As I have started to settle into my new role with SoftLayer, we have spent a lot of time meeting with various vendors and partners to discuss our overall vision and plan for 2008. In almost every one of those meetings we get to the same question: "What does a typical SoftLayer customer look like?" Or, the other version of that: "What is SoftLayer’s target customer?"
You would think this should be an easy question to answer. After all, we have over 4,500 loyal customers that rely on us each and every day to deliver on-demand, world class IT infrastructure. Surely, there must be some common thread among these customers. Being responsible for "Strategy & Marketing" I decided to look into this to come up with a standard reply to that question. The standard ways to do this from a marketing text book (i.e. "in theory") perspective include:
- Industry – financial, manufacturing, retail, distribution, etc.
- Geography – typically regions within a country, or countries themselves
- Customer Size – normally based on revenue or employees
- "Retail" or "Wholesale" – are we selling to the final consumer of our products or to a reseller
The next step -- look at our customer database and start to build up a profile based on those criteria. A relatively simple process, but the problem we found was that the four metrics above did not adequately define any of our customers. Some examples:
- Industry -- we serve all possible combinations of traditional and new industry classifications; from large manufacturing, to Web 2.0 start ups and no single segment is more than 5% of our business
- Geography – we have customers in over 100 countries. Even in the US our customers come from every corner and every state in the country
- Customer Size – 1 employee to 50,000+ employees and everything in between; $0 in revenue to $10 billion and more
- Retail and Wholesale – almost an even split between the two groups
Being inquisitive by nature, I could not let this end with an answer like: "we have a very diverse set of customers that represent all industries, all geographies, and all customer size categories." It did lead me down a path to start asking customers some questions like:
- Is IT infrastructure a critical component of your business?
- Do you need highly scalable IT to adjust for seasonality or growth in your business?
- Do you want a simple and flexible management tool to allow complete control of your data center infrastructure?
- Are enterprise grade solutions of value to your business, but something you cannot afford?
- Are you looking for innovative solutions to help drive your business forward?
- Do you value standards based processes and controls?
To steal a quote from a very, very distant relative... Eureka! While this might not be as significant a discovery as the wheel, fire, or the Archimedes' screw, it did finally bring some clarity to our little customer debate. The vast majority of our customers answered "yes" to many or all of those questions. It also led me to understand what our customers do not want from us:
- Specialized application support
- Highly custom solutions that scale poorly
- Up-front fees and long term contract commitments
The net result is that our customers are segmented very differently than traditional methods would suggest. They are clustered around a common need that spans across all demographics. The customers that come to us are looking for a very special thing – the SoftLayer approach to IT management. If you belong to a company that can resonate with the questions above, you have come to the right place.