Looking for the Personal Touch
H&R Block's West goes against the grain by not mentioning security or reliability among his primary misgivings about cloud computing. He believes there's a more critical element missing from cloud computing software offerings that he'd like to see added: professional services supplied by a person rather than a machine.
West's company has subscriptions to Salesforce.com's on-demand customer relationship management app for isolated groups within H&R Block and has integrated it with an on-demand analytics tool from British software firm Datapoint. But the CIO would be more gung-ho about cloud software if Salesforce.com were packaged with, say, access to a marketing expert who could help organize sales initiatives and provide advice on how to get the most out of the software.
"The problem with the SaaS model is that it still isn't helping the buyer get the value out of the technology," West says. "It's just a different way of paying for it."
That's why West suggests that on-demand application providers cut deals with professional services firms, allowing them to offer premium subscriptions that would include access to real-time expert advice. H&R Block took precisely that approach in designing Tango, its consumer online tax-preparation service, which, for $70, includes unlimited round-the-clock access to tax experts.
In the case of NetSuite's on-demand accounting application, for example, West believes that bundling it with 24/7 access to 5,000 H&R Block accounting professionals would make it immensely more compelling for larger companies that need to do more than reduce their software costs in order to justify the switch from a client-server application to a cloud-style alternative. "That, to me, is the cloud," West says. "It's called 'Do it with me.' If I give someone the toolbox, that's one thing. But customers want true self-service."
To be fair, Salesforce and NetSuite have been tackling this area in varied ways. Salesforce's Successforce services let customers add a professional services element that allows them to connect with either a Salesforce consultant or one of the company's partners, such as Accenture or Deloitte.
NetSuite, for its part, allows partners to build their expertise into a complimentary offering by turning their services into software. This allows NetSuite to maintain more control over the level of service being offered. "Otherwise, it could become a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to the quality of those services," says CEO Zack Nelson.