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Case Study: How a High-Tech Company Created a Searchable Customer Reference Database that Tripled References and Closed Sales

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Company: Network Appliance
Contact: Diana Ying, program manager
Location: Sunnyvale, CA
Industry: High-Tech, B2B
Annual revenue: $2,070,000,000
Number of employees: 5300

Quick read:

The customer development group at a large, publicly held high-tech company needed a central repository of data to help identify satisfied customers willing to be references when sales associates approached new prospects. Typically, finding such a customer could take as many as three days—a waste of valuable time that could jeopardize the sales lead.

By putting together a customer reference management database filled with relevant data on customers, the company was able to cut the amount of search time from days to seconds. The company's database now holds thousands of global references, complete with customer contacts, deployment details, and more than 1,200 customer-ready tools that the sales team can use.

The new information, along with the timely way it can be accessed, has more than tripled the number of customer references at the sales force's disposal. Moreover, information is highly secure, with role-based entitlements built in to manage access of the most sensitive types of data.


The Challenge:

In the fall of 2005, the customer development group at Network Appliance (NTAP), a Fortune 1000 company listed on Nasdaq, conducted a survey of its sales associates to find out what they needed to sell its products and services more successfully. (NetApp, as the company is often called, offers enterprise storage systems and related services.)

Nearly unanimously, the sales teams requested a centralized database of reference accounts that they could use to search for similar customers and find contact names and other information.

The existing customer portal contained "very limited information," says Diana Ying, the database's program manager. It wasn't kept current, so the data was not always accurate.

In an entire year, the customer database had been accessed just 1,000 times. Considering that the company employs more than 5,300 workers, the existing database was clearly being underutilized. Whereas, "Customer references are one of our most valuable assets," said Ying.

Campaign:

Network Appliance's customer development group knew that it wanted to create a system capable of allowing users to search by several variables, and it wanted the database to include a wide variety of information relevant to increasing sales.

The database needed to include the following:

  • Several customer contacts within each company, with notes about their specific responsibilities
  • Details on the business, including its products
  • Challenges the customer faced that led it to turn to NetApp
  • Details on the deployment of the NetApp solutions (products, services, partners) with quantifiable evidence on the key benefits
  • Notes on how the client was "won"
  • Sales tools such as customer-ready case studies, slides, and press releases

Working with Boulder Logic, a company that specializes in customer reference management databases, the team developed EvidenceBank, a customer reference tool customized for NetApp.

The creation of EvidenceBank involved several key steps:

Step 1. Secure executive level support

Stakeholder buy-in is a critical success factor for a program such as this. "Our system has been designed to shorten sales cycles, save time and directly impact revenue," said Cheryl Keener, NetApp's senior director of customer development.

"This enabled us to secure the highest levels of executive support across the company. We continually demonstrate, in a quantitative way, how we are delivering against these objectives."

Step 2. Appoint a specialized team to oversee the database

The customer development group established the "Evidence2Win team" to serve as the internal gatekeepers and promoters of customer references.

Step 3. Import existing reference accounts

The Evidence2Win team initially filled EvidenceBank with several hundred existing reference accounts from the old customer portal. These were the customers that had generated the most revenue over the previous two years. The team then filled out those existing accounts with data that was stored elsewhere, such as sales tools and note from the sales teams and customer interviews.

Step 4. Encourage continuous updates

The database would only be useful if kept current. The team urged all stakeholders—the sales force, product marketing executives, systems engineers, and anyone else that had contact with customers—to update the entries and to add new ones.

Step 5. Appoint "champions"

To ensure that EvidenceBank was being used across all of the company's locations, the team appointed more than a dozen corporate champions throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. These people were given extensive training on EvidenceBank and could serve to help others.

Results:

Within the first two weeks of the September 2006 rollout, EvidenceBank attracted more than 1,000 users. Ying has received very positive feedback about EvidenceBank's new search capacity from her sales force.

EvidenceBank's number of global references has grown more than 300%, with a fourfold increase in the largest, most strategic accounts, including customer contacts, deployment details, and corresponding sales tools.

More than 1,300 employees now use EvidenceBank on a regular basis to search for references, request reference calls, track the frequency of communication with a reference, and to add information.

The marketing and PR departments also use EvidenceBank to search for references willing to give testimonial press interviews or speak at events.

Lessons learned:

1. Top executive support enables success

Emphasizing the business value that a centralized customer reference management database delivers helps it gain executive support and sponsorship.

2. Stay on top of it

A database like this is "a constant work in progress," according to Ying, and keeping it up to date is a challenge.

Ying has the ability to print reports that show when each entry was last updated and what fields require new information. That way, she can keep track of how often each is being updated.

3. Develop strong relationships

For the sales force to be willing to input information, the Evidence2Win team needed their buy-in. It was important, going into the project, that the development team forged a strong relationship with sales and maintained that relationship.

Other relationships, such as with the systems engineers who know the nitty-gritty of each deployment, were also important.

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