This week I had the chance to chat with SAS Institute's' Director or Marketing, Craig Frampton, who along with several members of his reference team will moderate a panel at this year's Customer Reference Forum on how they are redefining - and expanding - the role of their program in the current economy.
This will be one of several presentations showing how reference programs are not only cost cutting or streamlining in this economy, but are finding ways to provide important new strategic value.
Q. Craig, Many reference managers are talking about cost cuts, layoffs, scaling back, "hunkering down,"etc. But you're finding opportunities for your reference program. Let's explore those. Why don't you start by telling us where senior management is seeing new opportunities for SAS' business in this turbulent environment?
A. We believe that in the midst of turmoil stands opportunity. Like many technology firms today, we recognize that our software and services can help companies navigate today's challenges and also create new opportunities - by helping them make the right decisions, helping them leverage better integrated information across the enterprise, and so forth. In fact, we have some compelling value propositions. For example, organizations that are prepared during rough times can seize the moment and perhaps leap ahead of the competition. At the least, a turbulent environment represents a burning platform to get things done in order to survive.
As a result, from a customer reference standpoint, the only way that SAS can definitively understand what our customers need in this environment is to listen to them. As reference professionals, creating a community of conversation for our customers to share not only what they are currently doing with SAS solutions, but what their emergent business challenges are, is a critical component in growing our overall business. My team plays a crucial role in that chain of understanding. In turn, senior management sees customer referencing as an extremely high priority function. Without new references being added to the program and without existing references to help drive ongoing value, we lose an important piece of a very customer-centric puzzle at SAS.
Q. What are some of the more important ways that the SAS Reference Team is providing value in this economy?
A. For one thing, we play a key role - among several stakeholders at SAS - in refining our products and services. The reason we can play such a role is that we're the ones talking to customers about how they actually use - and benefit - from our offerings. As we all know, these often differ from the ways that planners, product development and sales people think customers will use and benefit from our solutions. Getting that information into the feedback loop is therefore critical, and it's why we play a key role in the process.
As a result, we're now able to play an important role in developing solutions that will meet the needs of customers - such as Financial Services firms, for example - in this very tumultuous economy. We'll be developing and refining lots of solutions, rapidly. It's critical to have a robust feedback loop to refine these solutions, and it must obviously include customer input. That's why we'll continue to play a vital role in this environment.
Q. Are there new areas in which your Reference Team is providing value to SAS business goals?
A. Yes. One of the things we're focusing on as a company in this economy is to dive deeper into the needs of our biggest customers. Often these are huge, global firms that, in this environment, may well be growing through acquisition - such as healthy banks acquiring faltering banks.
By taking a deeper dive into these customers' needs, SAS can provide better value. Obviously our Reference Program can help in the process of understanding these needs.
In addition, SAS is working very hard to focus on the solutions providing the most essential value to customers at a critical time. Our Reference Team is playing a key role in sharpening this focus. Once priority solutions are identified, we make sure that we're developing marketing resources - references, case studies videos, industry event speakers and the like - for these solutions. I'd suggest that any Reference Program make very sure that you're not working on reference resources for solutions that were popular five year ago. Your program priorities need to be up-to-the-minute in sync with current business initiatives.
At the 2009 Forum, we'll talk more about the process we're a part of that implements this tight focus on key products and solutions.
Q. Where does your team focus its time and efforts currently?
A. We spend a lot of time focused on cross-functional collaboration. Across sales, professional services, product marketing, field marketing, media relations, analyst relations, research and development, the list goes on and on, we all have valuable interactions with and intelligence about customers. The trick is to have just enough process, structure, and technology in place to not be overly burdensome but actually create value for the company. As you extend the reach across geographic regions, this quickly becomes a fairly complex organizational scenario. But it's worth it because we're able to complete and benefit from a collective customer picture in a global economy.
Q. How do you see the role of the SAS reference program changing as we move forward?
A. The recent and continued proliferation of information and the ability to participate in networking virtual communities on the web changes the way that referencing will be done into the future. I believe the reference evolution that is underway is moving us closer toward what looks like a "community of open conversation" between customers, prospects, and the general marketplace - obviously within reason. Essentially, we need to facilitate or create an environment for those interactions. I'm not sure that anyone truly knows what that will look like, but considering the convergence of referencing, influencers in a buying decision, and social networking, it is a fundamental topic at SAS. It will require testing things over time, but the reality is that if we do not create a community that customers see as valuable, they will seek interaction with one another through alternate avenues.
Q. Let's look at a couple of particularly interesting markets for SAS as well as other technology firms, and the role your Reference Program is playing there. Let's start with the Financial Services market. What opportunities is SAS seeing there?
A. Certainly, consolidation activity, government support, and a shrinking number of overall companies is a reality. However, for those companies that remain, now more than ever there is a need to manage their operations and serve and protect consumers more effectively. SAS is very active in this space, in areas of operational and credit risk, fraud, customer intelligence, data intelligence, and anti-money laundering, among other core areas. Current market conditions will create the need for more and more of the solutions that SAS offers today. In addition, as we listen to our customers in banking and insurance, for example, new business challenges will emerge and we will be able to apply analytics as a solution and value driver.
Q. What specific challenges - and opportunities - is your Reference Team finding in the Financial Services market?
A. Traditionally, the hypercompetitive and regulated Financial Services industry presents a referencing challenge - they tend to be less willing to speak publicly. We've had great success at getting customers to speak in a more controlled and structured environment. It is amazing, but one to one sales opportunities or confidential analyst community interactions have been well-received and, often, direct competitors will talk to one another. In certain instances, even before the current changes to the industry, some customers truly see the value of gaining visibility in the marketplace and are intrigued at the thought of being positioned as a thought leader.
As the market changes and the crisis continues, we're finding some interesting opportunities. First, companies that are having success, in the face of so much failure, are increasingly willing to talk about positive things. It creates a mechanism to cut through the noise of the crisis and showcase how they are differentiating from the companies that are struggling. Second, we're seeing a real spike in interest in the mid-market and regional sector. Some of the mid-size players have not seen the same level of consequence from the meltdown, and are really working to raise their profile in a shrinking space. Our Financial Services Reference Managers are working to navigate the daily changes and create opportunities for customers to express their successes and also share their challenges. This is about as volatile a market as anyone could have ever imagined, and we are working to help our customers stabilize and identify truly valuable silver linings to an ever-changing cloud of activity. At the Customer Reference Forum, we will spend some time during our panel discussion talking about the current state of affairs and how the industry is both an ongoing challenge and growing opportunity.
Q. Elizabeth Stack has described in her interview how she's managed to build a particularly robust Federal Government reference program - another key market in this economy. Are you seeing additional opportunities to expand the value of this particular reference program?
A. Elizabeth has done a fantastic job working in building Federal and also State & Local Government references. We've built an extremely tight partnership with our Government group and have a great approach to engaging Government customers. As Elizabeth described in her recent interview and will describe in more detail at the Forum, we have established a win-win situation for Government customers; building lasting relationships, and working within the construct of the way Government agencies do business.
Assessing the current state, it appears that a solid approach to Government referencing will pay great dividends. Prevailing thinking, given challenges in so many industries, is that Government will need the ability to dive into industries, diagnose and fix problems based on analysis, and get things back on track. Looking at Financial Services or the Auto industry, for example, the Government is taking a great deal more control of the marketplace. In turn, the Government will logically grow. With an established pool of Government references and a track record of large-scale success, SAS is excited to support the efforts of agencies and find ways to highlight successes in appropriate and relevant ways.