This article was transcribed from a fireside chat at the Customer Marketing Summit in 2019.

In this article, Jeni Asaba, Sr. Manager of Customer Engagement & Advocacy at Jamf, and Jennifer Susinski, Global Customer Advocacy & Experience Manager at Taulia, discuss:

  • Customer advocacy vs. customer marketing
  • How to create a customer-first mentality
  • What it means to give your customers a seat at the table
  • Some tips and tricks for success

Customer advocacy vs. customer marketing

Jennifer Susinski: I'd like to first kick things off by getting your thoughts on customer advocacy versus customer marketing. Do you think they're one and the same, or are they two different buckets?

Jeni Asaba: I love this topic. This comes up a lot in conversations around advocacy programs, and what I encourage people to ask themselves when they think about this is can you have one without the other? So can you have customer advocacy without customer marketing and vice versa? And does that matter?

I wholeheartedly believe that customer marketing is a natural byproduct of any successful customer advocacy program, but the reverse is not always, if ever, true.

This goes back to the idea that people do not like being sold to. I'm certainly not a big fan of being marketed to.

But if you treat customers really well and show them that you support them through a well-rounded advocacy program, I believe they're going to get what they want out of the program and want to help you with your additional efforts, which naturally creates those customer marketing opportunities.

Jennifer Susinski: I 100% agree. I knew from the get-go that if I built a program that gave back to my customers, I would always be able to fulfill marketing requests.

When you provide value to them, and you are a strategic part of their success, there are always going to be customers that are willing to do stuff on your behalf. Leading with asking and then giving back further down the funnel doesn't always work.

The importance of making your advocates comfortable

Jennifer Susinski: I think another misconception is that the customers always want to speak on our behalf. It's important for us as community leaders to identify where they're comfortable.

Are they comfortable speaking at events? Are they comfortable speaking on webinars? Are they comfortable speaking to prospects? Having that information also helps us identify where we can safely place them in customer marketing.

How to create a customer-first mentality

Jeni Asaba: All stellar community leaders know how important it is to create a customer-first space, but I don't get the sense that everyone knows how to do this. Would you mind sharing some tips and tricks and feedback about what you've done to create this customer-first mentality?

Jennifer Susinski: I think creating a customer-first mentality has to come from both a program perspective and a personal perspective.

From a program perspective, defining key pillars is really important, so there are some key questions you need to ask yourself. What do you want to give back to your customers? What are the goals that you need to hit internally? And what are the goals that you need to have with all of your stakeholders?

Internal buy-in is essential across the board. Every single business unit needs a hand in the pot. Whether it's engineering support, product management, product marketing, or customer experience, if everybody is not on board, that will create roadblocks and prevent your community from thriving.

But before you get to any of that, you need to define your personal pillars. My personal pillar was to dream big. I still dream big. When I'm pitching this program, whether it's internally to somebody who's heard it 10 times before or to somebody new, I always want to be confident in the vision of where I want to go.

Of course, that vision is going to change over time as my program grows, but I always want to be bold and take risks. You have to take risks. If you want your community to grow, it's just a given.

On the flip side of that, I'm not afraid to make tough decisions. Making tough decisions is sometimes the best thing for your community. I own it. I’m accountable for everything that touches my community. I can't pass the buck to the community lead.

Another key pillar is working as a team. Collaborate with anybody and everybody that wants to touch your group. If they can bring value to your customers, find a way to collaborate with them.

Doing the right thing is another one of my pillars. I always try to conduct myself with honesty and integrity with every single customer and in every single interaction.

It's not always easy – sometimes, I want to tell them more than I can, but leading with as much transparency as possible earns their respect on a level that is absolutely stellar.

Lastly, loving what you do is so important. This is such a great space. I have a marketing ops background, and I didn't think that I was going to thrive in this space, but honestly, I love what I do every single day.

Even when I get a call from a customer who has a support issue at 11 o'clock on a Friday night, my computer is on within five minutes because I've built these relationships and it's just such a great space to work in.

Having well-defined pillars also allows me to be a human. The human aspect of these communities is so important. I would also stake my job on it that robotic communities do not thrive.

What does it mean to give your customers a seat at the table?

Jennifer Susinski: Speaking of communities, Jeni, what does it mean to you to give your customers a seat at the table?

Jeni Asaba: This really gets to the heart of just any customer advocacy program, and that's giving customers more opportunities to connect with each other and your organization in strategic and meaningful ways. And like you said, Jen, being human as your foundation throughout all of it is extremely important.

For me, the seat at the table concept means listening, which is not rocket science, right? But in order to do it well, you have to be willing to put your ear to the ground and hear what your customers want and need.

Sometimes those wants and needs don't align with what's on your roadmap, but at the end of the day, our product is not what our teams are developing, it's not a software solution; it's people. So we need to listen and recognize that their needs and wants are changing constantly.

To give you an example, a couple of years ago, I had a whole plan for what my advocacy program was going to do, and then the pandemic hit.

People were in a really tough place. I put my ear to the ground and asked the customers in my program what they needed, and it turned out that all they wanted at that point was more connection.

From there, we pivoted and started virtual meetups, where to this day we meet twice a month for an hour at a time. We routinely get 50 to 60 customers from up to 11 different countries on those calls, and people are developing friendships with each other.

So that was one example where I just listened and did something super easy to pivot and recognize the wants and needs of the customers.

That's a pretty drastic example, but there are a couple of other ways of giving people a seat at the table. One is just asking for routine feedback. This can be about anything – it can be about your program or your organization's products or services, but you need to again, listen and show your customers that they're being heard.

A great way to do this is to involve customers in focus groups, beta testing, or a customer advisory board. You can help them write blogs for your organization's website so that their voices are amplified.

My background is in journalism, so this is a piece that I absolutely love: taking the great ideas and experiences that our customers have and amplifying them within the organization.

You can also share the customer's ideas and sentiments throughout the organization. I do this a lot.

If I hear something great in my program – it could be something great that they've done, or it could be a customer's feedback on our absolutely outstanding support team – I share those stories in various ways. It could be in an all-company meeting or on the Slack channel.

I want people to know what's going on with customers because that helps us understand their wants and needs, and pivot as needed. I think there are just so many different ways that we can give them seats at the table.

What are your dynamite tips and tricks for success?

Jeni Asaba: Number one: you need to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability as a community manager can be one of the scariest things. I'm gonna give you an example. There was one time when we were on a virtual meetup and customers were sharing what a rough time they were having. There was a lot going on, and I think I internalized that a little bit because that night, I had just an awful nightmare.

It was one of those nightmares where it's like a movie in your head – you see all the details, you feel everything, and when you wake up you just want to get it out of your head. So I went down to my office space, and I sat down at my computer and recorded a little message where I spoke to my customers from my heart.

I was like, “I just woke up from an awful nightmare, and I think it's because the world is crazy. We're all going through so much, so if this is any help or enjoyment to you, I'm going to deliver something to you that makes me feel better.” So I sang a couple of verses of Bill Withers' song ‘Lean on Me’ and I put it out to them.

The messages that I got back were like, “That is exactly what I needed, just to hear that somebody's going through the same thing, and the fact that you thought of us and you were raw and took the time to do that means so much.”

We can make little gestures like that so easily, but I think we forget that sometimes because we’re always thinking about how to make the biggest impact on people, and a lot of times it's through machine learning or other areas that take away that human aspect. But people want more of the human side.

I don’t have a list of tips and tricks around being the human on the other end. It's more about digging deep and thinking about the things that I appreciate when people do them for me, things like handwritten thank you cards, or cards congratulating people on their new baby.

I also like to recognize their achievements in front of the company. Those are all things that, put together, help us achieve success in our programs.

It's that relationship-building piece. If nothing else, if people truly focus on building genuine relationships, want to know their customers, and want to help their customers, they're gonna achieve success.

Jen, I'm sure you've got a list of more well-defined tips and tricks if you’d like to share.

Jennifer Susinski: Perhaps not tips and tricks, but definitely areas of interest.

I think personalizing everywhere and anywhere that you can is really great. Even if it means sending 50 emails as opposed to one email, that personalization, speaking directly to that one customer, could be the difference between success and failure.

And I don't just mean the success or failure of that particular ask; I mean success or failure in them engaging with you at all.

Another area is empathizing with your customer. If they need you and they're reaching out, there's probably a reason for that. So take a step back, no matter how busy you are, and put yourself in your customer's shoes. Get them into the right swim lane and they will be forever thankful to you.

Also, get creative with them; think outside the box. Don't do the same thing over and over again. Customers get excited when they know they're my guinea pig. Do something fun with your customers.

Take the mundane task of doing something on our behalf and put some spice into it.

It’s so important to have fun. There is a post that I did – I don't even like mentioning when I did it because it was 2018 and it’s the most active discussion on my board to this day.

All it said was, “Take a movie and replace one of the words with ‘bacon.’” I come from a big tech company, so the fact that that's the most popular discussion post across the board for the entire company is wild. We laugh every time it pops up to the top of our funnel again.

So don't be afraid to have fun. At the end of the day, your customers want to have fun too, so you might as well have fun with them so that they don't go somewhere else.

Jeni Asaba: I love that. Jen, it has been awesome talking to you. I hope everybody has learned a thing or two from us. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we're just really excited for anybody in this space because it is such an exciting area to be in.

Best of luck with everything, and take care.