I attend several software company customer events each year, and I always feel like the only atheist in a room full of religious zealots. However big or small the vendor, whether it consistently delivers competitive advantage or overcharges for mediocre software, the people who come to the events are usually fans — people whose careers depend on their employer continuing to invest in the product they know.

The SAP UK user conference today in Manchester was no different. So when Jim Hageman Snabe stood up to deliver his keynote, this wasn’t the toughest crowd he’s ever faced. Whatever their concerns about product strategies, support costs, court cases, etc., these people are desperate for him to do well, because otherwise they are out of a job.

Nonetheless, even heretics like me would have to admit that JHS delivered a great keynote. Even Ruby Wax, the Anglo-American comedienne compere was moved to say “you could sell anything.” Here are some of the things that particularly impressed me:

·         Likeability. From linking his speech to Ruby’s opening routine, to funny and pertinent family stories, JHS showed what sort of person he is. This is very different from his predecessors and competitors. When he says he wants SAP to be more customer-focused, it’s clear that he means it.

·         Clarity. JHS set out simply and effectively where he wants SAP to focus its development. He set out six themes: quality first, stabilize the core, reduce TCO, innovate without disruption, improve usability, give customers predictability. Then he explained succinctly how SAP is addressing each one, in parallel with its vision for in-memory computing, on demand availability, and mobile device usability. Even if you disagree with his vision, you’re in no doubt what it is.

·         Customer-focus. JHS’s examples are business use cases that illustrate how he believes SAP can help its customers succeed. In contrast, Larry Ellison’s keynote at Oracle Openworld was all about what interests him — technical details about input output caches, database indices, internal computer cabling, etc, — rather than how this will benefit his customers.

The speech wasn’t quite perfect. For instance, someone asked him whether SAP would allow customers to reduce their maintenance bills if they had more user licenses than users, due to the economic downturn, and he rather ducked the question. Neither did he address the user group’s No. 1 request, for more clarity in SAP’s pricing and licensing. I’ve been pushing SAP for a while to be more transparent, and it has begun to publish more — but still insufficient — pricing and licensing information. Published pricing is one of my The Five Qualities Of Good Software Pricing.  It would have been nice to hear a commitment to a public list price from JHS.

Nonetheless, though he may have been preaching to the converted, it was the best CEO keynote I’ve seen for years.