwired on-premises software and instead embed best practices and common vertical market feature sets into their platforms. Then use widgets and other intuitive tools to give users the freedom to easily shape those capabilities to their business needs. Configuration—not customization.

Abandon the point solution mentality

If a new feature or technology won’t integrate easily with existing solutions, SaaS vendors should acquire or develop one that will be a seamless part of a broader, comprehensive solution for customers.

Streamline—even automate—implementation

Fast and easy implementation often boils down to SaaS providers automating most of the steps needed to implement a new platform. This is hard work, but doing it ensures the customer experience starts out on the best possible footing.

Self-service everything

I propose an update to Salesforce.com’s old “No software” rallying cry. It should now be “No IT.” From start to finish, you should be able to accomplish whatever you need without an assist from IT. You could change it as quickly as you want to, and then the software will be living and you would get innovation on a regular basis. For some SaaS vendors, this may require taking a hard look at how their cloud software is architected and what needs to change. But they should change it.

Rely on community feedback to innovate

One great advantage of SaaS is that you can see how people are using your platform and where they’re having trouble. But vendors shouldn’t stop there. They should query customers directly about what works and what doesn’t, and where they want the platform to go. This sounds pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many SaaS providers just don’t bother. I always want to hear from our users—they keep us honest and help improve technology.

There’s no question that cloud delivery benefits customers. But there’s plenty of room for improvement, and it starts with remembering what SaaS is really all about.

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