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How will Sun bounce back?


Sun's pumped out some exciting news lately... Project Blackbox is the coolest thing ever, their financial picture continues to improve (less loss is the new profit), and they finally FINALLY open-sourced Java. The new(ish) CEO Jonathan Schwartz is making good things happen at the top. But if Sun is really going to pull this off, they need more than strategic decisions, hot products, and new technologies. Focusing on the top of the org chart won't work unless the bottom gets just as much attention. Maybe more.

Why is it that so often the employees who have the most direct human-to-human customer contact are the ones who get the least respect? Customer service is managed by someone, but you rarely catch a manager answering a customer call. Customer education is managed by someone, but you won't catch a manager training a customer. This doesn't apply particularly to Sun of course--I'm just picking on them because I was--and still am--a small part of that story. And given that Sun is overall a great place to work, whatever problems I see there are likely to be much worse elsewhere.

In the Good Days, most tech employees were treated like the scarce and precious resource we were. Most of us knew it wouldn't last, and once the bubble burst we didn't expect things to stay the same. It was a tough time. But here's where it gets both weird and wrong, because after the bubble burst, we were still the same people who were there when Sun was kicking ass. We were still the same people who were so highly valued just a few month's before. Yet as things began to slide, and the layoffs began, we were magically transformed into people who were just "lucky to have a job and better shut up with the complaints" (one of my manager's exact words) This isn't about layoffs--they were necessary (and in Sun's case, still are). This is about how a company treats the ones who weren't laid off.


I was at Sun last week--in the Colorado flagship customer training facility--and noticed the "Employee of the Quarter" plaque still on the wall in the main lobby. I saw that there had been no new "awards" since 2002. What message does this send to employees? What message does this send to customers? More importantly, what impact does it have on customers when the employees who interact with them are no longer as highly valued as they once were? Actually, it's worse than that--in so many tech companies including Sun, many of the employees who interact with customers have been outsourced. (Sun now outsources most of its customer education)

Most companies don't outsource things they need to win a customer, but they have no problem outsourcing things the customer needs to use the product. Technical support. Training. Customer support. Most companies keep sales in-house but then have someone with no passion for the company's products--help the customer actually use the thing. (Just one more example of the huge gap between how we treat customers before vs. after the sale.)

If we want customer evangelists, we better start with employee evangelists. Having killer technology and a great team at the top is not enough if the employees--people--who have the greatest impact on whether the customer kicks ass aren't valued as highly as those who have the greatest impact on acquiring a customer. It's not about an "Employee of the Quarter" Office-Space/Dilbertish reward system... it's about saying to employees, "We need you. You are the people who can make our customers succeed or fail with our products." Customers could not care less about the middle and upper management of a company. They care about the guy who answered the phone. They care about the guy who configured their servers. They care about the guy who taught them to make Java sing.

Think hard about how you treat the people who touch what should be the company's most valued asset--the existing customers. In my perfect world, we treat existing customer/users with great care, and we treat the people who interact with them with even greater care. If a company like Sun and so many others wants to bounce back, they should put just as much energy into the bottom of the org chart as they do at the top.

[Personal update: my back is much better, I'm still on pain-killers--but much less now. I'm planning to start real work again Monday. So, if you're still waiting for email or a call... hopefully tomorrow!]

Posted by Kathy on November 19, 2006 | Permalink


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» A look from an insider from outside from c0t0d0s0.org
I´ve found an interesting blog entry of someone who used to work for Sun writing about Sun at "Creating passionate users:Yet as things began to slide, and the layoffs began, we were magically transformed into people who were just "lucky to have a job and [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 20, 2006 1:04:45 AM

» How you treat your staff counts from Richard's Braindump
...Especially when popular blogs like Creating Passionate Users gets into your training facilities and notices how (not) current your employee of the quarter board is. I tell you, that made me chuckle :-) And then I had to stop and think. [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 20, 2006 3:43:59 AM

» How to treat your workers? from DataWebTect
Once again, Kathy comes back with a topic that is so relevant to the current times. The most overlooked aspect by the management is the people. If a curve is plotted it would like the curve below: The management attitude can be divided into the four p... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 20, 2006 9:23:57 PM


Hmm I do notice your and/or Bert's names arent amongst the Employee of the Q ;)

Glad to hear you back is getting better !!!

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Nov 19, 2006 11:04:35 PM

Great photo of the EOTQ board!! Sheer genius. It almost makes you feel like you're in a McDonalds :-)

Why is it just the customer facing staff you need to treat with care? What about the other "grunts" who put in day-in and day-out. These are the people who set the morale in the company, who start word of mouth marketing to their friends, who make or break any company. Don't just reserve your efforts for the people on the front line, remember the support staff that are needed to make it happen - from accounts admin staff through to "hygiene engineers". Everyone counts.

Posted by: Richard Banks | Nov 20, 2006 3:58:23 AM

Interesting to note 2001 had a Q5 :)

Posted by: Steve Chaloner | Nov 20, 2006 4:17:38 AM

It's all too familiar a story. What was once touted as the company's biggest asset somehow becomes the company's biggest liability.

In many cases, I believe it's not willful on the part of top management, it's just they forget about doing right things. It's not on their list of priorities. I believe at least 25% of the CEO's time should be thinking about customers (marketing) and at least 25% of the CEO's time should be thinking about the team that produces the results (Human Resources). Unfortunately in many companies neither of them gets that kind of attention.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Nov 20, 2006 4:39:02 AM

" Thanks for keeping me in your feeds. ; )"

rofl, no sane person unsubscribes this blog.

Posted by: apoc | Nov 20, 2006 4:44:30 AM

I work in college libraries and computing. Ever since I got my start, I've noticed how whoever the patron talks to is The Librarian - from the titular Head Of All Things Library down through reference librarians and catalogers to student book shelvers and, yes, security guards and janitors.

Once you realize that the customer doesn't make a distinction between front-line support and the top of the ladder, maybe you start working harder at keeping everyone well-informed, and treating everyone with respect. At least, I try to.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 20, 2006 8:10:12 AM

"what should be the company's most valued asset--the existing customers."

I worked in Technical Support for 4+ years for a market leading Silicon Valley software company. There was an implicit hierarchy of resource allocation with regard to customers - it went something like this:

1. Potential customers with lots of money to spend
2. Potential customers with some money to spend
3. Existing customers that had spent a lot of money
4. Existing customers that had spent some money

I left 3 years ago - I doubt if it has changed at all. I also bet that this hierarchy describes 99% of software companies that are publically traded.


Posted by: Jason | Nov 20, 2006 9:52:20 AM

I think that only small/medium companies really NEED their customer-facing people to be passionate about helping customers. It's what sets the small startups apart from the mega-corporations, but once that small startup steps into the domain of mega-corporation, there's (usually) no need to keep those passionate folks around if it's cheaper to outsource them. After all, they have their reputable brand name to make up for their mediocre support team.

Posted by: Sean C. | Nov 20, 2006 10:36:26 AM

I wonder how long before this URL gets emailed to someone at that facility and the plaque comes off the wall?

Posted by: fiat lux | Nov 20, 2006 12:16:40 PM

I HATE calling Delta and avoid it at all costs, they must outsource their customer service to India because I always get someone who speaks with a thick accent (difficult to understand however romantic it may sound) and the connection is often touchy. Your post hits it on the head.

Posted by: Michelle | Nov 20, 2006 12:51:09 PM

Glad to hear that you're feeling better. I'm fascinated by that Blackbox project. I doubt I'll ever be in a position to even see one, but it's cool just knowing they exist.

Posted by: hdw | Nov 20, 2006 1:48:27 PM

From Tom Peters himself:
"if you really want to "put the customer first," put the people who serve the customer "more first."

I have just added the book "The Customer Comes Second" mentioned in that post to my books-to-buy list...

Posted by: Rimantas | Nov 20, 2006 2:49:39 PM

Awesome post. And you know what else customers don't really care about (besides mid-mgmt & CXOs) — the name of your product! Maybe, if companies took the hours and millions they spend on developing Just-The-Right-Name and redirected that time and money on things to improve conditions, et al for those who make the business run — maybe business would run better for all. (Ah, wishful thinking . . .)

Posted by: John Windsor | Nov 20, 2006 3:50:48 PM

So, you think this works only in the workplace? How about in the real world? The Christmas after I got engaged, my fiancee gave me a windsurfer. I thought I was in heaven. Then we got married. You know what I got that Christmas? A tie rack. And you know what I got every Christmas and birthday after that? Ties. I quickly learned the difference between being married and being engaged. And despite that, we're still married over 20 years later.

Posted by: Mitch Weisburgh | Nov 20, 2006 4:16:39 PM

As someone who's done a lot of environments work at Sun, I'd like to thank you for having that be the ONLY picture you've shared with the rest of the world ;-)

Certainly there's a lot to clean up, starting with the cues we take from the physical world such as the one you've pointed out.

The good news: we have an experience-design plan (interiors, media, messaging, dos and don'ts) for moving things in the right direction. Small impressions lead to a larger brand impression, and it's imperative that we all understand this.

The bad news: getting every single employee, vendor or subcontractor -- in hundreds of locations around the world -- to actually care about how we communicate in our physical environments is another story. Especially in an envioronment that often values rogue behaviors.

So there's no easy way to win. But we as a company are making money. And it's a lot easier to get people to care when we're on the rise.

Posted by: Noel Franus | Nov 20, 2006 5:07:52 PM

Richard Banks: "everyone counts"
Well-put. You're right... it's about everything and everyone at the bottom, not just the ones who directly interact with customers.

Steve: Q5, a very good quarter, yes. ; )

Joe: "Once you realize that the customer doesn't make a distinction between front-line support and the top of the ladder, maybe you start working harder at keeping everyone well-informed, and treating everyone with respect."

You managed to say all that I meant, but in one simple sentence. Thank-you.

Jason: Wow, that hierarchy is scary. The thing that always surprises me about things like this is that for so many industries and companies, the stats all show that keeping a customer is much less expensive than getting one. Yet we're still so bent on treating the prospects like gold and the onces we've got like... definitely NOT gold.

Rimantas: Thanks for this! I'm going to order that book as well.

John Windsor: That's something I hadn't thought of, John -- all that money spent on finding the NAME, that could be spent on actually making the product live UP to the name after the sale... excellent point. By the way, I just discovered your blog (YouBlog.typepad.com) and am liking it quite a lot.

Mitch: Windsurfer vs. ties/tie-racks... hmmm... I think they call this bait and switch ; ) Not that we all aren't guilty of it. But if you've been married for 20 years, I reckon both partners are doing something very, very right. But I agree that it works everywhere, and perhaps especially in families. It's always been a fascination for me how people will treat perfect strangers with more politeness than they offer their kids and/or spouse. Shouldn't we be treating our family members BETTER than we treat everyone else? Or at least the same...

Neol: "I'd like to thank you for having that be the ONLY picture you've shared with the rest of the world..."

You're very welcome ; )
I should have mentioned that this facility is also wonderful. It's very easy to not even notice what's been there for so long that it's just part of the wall, and had I still been working there every day, I might have never realized it was there. My intention was much less about what's in the environment, though, and much more about it means that the Employee of the Quarter stopped. Even if there were no more bonuses to be given for the ones getting the award, it still says that someone noticed you effort and performance. But don't get me started on whether they're rewarding the right thing... (by "right" I mean "right for the customer")

Anyway, I haven't been to all of the Sun facilities, but if you've had anything to do with the Broomfield campus, well, it continues to be beautiful inside and out. Especially when you have a west-facing window...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 20, 2006 5:49:15 PM

This post seems a bit misplaced to me. It didn't seem to contain so much clever, insightful and fresh ways of thinking about HR, as just emotional therapy from a disgruntled ex-employee...

Posted by: Toni | Nov 21, 2006 5:20:58 AM

Kathy -- absolutely fair comments. I have walked through the Broomfield training center, and just didn't see this message we were sending to our customers. Instead, I was focusing on listening in to our trainers, and seeing if they paid attention to good adult learning principles. There was so much work to be done there, I missed the glaringly obvious. Thanks ... we'll pay attention to this around the world.

But that's not your main point. I get it ... the customer relationship matters. I think it matters so much that every CLO in Sun is expected to be in the classroom at least once this year -- not just manage learning. That includes me. And our learning products need to focus on the customer first, and their workplace performance needs, not our products. We'll get there.

In the end, your main argument is that laying off employees destroys the customer relationship. So best to throw the captains off the ship, or something else, anything else. In simplest terms, that's what I hear you saying. And at this point, we disagree. Shareholders own this company. And we owe them a financially healthy company. If we threw all the captains off the ship, it still wouldn't be enough to turn a profit. (3,000 managers X average salary) Agreed our only solution shouldn't be layoffs. And we fail to engage our employees minds and hearts sufficiently. Let's stay in this together ...

Posted by: Karie | Nov 21, 2006 6:47:06 PM

emotional therapy time to time is just what we need.

Posted by: Marcis Gasuns | Aug 14, 2007 12:11:22 AM

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