From Transactional References to True Advocacy: How VMware Engages Our Customers


Often times, we forget that our customers are real people buying our products or services. Sitting in an office somewhere, disconnected from them, it can be easy to forget that simple fact. But being a people person, that’s why I love working in advocacy at VMware.


VMware started with virtual servers that power data centers around the world. But in recent years, we've grown our portfolio of products and have branched out to everything from hyperconverged infrastructure to digital workspace management and cloud services.

From Public Relations to Customer References

I came to VMware six years ago when the company acquired my previous employer, AirWatch. I studied PR in college, and then helped build the AirWatch media relations team before the merger. After the acquisition, I moved to our business unit's customer reference team, which was a whole other world for me.

I didn't know how customer references worked, and so I educated myself online and by asking my managers questions. After about a year, I transferred to our corporate customer reference team, moving from handling a single product to working with VMware's extensive portfolio of solutions.

From Customer References to Advocate Marketing

When I moved to corporate, everything changed. My new colleagues had years of experience. Some of them, including my manager, Maria Munoz, had already embraced the possibilities of advocate marketing.

This was a welcomed transition because the traditional approach to customer reference recruitment did not focus on nurturing and developing relationships with our customers. As I studied customer reference programs, they felt overly transactional. A company would send out an email asking a customer to give a talk at an event, or to request an interview for a case study. 

Once the presentation was over, or the piece was published, the customer would receive a thank-you. That’s it! And they might not hear from that company again until they needed something. It is not a very human-centric approach.

Don’t let references turn into a one-way relationship. Ask yourself what your customer gets in return.

Fortunately, Maria and her team recognized the possibilities of updating our existing customer reference workflow. Maria’s progressive and dynamic approach to the problem resulted in the creation of the VMware Champions online advocacy community, built on Influitive's AdvocateHub platform.

Building the Champions Community

As a PR person, I love talking to people, learning about them, and building relationships. Some people see their customers as another resource in their marketing toolkit, reducing them to their reference potential. At VMware, we believe in treating our customers with respect. 

VMware Champions helps us recognize our customers personally and professionally. It is an online portal that connects our sales and technical teams to our users and makes them feel welcome from the moment they join. 

More than a forum, the community provides rich content, including the latest news from VMware, Q&As with our product experts, technical support from our team and other users, and opportunities for our customers to share their stories with their peers and with us.

Instead of looking through sales and customer records to find a specific use case, we can issue a challenge to our VMware Champions community. Is anyone using our products in this way? What have they learned? Would they like to share their story?

Customers Raising Their Hands

For any given scenario we put out there, a dozen or more customers will raise their hands. The quality of these responses never ceases to amaze me. To keep up that high standard, my team has worked hard to educate our internal users about how the customer reference process works on the VMware Champions hub.

Before we upload an activity to the hub, we ask our internal users what they're trying to accomplish. Are they looking for a speaker, or are they building a case study? What is their call to action? What products are they looking to showcase, and which versions? What type of customer reference are they hoping to attract? It's one thing to request a c-suite executive and another to seek out a network administrator.

We've learned to manage their expectations and have taught our internal stakeholders that the more specific the ask, the better the reference. Once they figure out how to fine-tune the challenges to generate the highest-quality customer references, they grasp the real power of advocate marketing and our VMware Champions program.

Gamification can take months off your reference processes.

Using Influitive has transformed our approach to customer references. Our previous approach meant it could take up to two months to find a niche reference for our team. But with VMware Champions, we can now fulfill a reference request in 72 hours or less by gamifying the process.

Bringing the Champions Experience into the Real World

The success of our online community led us to extend the Champions experience to the real world at our annual VMworld conferences in the United States and Europe. At first, we had a tiny—but mighty—desk that recruited new community members at these events. In recent years, we've added a Champions lounge and started giving our advocates the VIP treatment.

The VMworld conferences last four or five days and attract upwards of 20,000 visitors. Champions receive limited-edition lapel pins that give them access to the lounge where they can grab a bite, recharge their mobile devices, and get one-on-one time with members of the VMware team.

A couple of years ago, VMware’s CEO, Pat Gelsinger, came into the lounge to personally thank our Champions and take selfies with them. Last year, we had some fun with the referral process, and rewarded the Champion who recruited the most customers each day with a community-branded longboard signed by Pat.

We also have an online component that runs in parallel with these events. New and returning Champions can log into the community and learn how to navigate VMworld and access their onsite perks, including the lounge. We also run online-only challenges and live stream conference sessions and workshops for the benefit of those Champions who cannot attend. As I said, we like to acknowledge every member of the community.

As a result of these online and offline activities, VMware customers can give back to the user community by sharing their experiences and expertise. Our customer reference team can recruit better, reward these advocates, and share our customer’s innovative journey with VMware. 

Leading by Example

While AdvocateHub is a feature-rich platform that empowered us to build and maintain our VMware Champions community online and off, we couldn't have pulled it off without some help from Influitive's team. 

I have to single out Amy Ng and Ian Marder for helping us through the most recent VMworld. Amy came up with the daily giveaways and Ian was onsite helping us recruit new members to Champions.

Amy and Ian went the extra mile and helped us put more faces to names during the conference while also showing us how to apply best practices in online and onsite event management. This level of support inspired my team. Influitive showed VMware the same level of respect and personal attention that we want to give our Champions.  

Aligning Our Champions with Our Business Goals

Up to now, we've focused on building, growing, and scaling our Champions community. In the coming year, we're going to concentrate on aligning our Champions with our business goals to create maximum impact.

We will continue to educate our reference managers on how to become active members of the Champions community. They recruit advocates while building and nurturing long-term relationships that have transformed the way we deal with customers, and will eventually transform VMware as an organization.

Influitive has given us a platform to build our Champions community and has empowered us to shift from our old-fashioned customer reference approach to a cutting-edge customer advocacy program. Amy, Ian, our CSM Megan Wilson, and their peers have coached us, drilled us in best practices, and helped us establish an advocate marketing roadmap that will take us into the 2020s.

Through our Champions community and Influitive's AdvocateHub, we have given our customers a platform to elevate their voices and they, in turn, are helping to guide our goals and our vision. But it all started with a simple idea: Our customers are human. Let’s make sure that we treat them that way and give them what they need. It’s time to rethink what references mean to your company. It’s time to think about advocacy.