Companies That Listen: Sun
I’m a sucker for companies that listen to their customers. I’m sure you are too. How many times have you gotten a product that’s nearly perfect but is missing that final touch? Or worse, the product just doesn’t live up to it’s expectations? Don’t you usually feel helpless in the face of some huge software/electronics/car/whatever company? I know I do.
For example, the monopolistic cable company I’m forced to use, Comcast, hasn’t figured out how to deliver TV to my house for more than a month (isn’t that sorta what they do?) – and I’m helpless!
I’m happy to report that Sun listens to their customers. Really, truly, listens. Even to small ones like me. Even to small ones like me who complain loudly when a product isn’t right (but who cheer equally loudly when it is).
As you may have gathered from Jonathan Schwartz’s blog post ‘The Internet As Customer’, we were one of the attendees at Sun’s information gathering event, and it was fascinating.
One of my biggest takeaways (other than that Sun listens to their customers) is that Sun’s customer base is amazingly schizophrenic. Check out this small cross sample of some of them:
- Some customers don’t want to buy Sun hardware unless they’ve embraced Linux (like, say, us). Others are freaked out that Sun is embracing Linux and are afraid it shows a lack of commitment to Solaris. (Wonder what they think about the new Windows deal? 🙂 )
- Some customers wouldn’t even be customers if it weren’t for AMD/Intel support (us again). Others see this as the death knell for Sun’s custom hardware and are worried.
- Some customers don’t want to use Sun technologies unless they’re open source (us yet again). Others think Sun’s giving away the farm and that proprietary software (and hardware!) is the only way to survive.
- Some of us can’t stand the complicated buying process and just want ‘Amazon for servers’ through a web UI (can you guess if this is us?). Others love having complicated, but complete and thorough, ordering channels.
- A few of them worry that a focus on Java could possibly mean a de-emphasis of datacenter technologies (we don’t use Java, but this isn’t a fear I share). Others wish Sun would just focus on the most important thing to them, Java, and get rid of all this boring datacenter muck already!
I hope you get the general idea – and I’m so super glad that I don’t have to deal with a customer base nearly this broad and fractured. Whew! I don’t know how they do it!
A few quick notes:
- This was an incredibly expensive event for Sun. Not in the the-food-must-have-cost-a-fortune sense of the word, but in the sheer-man-hours sense of the word. Going to the event, I knew Jonathan was speaking for an hour or so on the first day. I assumed that, being a busy guy with a multi-billion-dollar business to run, he’d speak and then leave to go run Sun. How wrong I was. Jonathan stayed the entire time, as did Scott McNealy, and an amazing braintrust of top executives and engineering talent. I completely believe it was absolutely worth it for much of Sun’s brainpower to be focused on listening to their customers – but honestly, I was surprised to see them actually do it.
- About 6 months ago, we asked Sun for a product that would be incredibly difficult to design, but would dramatically change how we build datacenters. They nodded, said they’d look into it, and we crossed our fingers. Apparently we weren’t the only ones, because it’s coming – and it’s far better than we had initially asked for.
- One of the attendees, who spends obscene, ungodly amounts of money with IBM, can’t even get engineering staff on the phone. Apparently, IBM has a big sales force who’s trained to buffer customers away from the engineers. Ugh. It’s an attitude like that which ensured IBM came in dead last in our vendor shoot-out. They literally didn’t want our business. Thank goodness Sun gets me in front of technical people when I need it.
- I only read the dress code requirements after arriving. They said “Business” for the meetings. Since I don’t even own any “Business” clothes, that was a problem. T-shirt, Crocs, and a baseball cap it was! (And, of course, no-one cared. Or they were polite enough not to say anything🙂 )
All in all, I’m still feeling pretty dang good about our decision to go with Sun for our servers. An emphasis on innovation and willingness to listen to their customers is a winning strategy in my book.