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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. 

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