By Brian Howard
When Anthrax Crashed SunGard's Direct Mail Lead-qualification Efforts, the Data Services Company Picked up the Phone and Hasn't Looked Back.
Of all that was lost in the wreckage of September 11, 2001, there was, miraculously, very little data on the casualty list.
Cold comfort, that.
In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, you'd have been hard pressed to find a soul, pundit or otherwise, willing to suggest any sort of silver lining, much less a financial data-related one.
But allowed a little distance, it feels OK to look back and marvel. It's more than a little amazing, given the concentration of financial services companies resident in the former World Trade Center, that those companies' financial records have remained mostly intact—and stories of peoples' financial portfolios thrown into chaos as a result of lost data have been practically nonexistent.
Disaster recovery was not a term that got much play in the general population before September 11. The sorts of events that disaster recovery systems are generally in place to protect against—power outages or even hurricanes and tornadoes—are commonplace enough so as not to raise eyebrows.
After September 11, public awareness of disaster recovery and its place in everyday life has increased.
Factor in the 2002 passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires financial services companies to protect their data and be able to access it in a very short period of time in the event of a continuity-interrupting disaster.
SunGard Availability Services in Wayne, PA, specializes in the services that large corporations need when faced with business continuity crises. SunGard deals not only with system and data backup, but with availability issues, with 35 brick-and-mortar and 40 mobile facilities that house "redundant" data centers into which a company's backed-up systems can be loaded and ready to go at a moment's notice.
Conventional wisdom would assume that SunGard has had a relatively easy time of things, marketing-wise, in the aftermath. After all, the worst-case scenario turned out to be much worse than anyone could have imagined. (SunGard itself lost several employees who were in the Twin Towers with clients.)
That, however, was not the case. SunGard, founded in 1978 as Sun Data by the Sun Oil company and eventually spun off, was victimized by the next wave of terror in the United States. The anthrax scare of late 2001, which struck fear in the mailrooms of corporate America, essentially put the kibosh on the company's already flagging direct mail lead-generation program.
"Probably the nail in the coffin on [our] direct mail was the anthrax scare," says David Palermo, vice president, marketing, SunGard Availability Services. "It just dried up. It absolutely stopped dead."
The company, which as recently as 1995 was doing 100 percent of its lead generation via direct mail, realized it needed to change course, and quick.
It picked up the phone.
SunGard was not entirely unfamiliar with teleservices at the time. In 1997, says Palermo, the company added an in-house telemarketing component to qualify the leads brought in through its direct mail efforts.
"The sales force didn't necessarily want or have the time to pursue something that might close in six months or a year," explains Palermo. "But we didn't want to let [these leads] just go away either." Instead, the telemarketers kept the leads warm with occasional check-up calls.
Direct mail had been on a downward trend for the company, even before September 11. According to Palermo, from a peak of around 2-percent response when the program began, "We were losing about a quarter percent of response every six months. … We just attributed it to list fatigue."
SunGard had already been integrating its media mix—incorporating e-mail, the Internet and seminars—so when the direct mail stream dried up, it wasn't completely unprepared.
But doing lead generation via mail—where a mail piece can be carefully scrutinized before it reaches prospects—is a relatively controlled exercise; outsourced teleservices is another matter entirely. Putting your company's first impression in the hands of a rep who doesn't work directly for you and has little experience with your product would seem risky business.
The teleservices program SunGard had in place at the time would need to be modified if it was to shoulder the bulk of the company's lead generating and qualifying.
Rather than taking calls from respondents to what Palermo calls self-qualifying mail pieces (offers of books on disaster recovery), outsourced reps would be required to get enough information from a prospect via a cold call to determine whether that prospect was a lead, and of what quality.
SunGard had been working with the Richmond, VA, Martin Agency, whose Martin Call Center Services had been providing call center services for the company for a few years. But the program would need to be kicked up a notch.
While the reps for this program don't need IT backgrounds, "they're going to ask questions of people who are in an IT position," explains Deanna Maneker, executive vice president, Martin Call Center Services.
Further complicating matters, SunGard has been repositioning itself, moving from straight disaster recovery to information availability. The difference, explains Palermo: "If you have a tape with all of your data on it, and you're standing on the street corner watching the fire company put out the fire in your building, your data is safe, but it's not very useful at that point in time."
What SunGard now emphasizes as a "new and improved" product, tying into the Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, are redundant facilities—data centers that can house the minimum hardware and staff a company needs to remain operational—and services such as instant availability to ensure that should something go terribly wrong, a company can be up and running without missing a beat.
"When you're out explaining a new brand, on top of a technically complex product, it's very difficult," says Palermo. "What we're doing, basically, is we bypass that entire discussion, and cut to the chase by asking, 'Do you have a need for data to be available in less than 48 hours?' and if the answer to that is yes, then we've got services that would benefit that company."
But determining this level of need required a different kind of rep, a rep who could listen, understand and, most importantly, interpret the contents of a phone discussion.
The task at hand: Turn reps with telephone skills, but little or no IT experience, into proxies for a dataservices company and use the results of their interactions with IT professionals to determine the best targets for the sales force.
To bring the existing telemarketing program to the level Palermo had in mind, Martin suggested bringing in consultant Liz Kislik, who has a background in teleservices training.
Reps for this program must survive a multi-step screening process before ever handling the phone.
"You certainly have to teach them who SunGard is," says Kislik. "But that may mean that you actually need to teach them what disaster recovery is, so they understand why a prospect company would want some."
"The screening process we have for this client requires them to be able to pronounce a long list of high-tech words," says Maneker. "There's a reading comprehension test customized toward high-tech. We're looking for technical comfort as a plus."
According to Maneker, the SunGard training program is customized and proprietary, combining classroom sessions, transition-to-floor, on-floor coaching and monitoring, followed by a 12-week on-the-job certification process.
Training the reps was one step; designing a plan for them was another.
"The first chunk of training preparation had to do with figuring out 'what is the content that should get covered in the call?'," explains Kislik. "What was the appropriate sequencing of the qualification information? So there you need branching diagrams. What are the skills needed to make those things actually work? … It's got to be conversational, but you've got to make sure you hit all the bases, otherwise you don't have a qualified lead."
Kislik and Martin worked on the call guide to figure out things such as:
"Was the language right?"
"Were the questions being asked to which they wanted the answers?"
"Were the answers categorized in such ways that they would engender appropriate field sales follow-up?"
"Even if you're giving them a perfectly lovely lead on a silver platter," explains Kislik, "the stuff has to be put in terms that the field sees as desirable."
And sometimes it's important to find out right away if a lead is unqualified.
"Sometimes the answer you want is 'Oh no, we don't have that,' because it's better to screen somebody out than to give the field a lead they won't want to work with," says Kislik.
SunGard's got a pretty good sense of what it's looking for, and has made a point to seek out not so much technical information, as to ask questions about a company's needs.
Palermo offers a couple of hypothetical responses and their corresponding courses of action:
1. "If you answer 'No, we don't have an application that needs to be back within 48 hours,' that probably drops you as a prospect."
2. "During the conversation, if we hear things such as, 'We've been looking at this for a couple of years but we never seem to get around to it,' that would be a mild prospect. They've clearly discussed it."
3. "Then there's, 'We've been looking at that and we've decided not to.' That's something that we would probably take back to marketing and educate them on the benefits of doing it, or the downside of not doing it. That wouldn't necessarily go to a [sales] rep."
4. "There's also, 'I'm interested. We've looked at this but just have not found the budget or the time.' That's a legitimate lead. Those are things that can be worked around through a sales call."
So the challenge was to design a call flow—not a script—to guide reps through interactions in a way that's calculated but also organic.
"We have a pretty robust software program," explains Paul Glancy, vice president of marketing, Martin Call Center Services. Martin uses a product called EDGE 5 that allows for dynamic call flows. For example, the next question that shows up for a rep to ask a prospect is dependent on the answer to the last question, and so on.
Martin's call center receives a list from SunGard, which has been segmented based on factors such as platform, type of industry, company size and title.
Martin reps make their calls and enter responses into the computer as the calls progress; the software guides the call as questions are answered and certain criteria met.
"We've found that unscripted calls work very well when there's no call to action," explains Palermo. "We'll call in to an account and offer a white paper on a certain subject with no requirements whatsoever to get that. … We get a lot of very useful information out of that, because people will talk to you, because you haven't really asked them for a sales call. We can take that information and craft a customized message to go back and move them along the purchase continuum."
Once the call is complete, reps fill in a comments screen and give their impressions of the call beyond the answers given.
"We say that instead of reading between the lines," explains Glancy, "they have to listen between the lines to provide some value-added comments back to SunGard. And their salespeople can use these comments as part of their assessment of how well this lead might develop."
According to Maneker, after speaking with some of SunGard's account people, Martin discovered that some disregard the answers to the questions and focus solely on the comments.
"The comments are really important," says Maneker, "because the lead may look well qualified, but the comments tell a different story, and vice versa."
Quantity vs. Quality
Depending on the needs of the sales force at the time, the criteria for determining a lead changes frequently.
"The objectives are set and reset depending on what [we] hear from the field," says Maneker. Martin has a full-time account person who serves as a go-between for Martin and SunGard. Depending on how busy SunGard's sales force is at a given time, the criteria for what constitutes a qualified lead is continually reevaluated.
"What might be a lead six months ago might not be a lead now because they don't need them," says Maneker. Sometimes, for instance, SunGard's sales reps only want to talk to companies with 15 or more servers, because they have more than enough leads that they're already working on. When the lead stream starts to dry up a bit, SunGard will perhaps be willing to talk to companies with just four or more servers.
"The pendulum swings back and forth as you try to balance [lead] quantity and quality," says Palermo.
So constant communication between SunGard and Martin keeps the sales force as busy as it needs to be at all times.
You've Got to Keep it Integrated
No marketing program would be complete in this day and age without a little integration, so SunGard has been experimenting with different media mixes with great success.
"Ideally we purchase lists from publications where we can advertise and we can also get an e-mail address," says Palermo. "It should come as no surprise that if we do an integrated campaign where we're actually advertising in the publication and then we e-mail prior to calling and we call within 48 hours, we see about a 50-percent lift in our response rate."
With complex services like SunGard's, the more aware a prospect is before the call, the better. Call it a stroke of brand/interaction synergy.
"Whether it's subliminal or not," says Palermo, "they kind of already know who we are and what we're talking about when we call."
Palermo says he's a firm believer in the "awareness leads to interest leads to demand leads to action" axiom.
Sometimes, as with any complicated business product, education needs to be added to the mix. SunGard uses fulfillment materials, as well as its Web site to help.
One e-mail asks in the subject line: "What if your backed up applications can't be used to run your business?"
It directs recipients to SunGard's Information Availability Challenge, a Web-based survey using branching logic to get IT managers thinking about what provisions are in place at their company in the event of a continuity interruption.
Another application in use is what SunGard calls The Vulnerable Enterprise, a Flash-based tool that identifies 30 potential points of failure (out of potentially thousands) for a fictitious company.
"What we're trying to show companies," says Palermo, "is that you may have protected against 50 percent of what can go wrong, but you're vulnerable to the weakest link in your chain."
In essence, it's not unlike selling insurance. Ascending levels of protection carry descending levels of risk. And perhaps the best way to get IT managers to reassess the level of risk they're comfortable with is to have them do it by themselves. Sometimes asking questions in a tone-neutral manner can lead a prospect to the conclusion you're seeking, without him or her feeling pressured.
It's a classic selling-by-not-selling strategy, or, if you will, selling via the Socratic method.
"We're truly not selling you anything," emphasizes Palermo. "It's more of a 'We'd like to offer you this. Period.' kind of thing. … You ask these questions, and they seem very simplistic, but I think it gets a lot of IT people thinking.
"Typically if you're offering something—and we've got a series of white papers—that may help them, even on their own, plug that hole, then they're willing to engage you in a conversation."
With a mounting, industry-wide shift from CRM to a focus on nurturing customer relationships and conversant marketing, SunGard's strategy seems to be riding a tsunami-like zeitgeist.
And thus far, the results have been positive.
Palermo won't divulge hard numbers (as sure a sign as any that SunGard is on to something), but he says that when SunGard was using direct mail for lead generation, it was sending out "three quarters of a million pieces of direct mail per year, and the teleservices has yielded more net leads than that did."
At a Glance ...
The company: SunGard Availability Services is a division of SunGard Data Systems (SDS). SDS was founded in 1978 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sun Oil company, was spun off through a leveraged buyout in 1983 and made its initial public offering in 1986.
Headquarters: Wayne, PA
Clients: More than 20,000 in 50 countries, including 47 of the world's 50 largest financial services companies.
Revenue: As of press time, $2.593 billion over the last four quarters.