Over a dozen years ago, IBM realized that every brand, geography and industry group in the company was basically “doing their own reference thing” in silos.

Matt Young, Program Director of Corporate Marketing at IBM, was asked by Ann Rubin, IBM’s VP of Marketing, to take a look at this for the company. He saw the opportunity to address this misalignment and help position the company for greater success as IBM headed into the future. “I recommended at that time that we consolidate the disparate teams and the varied programs into one. We needed to treat Client References as a discipline, the same way we treated Advertising.” It is the story of Matt’s leadership through this transformation and the results it has driven that has earned IBM the 2017 RO Sherpa Award of Outstanding Executive Leadership.

Facing the challenge head-on

Although Matt Young had a wealth of business experience before heading up this strategic program transformation at IBM, he admits he was a bit out of his comfort zone when it first started. “My background for my first 25 years was in Sales at IBM, and I was fairly new to Marketing, but I was asked to pull this together and knew it was needed for the company,” Matt recalls. Getting familiar with the structure, personnel, responsibilities and resources of a new department was the first challenge to achieve streamlined alignment he noted, “We allowed for duplication of effort and resources and consequently the number of people assigned to be in the new centralized group was reduced.”

The next major challenge was updating the tools and technology the disparate departments at IBM were using when it came to the client reference program. Both the Marketing team and Sales team were using a reference management system that was developed in the 1980s. “It had served us well, but was seriously outdated and not user friendly,” says Matt. In addition, there were thousands of IBM salespeople that were very dissatisfied with the reference request process as well as availability of references. “There was an arms-length relationship with sales,” said Matt, “we had a huge opportunity to add value to their daily workflows and build better relationships with these folks. As such, we worked to ensure the reference system was connected directly with the sales opportunity management system.”

Getting big results with engagement, views and brand amplification

Once Matt got the right team of people, strategic plans, more efficient workflows and eventually – with the correct technology tools in place, the team was able to achieve great results. “We’ve been able to attribute a significant amount of IBM’s revenue as impacted by our efforts of our client reference and advocacy programs,” Matt explains.

Building up the volume of customers in the program and new ways the team engages with them has been a priority for Matt and his team. For example, The IBM Client References team surveys thousands of their clients annually, and those that are satisfied customers from those results are invited to join the client reference program. With strategies and tactics like these in place, Matt notes his team is able to produce thousands of new reference profiles every year, around 1,000 standard public case studies annually with an extremely high engagement rate and have created nearly 2,000 client videos that have been produced from IBM events and in-studio interviews.

In addition to breathing new life into the existing client reference processes Matt also oversaw the development of a formal advocacy program for hundreds of key IBM clients, who evangelize on behalf of IBM. In 2016, Matt’s team launched the IBM Client Success Field Notes blog, which is a collection of stories written by IBM customers and business partners. “We developed a process whereby IBM clients write case studies themselves, in their own words. It’s really powerful!” says Matt. Since the launch of the blog, led by Jolene Hall, IBM References Strategy Manager, it has received a 300% growth in year over year views, with tens of thousands of views every month and a boastful engagement rate.

It’s safe to say with the changes made, Matt and his team no longer have the disparate “at arms-reach” relationship the sales team had with references in years past. “We have tens of thousands of sellers at IBM. But we annually survey 10,000 of them at random. Our results show that nearly every seller is aware of and depends on the RO Innovation reference system. That’s a huge win!” The IBM Client Reference efforts are also closely tied and coordinated with the IBM Advertising team.

“When we put focused efforts on improving the IBM References Community, an ‘extended team’ of hundreds of people was formed,” says Matt. “In the way we’ve done it, we’ve been able to interest marketers and sales enablement leaders. We have incorporated our business partners into the nomination process and found new ways to engage with our clients via social media as well.” Matt notes this community is regularly communicated to and his team does monthly reviews of new tools, hot topics, hot references, process changes, templates, resources and more.

Congratulations, IBM!

IBM is the winner of the 2017 RO Sherpa Award for Outstanding Executive Leadership.The Outstanding Executive Leadership award recognizes an executive stakeholder team (or individual) for their efforts in supporting and promoting the value of customer reference programs through their vision and leadership.  On behalf of the RO Innovation team, congratulations IBM on this achievement!

Nichole Auston
Director, Content Marketing at RO Innovation
Nichole Auston is the Director of Content Marketing at RO Innovation. With a background in digital marketing and nearly a decade of experience managing marketing programs for a variety of SaaS companies, she’s passionate about sharing insights, best practices and stories about sales enablement and customer reference management, and the people and technology that power it.
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