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November 2008 Archives

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.

What Forrester's Merv Adrian Has Learned About Customer Reference Programs

Posted by Bill Lee on November 18, 2008 at 11:12 AM

Merv will be co-keynoting at the upcoming 2009 Customer Reference Forum  on February 18, along with Laura Ramos, Vice President, Principal Analyst at Forrester. He tells us what he learned from attending our last Forum earlier this year, why he thinks Reference Programs are growing in importance, and why Forrester is planning to start covering them as well as partner with Customer Reference Forum on this year’s program survey. Take it away Merv.

A sizable and increasing number of businesses in the technology industry are finding that their existing customer base remains one of their best sources for continuing growth. It’s well understood that it’s less costly to retain customers than it is to find new ones.  But many firms have also discovered that effective management of their Customer Reference (CR) management function – in some cases, simply the creation of a formal organization to manage these important assets – is on the critical path to both sustained business from the base and growth in new accounts. Sales uses references to nail deals down, Marketing develops reference stories for campaigns and events, and Analyst Relations uses them to support information requests from influencers.

That conclusion is no mystery to the firms that participated in the Customer Reference Forum event in February 2008 at California’s Claremont resort. And the list of attendees read like a who’s-who of the industry’s leaders. They have created, staffed, and begun to measure teams that manage their sourcing, development and distribution of customer references in a way that has begin to reap substantial benefits. They have improved their sourcing development of referenceable accounts, made better use of them for selling and marketing, reduced redundant and often conflicting programs, and grown a cadre of professionals who are learning to measure and mange the delivery of substantial value from their programs.

Forrester found the customer reference professionals at the event to be a highly motivated, increasingly well funded, and thoughtful group who were often seeking more visibility, support and resources despite their early successes. We were struck by the growth of an industry of products and services to support the CR professional: creative services, hosting, management tools and full consultative outsourcing were all in evidence.

The Customer Reference Forum event is a valuable gathering place for those involved in CR programs who seek to learn about best practices and share with their peers. It has also served as a focal point for an ongoing survey designed to document common practice in the industry, and the sponsors of the survey have several years of data tracking the emergence and growth of CR management as a discipline. They have learned that successful teams usually result from a Sales-Marketing partnership, with agreements forged to use references wisely, manage conflicts about ownership and overuse, and assure a steady stream of fresh stories to support corporate goals.

Forrester is excited to be partnering with the Forum team on this year’s survey, developing some new avenues of investigation, and sustaining the existing data elements, which document team size, reporting relationships, management styles, and more. We’ll be joining in the 2009 conference, delivering a keynote address that will include data from the survey as well as other ongoing Forrester research. Since our discussions of this important corporate function with our clients began following the 2008 event, we’ve had a steady stream of inquiries and discussions with them that will provide us with additional ideas to share. And our ongoing research onto the effective uses of social computing supplements and extends this work. We look forward to networking with the pioneers and the new arrivals alike – we hope to see you there!

10 Tips For Getting Budget $ In Tough Times

Posted by Bill Lee on November 12, 2008 at 08:49 AM

"We have a travel freeze in place and may not be able to attend the 2009 Customer Reference Forum.

"Our reference program budget may be cut."

"We're in danger of losing headcount."

Do any of these apply to you? In fact, your reference program and your continuing acquisition of best practices will - or should - merit an exception to these policies. I'm providing several compelling points you can make to demonstrate this to your decision maker.


(most of which can be used as is, or can be easily modified, to get other essential budget $ for your reference program)

1) In an economically challenging time, on-point references that are rapidly delivered to the field and to PR are even more critical. Cautious buyers need proof points now more than ever.

2) Doesn't our reference program need best practices from multiple outside sources more than ever, to help ensure maximum program-productivity in a tough sales climate?

3) Our competitors who do attend the 2009 Forum, will be able to "steal a march" on our reference program, while we fall behind on best practices if we don't participate.

4) Which part of our reference program are we willing to fall behind in: Acquiring new references? Integrating references more effectively in the sales process? Getting our references to reveal the ROI they achieve with our solutions? Integrating references into our Web 2.0 and customer

community programs?

5) Participating in the 2009 Forum fits within the exceptions of the travel freeze - which excepts travel related to acquiring new customers, and keeping them  happy. Having a robust, state-of-the-art reference program Is critical to bringing in new customers, as well as helping keep our most

prized customers happy.

6) There will likely be a lot of our customers represented in the room at the 2009 Forum - including ones that have been hard for us to get "on the record." This creates an opportunity for us to engage their reference teams, and gain their support in this important effort.

7) (Enlist your AR team for this point). Forrester Research is fielding a major survey on reference programs, and will present findings and analysis at the 2009 Forum. This will gain the attention of analysts around the world - and will provide critical information  on how to position  references to

impress analysts and get their approval. We need to be there to learn this.

8) There will likely be several of our technology partners in the room. Consider the joint-reference marketing possibilities with these partners when our people get together with theirs, live, over a two day period.

9) Will our reference team be performing at their highest potential - which we need now more than ever - if we're not making even a small investment to ensure that happens?

10) This isn't a travel or conference expense. It's a customer-acqusition and relationship-building investment.

Bonus Tip) Compare the value of 2 days exposure to 1) representatives from our best customers, 2) representatives from our partners, and 3) processes and best practices from the top reference programs in the world vs. just $2500 (approximate cost of hotel, transportation, conference fee).

SAS' Elizabeth Stack on the Art of Building a Robust Government Reference Program

Posted by Bill Lee on November 4, 2008 at 12:35 PM

An urban legend says that government customers don't give references. But don't tell that to SAS Institute, which has built a thriving government reference community that includes the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, and dozens of other prominent state and local government agencies.

I recently spoke with Elizabeth Stack the SAS Institute US Government Customer Relations Manager about lessons she's learned in building the SAS Government Reference Program.

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

Q. There's a prevalent belief that you can't get governments - particularly the federal government - to act as references. Tell us a bit about your government references at SAS, and how you built this program up over the last 3 years.

A. SAS' US Government reference program is inclusive of all government accounts, including federal civilian, defense, state and local. At any given time, we have approximately 50 customers that are actively referencing and another 50 in the pipeline to keep our eye on and nurture into activity.

I inherited our program, which has been in existence about seven years, from our US Government marketing team. Although reference development and fulfillment was only a portion of their focus, many of my best practices came from them.

Possibly the most important lesson they taught me is endorsement-free referencing. In every conversation I have with a customer, I make sure to articulate SAS' desire for them to simply share their story, including the good, the bad and the ugly. We consider referencing an opportunity for collaboration in order to make government more effective. The only way to accomplish this goal is for agencies to talk with and learn from one another. Our program is one avenue to help them accomplish that goal.

Another key lesson is starting small. We try not to overwhelm customers with the multitude of reference options that are available to them. Instead, we introduce them slowly to our program and grow over time, offering more diverse and public opportunities as their comfort level grows.

We also make sure they understand their right to decline any opportunity we might present to them. My job is to evaluate the opportunities and find the right fit from within our customer pool. I tell them up front that I would rather have them tell me no 100 times than to find out later they missed out on an exciting opportunity - a philosophy that they generally appreciate. They are grateful to know that joining our reference program does not automatically obligate them to opportunities that they may not be comfortable with or that they may not have time to accommodate.

In summary, it's all about playing it safe and creating a comfort level with the customer that they are in control.

Q. Let's compare government references to business references. What's harder about getting governments to reference? What's easier?

A. Because of laws prohibiting both federal and state government agencies from vendor endorsements, it can be difficult to overcome legal objections. Increasingly, government agencies are becoming even more sensitive to these restrictions and cognitive of not stepping over the line, which can make referencing very difficult.

However, when you can get past this initial concern, government references are often more willing to share information about their work than commercial industries. Government entities are almost all seeking similar objectives and have the same types of obstacles to overcome. They often welcome the opportunity to speak with their colleagues from other government agencies and treat it as a mechanism to learn and continuously improve their own agency's programs and efforts.

Q. What motivates a government executive? How does this help you win him or her over as a reference?

A. Government employees at all levels seek to serve the greater good and most are passionate about that. Part of accomplishing that mission involves collaborating with both government and commercial colleagues to learn from one another and share best practices. Individuals who feel their program is truly making a difference in how government works and/or serves its constituents are generally willing to share information about that program in a reference call. They want to see their good work benefit as many people and programs as possible. By participating in a reference call, they not only have the chance to help others who are seeking similar goals, but they also typically learn something during the conversation as well.

Most importantly, we seek to understand what motivates our customers and help identify other opportunities that fulfill the customer's needs. For example, many organizations wish to gain publicity for their program in order to educate constituents or gain additional funding. Publicity can also help government organizations be viewed as a leader. We work with our internal support staff to develop marketing plans that enable our customers to take advantage of SAS' resources, which are often more abundant than their own. Examples might include customer success stories (both print and video), speaking engagements and press opportunities that customers can utilize to highlight and differentiate their capabilities.

Beyond the organization's goals, many of our individual customer references have personal goals, such as a promotion or leveraging their government experience in the commercial world. By helping to position them as a thought leader through speaking engagements and press opportunities, we help foster their credibility in the marketplace.

Q. What do you mean by "community of conversation"? This includes live events, right?

A. Because of concerns regarding vendor endorsements, referencing can be very scary for many government customers, especially with increasing regulations and oversight. But when you take referencing out of the equation and pitch the program as a 'community of conversation' that enables them to share best practices with their government colleagues seeking similar goals, suddenly the prospect of joining our program seems much less intimidating.

And that conversation can happen at all levels and in multiple venues - from phone calls and visits to public speaking engagements. 

Q. What sort of media and technical facilities do you have supporting your government reference program?

A. At SAS, we are very fortunate to have an extensive and full-service marketing, creative and video department in house. Not only do we have the internal resources to produce customer success story videos and print stories, we also have a state-of-the-art studio where we can broadcast live webcasts featuring our customers and other thought leaders.

We have a talented press team that helps us to place our customers in print media. In addition, we have a talented marketing staff and writing team who craft our marketing materials that customers can take advantage of for their own purposes. 

Q. Tell us a bit about the legal and policy challenges you face in working with government references. How do you deal with them?

A. The legal concern over vendor endorsement is a common objection we hear when exploring reference opportunities with our customers. When our customers raise that objection, our policy is to continue reiterating our commitment to factual information sharing about the business benefit realized and not endorsement. I try to get in front of everyone involved in the decision - sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In most cases, when the dissenters at our customer take the time to review collateral that we have produced - most of which does not even mention SAS - they appreciate our undeniable commitment to simply telling their compelling story. 

Q. Can you share with us a story about how you landed a particularly hard-to-get government reference?

A. Recently, we were able to produce a public success story and video for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia (CSOSA). CSOSA is the agency that provides supervision of adults on probation, parole and supervised release in DC. Although they had been active in our reference program for some time, their participation was limited to less public activity, such as sales reference calls and visits.

When we presented them with the opportunity to produce the success story and video, many were excited to participate. But others were hesitant because of vendor endorsement concerns. To overcome their objections, I typed emails, sent letters, took countless phone calls, and ultimately gave my word that SAS would work with them at every step of the process to ensure that we produced a product that would reflect their entire story of program transformation - not just the technology story. We also assured them that they had full edit power over the final product..

Ultimately, when their Chief of Staff reviewed other videos that we have produced, she determined that endorsement wasn't an issue. Our track record proved our ability to tell our customer's story without endorsement. We also agreed to have their PR representative conduct the video interview, which provided him a comfort level that the final product would reflect the CSOSA story he wanted to tell.