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How Sun Built Its Global Reference Program

Posted by Bill Lee on November 19, 2008 at 12:09 PM

A few years ago, Sun Microsystems' Reference Program consisted of several disparate efforts run by their various Business Units. Each was structured and resourced differently, resulting in negative customer experience, internal confusion and financial inefficiencies. 

Christine spoke with me recently about how she made the business case to Sun's CMO to centralize its reference programs, why he agreed, lessons learned in building the Global Reference Program swiftly,  and more. 

Christine will be a presenter at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum, February 18-19 in Berkeley, CA. Below is a preview of her presentation.

Q. Christine, tell us a bit about yourself and about Sun's reference program. It's pretty new, yet also quite ambitious. Can you tell us when and how it was started and the role you played?

A. I have held a variety of Marketing & Communications roles for the past 17 years, beginning at Ketchum Public Relations in San Francisco, with stints with Ask Jeeves (now, Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems Inc. Customer references have been central to my career, beginning with business-to-business food and packaged goods and ranging to the latest in technology products and services.

Sun's Global Customer Reference Program came together in July 2006, built from several disparate reference efforts in Sun's Business Units. Each Business Unit effort was structured and resourced differently, resulting in negative customer experience, internal confusion and financial inefficiencies. After a discovery process, I presented a business case to centralize efforts to our Chief Marketing Officer and his staff. I emphasized efficiency in reference delivery, customer experience improvement and a significant annual savings.

My proposal was accepted and the Global Customer Reference Program was born.

Q. So how has it gone for you since then?

A. We've had a few milestones since our inception, in 2005:

- Launched Sun's first-ever research focused on determining IT decision-makers' reference preferences (via Phelon Group). Research drove creation of Sun's Customer Content Model.

- Led vendor review to consolidate from multiple vendors to one for customer content, leading to consistent quality, format, branding and financial efficiency

in 2006:

- Launched, central, on-line, dynamic repository for Sun's Global Customer Content

- Created success story template for use on /customers

- Managed Six Sigma project to replace static, outdated Reference Database

- Built virtual team to support globalization of reference program

- 2007

- Introduced new Reference System (Siebel based)

- Managed vendor review, emphasis on global abilities

- 2008 (to date & planned)

- New globalized success story template

Q.  What goals were established for the reference program?

A. In the early days of the program, I relied on a cumulative benchmark built upon inputs from the existing reference efforts. In order to meet all the global needs against Sun's priorities, we set an annual reference recruitment goal, with cascading goals by Business Unit, Industry, Size of Company, Brand Recognition and Regional Representation. Similarly, we reviewed the demand for new content and created a matrix summarizing goals for content against several measures.

Q. Where is the Sun reference program situated organizationally. How has that helped you win a "seat at the table" with your global strategy team?

A. The Customer Reference Program is part of Global Communications, reporting up through the Sr. Vice President of Branding & Communications, ultimately to the Chief Marketing Officer. Global Communications also includes Editorial, Analyst Relations, Product & Corporate Communications and Executive Communications. The Reference Program provides content and spokespeople to all of these arms of Global Communications. Because of the high-visibility of Global Communications, Customer References is seen as a mission-critical function by management and the field. We support this by investing in aggressive communications around our deliverables and the outcomes supported by our work.

Q. In building Sun's reference program rapidly, you've incorporated best practices and lessons learned from other firms such as Oracle and EMC. How did you learn these best practices? How much did they help in terms of saving Sun time and money to develop its global reference program? If you didn't have access to these, where would your program be now do you think?

A. As customer programs have grown in a variety of industries, I have kept my eye open for interesting uses of references and built a network of other reference professionals; I also participate in several organic forum-networking groups around references. This has helped me learn what other companies are doing, both good and bad. Every company culture is different and not everything can or should apply, so it's very much like shopping the aisles for ideas.

If I were not exposed to these other ideas and lessons, our program would likely not be as global or as resourced as it is at this point.

Q. Let's look at some specific challenges in building Sun's program. How, for example, are you developing a standard content process globally for Sun success stories?

A.  Sun's engineer-centric culture fosters an engineering approach to everything, including program building. Six Sigma is a highly valued approach, and while it doesn't apply to everything in the Reference Program, it has been critical in making our larger projects successful. The globalization of content is not a pure Six Sigma project, but we applied crucial Sigma concepts, such as Voice of the Customer, to gather requirements from the main stakeholders. This has smoothed and sped up the entire globalization process, with unanimous support by those who will be intimately involved in launching and maintaining the effort.

Q. Can you tell us about your reference database. What system to you use. What information do you keep on it?

A. Like many other programs, we have deployed the References functionality within Siebel CRM. We enter and maintain standard information about our references, their status as references and any associated content in the system. Siebel CRM is used globally by Sun Sales, so it was a natural path for us to pursue.

Q. Tell us a bit about how you integrate with and reach out to sales? What tools or templates have you used to help with that process?

 A. Sun has several push and pull information sources for Sales, the Customer Reference Program leverages these to the hilt. They include a Sales intranet, which houses a Reference Program website, as well as weekly sales bulletins via email that include updates on our latest content and upcoming reference activities. We also campaign actively to participate in sales kick offs and training sessions, which is an investment of time and effort but well worth it, especially in terms of "return business" and viral marketing of our program. Sales teams pass the word to their colleagues and contact us when they have customers ready to be references.

Q. What lessons have you learned in terms of winning executive level buy-in to globalize your program?

A. In no order of importance...

Quantify Value, Deliver Meaningful Metrics: Include execs or their designees in the planning and goal development process. Report against agreed goals monthly or quarterly, may require tailored reporting at times.

Communicate Succinctly & Actively:  Know that your executives are time constrained and need information in the most succinct possible presentation.

Provide Insight: Customer references and content are not merely deliverables to list on a slide or tick off a goal sheet - they can provide trending information and valuable insight into customer preferences and needs.

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