Transcript: The Importance of Having a 360° View of Your Customer with Cynthia Hester

On this episode, I was joined by Cynthia Hester, Director of Global Customer Programs at Google Cloud. She has over twenty years of experience in global marketing, strategic planning, and comms, and has helped shape customer advocacy at companies like New Relic, Salesforce, and VMware. Cynthia has an incredible wealth of knowledge in this arena, and she has such a refreshing and first principles-based approach to advocacy. We talk about the importance of going into customer conversations as a blank slate, why resonance is the next frontier for measuring success, and how to make the leap from a senior manager to a director. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Cynthia. 

Margot Leong:  All right, Cynthia, I am so thrilled to have you on Beating The Drum. Thank you for joining us today. I’m just so happy to have you with us. 

Cynthia Hester: Well, thank you for inviting me. This is going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to talk about a couple of my favorite topics. So I’m really looking forward to having this conversation and thank you for inviting me to join you.

Margot Leong: Absolutely. I’d love to kick off the conversation actually by starting off with storytelling. I know that you’re really, really passionate about the opportunity to be able to tell your customer stories. And I think that is a big reason why a lot of us in the space do this work. It’s almost like an honor. If you think back to your earliest recollections, did you have this passion for storytelling even when you were younger, right? Where does this stem from, you think? 

Cynthia Hester: I was a voracious reader when I was a kid. My mom could not keep enough books in front of me and my sisters. And I think it probably started with that. Like I just loved  getting immersed in someone else’s story. And I just have never lost it. Like I really think that’s where it started from. I can remember, I took piano lessons for like 12 years and I remember memorizing songs so I could read while I was playing through my piano practice. 

Margot Leong: Oh my gosh. 

Cynthia Hester: My mom would like, she kind of picked up on it one day. It’s like, haven’t you played that song four times. And I think she probably walked into the living room. You know, you’re 10 or 12 and not paying any attention to your parent and I’m sure she walked in and busted me one day. Like, give me that book. You need to be practicing your piano lessons, pick a new song. 

Margot Leong: Just to understand – so basically, you would basically memorize the sheet music so that you would be practicing the music. And then have a book for basically on the piano that you were reading while you were sort of methodically just playing the song from memory so that your mom would think that you were playing and practicing piano.

Cynthia Hester: Yep. That’s it. I would do scales for like 10 minutes and just like, you literally do not – what? And then that’s when I get busted. Right. Because she’d come in. You don’t need to be doing scales for five minutes. 

Five years totally busted because I’m just sitting there doing scales, reading my book. 

Margot Leong: I love that. And it’s funny because I was very much similar when I was a child. And this is before, obviously, eBooks, right? Like it’s such a privilege to be able to have thousands of books in your phone. I remember, anywhere we would go out with my parents, I would lug like a backpack with me. Because I had to carry at least six books.  

Cynthia Hester: I did the same thing. Me and my sister always had a book with us. If we were leaving the house with my parents, we did not leave without a book. And if we thought we were almost done with the book, then, right, you have to bring your backup book because you didn’t want to have nothing to read. That would be the worst thing ever.

So I think that’s where it really started. And it hasn’t changed. I still love reading and still love hearing stories from different people. Obviously, my day job, I get to do that with our customers. And if I didn’t do this, I’d probably still do something fairly related to it. 

Margot Leong: That’s great. It’s always really interesting to me to think about, right, where all of these things sort of come from and then how sort of these natural tendencies tend to come up as you get older. And if you had a passion for something, when you were younger, if there’s something you can be rooted in, you know, later on in your career, like, that’s the thing that gives you joy and energy. It really makes a difference, 

Cynthia Hester: It makes a big difference. It makes a big difference in and you really hit on it. Like, are you getting joy from this work that you’re doing? One of the things that’s, you know, mentoring other, people who are early in their career where I’m like, well, how did you decide like where to go to this company or that company? And for me, once I kind of got older was, is this company, are they following and aligning to the values and the purpose that I have? So it could be a great job, but if it’s not the right company, because the values and the purpose don’t align, at some point, you will not be happy. At some point, you might get asked to do something that goes against those values and goes against where you want to be.

And so as best you can, that’s why talking to people who’ve worked there, talking to your friends, talking to anybody who’s got some type of connection to those companies, it makes a huge difference. And if you do that, then I think you can always have joy in the work that you’re doing. 

Margot Leong: Yeah. When we think about our careers, there’s two pieces that I’m pulling out of what you’re talking about here, which is, you know, one piece is the role itself, right. Which is, I find joy from telling other people’s stories and being able to craft those narratives. And then it’s the place where you’re at the job and making sure that the place where you’re at the job aligns with you culturally from a values standpoint. Were there things that you were able to do, even within the interview process, things that you were able to ask that allowed you to suss that out better that you’ve developed over time?

Cynthia Hester: Ao the answer is yes, and those questions – let me give you an example. So a lot of times I will ask about the leadership team, like obviously, most, especially for, publicly held companies, you go on their website, you can see the CEO, the CFO, CMO, you see all of those top leaders. What you don’t see is the next level down. Like it’s hard to get a real good feel for like, what does this company look like in terms of diversity? You know, as a woman of color, a black woman, that’s important to me. And so I’ll ask things about how many women females do you have that are in leadership. What’s your diversity, what’s your DEI program? What’s the work that you’re doing? Clearly in tech, we have lots of work still to do. And we know that companies have lots of really good efforts going on. And so I will ask about those things in particular. I will ask about how do teams collaborate? What’s the culture like at a company? And those questions will start to suss out and give you some indication of what’s going on.

Because it’s hard to know until you actually get there, but every company in tech has a halo around them for the most part, right? And so everybody looks at companies like Google and Salesforce, VMware. It’s like, Oh, I want to go work there. And the thing, I think a lot of times it gets lost, especially with young people, is that it’s a little bit of shiny object syndrome, where they don’t realize, like once you start peeling back the onion, you’re going to find the reality behind the halo, behind the shiny object. And you just want there to be good bones there. Right? You want there to be some solid, good foundational things around collaboration, honesty, respect for each other. How are we actually going to get the work done? And so you can definitely start to ask questions related to that. Especially if you know something about the company going into your interview. 

Let’s say you’re going to be interviewing with Apple and they just did their latest launch of the iPhone. So that’s a pretty big deal with that company, right? Lots of people, lots of effort, lots of investment to take that product to market, and you want to get a sense of how they work together. Then I would ask a question of like, what came up as you were going through product development, beta testing, etc.? Was there a major point where the team really had to pull together to overcome an obstacle? Ask that of whoever the person is. Obviously you wanna make it relevant, but that’s a really good question to start to find out, well, how do they handle challenges in this company? And it starts to give you a sense of the culture. 

Margot Leong: Do you have specific guidelines that you’ve put around what kind of culture you’re looking for? 

Cynthia Hester: For me, it’s really important to have a culture that is open. Open to new ideas, open to different perspectives around the table, open to looking at things differently. Let’s take Google for example. So I’m getting hired to run customer programs. I know, from a competency level, what that looks like and what that program should look like and the things that we need to have in place to make that real.

And I want to understand a little bit more about about the culture and with a company that’s got as much of a profile as Google does, both on the positive and the negative, when you walk into that interview, you want to be able to ask questions that are relevant and dig in a little bit. 

So, one of the questions might be, Google is in the press a lot about how you’re handling privacy, what’s going on from a leadership perspective. So then the question you might pose to them is, how does that manifest itself internally? So there’s always the stuff that’s on the headlines. And then how do people deal with that inside the company? Then so if I hear things like, well, we have a culture of where one of our key tenants is, we respect each other, we respect our customers. And so the decisions we make around any of our key issues are grounded in those fundamentals. 

So those are the things that I start looking for. What’s the prioritization around DEI? Again, in tech, we have a lot of work to do. And so if I were interviewing with someone and they couldn’t answer that question, that would tell me that it probably really isn’t very important in that organization. Because if it’s important, I would expect everybody that’s interviewing me to know how to answer that question and to be open and willing to share that information with me. 

So you can always start to tell, like by just digging, I would say the next level down. Everybody knows  some of the standard interview questions. Go in with your own set of questions and your own set of values that you kind of like say, Hey, these are the things that are important to me. Can I ask you a couple of questions related to that? 

Margot Leong: Absolutely. And you know, I think that from a cultural value standpoint, in tech, it is very trendy to have values that you set out. But I find that there’s actually a massive gap between how they actually then diffuse those values throughout the organization. There is very like top line values and then, basically, are the executives, is the entire company talking about these values and how they live by those values. And it is pretty evident during the interview process, if you can tell that each of the people that you’re talking to have those principles that they’re guided by from a company level or if that’s just sort of very surface, right? 

Cynthia Hester: Exactly. And a lot of times, I’ll ask the person interviewing me, why did you come to work here? What’s the thing that gives you joy about working for this company? And a lot of times, people are not expecting those types of questions. And so you get very authentic answers and response. And then I also keep track of what the consistency is between every single person that I’m interviewing with.  

You’re going to spend 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week, hopefully not 70, but we’ve all been there. We’ve had our 70 hour weeks with a group of people that you wouldn’t know otherwise. You only know each other because of work. You want to be as sure as you can that it’s the right place to go. 

One thing I know about myself, I will always work hard. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I could be flipping burgers at McDonald’s or running a company, and I’m going to work just as hard at both.  So that’s the baseline . Then, what’s on top of that? Why you want to be there, right? Why you want to actually be at that company? It’s relationships. It’s how you’re going to get the work done. Because that’s interacting with people. That’s problem solving. That’s having to work with people who don’t share your same perspective or approach questions and problems and situations the same way you do. 

So if the environment at a company is not collaborative with all the up and downs that that entails, because collaboration can be a good thing and it can slow you down because you’re trying to get everybody to agree around key things to get done. And sometimes that can take a long time. Like, is this a company that’s used to collaborating and everybody does it easily and kind of, you know, it’s very relatively fluid? Or is there lots of friction because they don’t have a collaborative culture. They have a more autocratic culture or the person with the highest title in the room gets the final say, always. And so the way people engage and interact is very different then in a company where, Hey, we all have to come up with a collective decision that everybody can get behind and be on board with. And some people may be comfortable in one space and not the other. So that’s the reason for asking kind of those outside of the actual job, that’s the reason for asking those questions. 

Margot Leong: So there’s like that umbrella that we’re talking about from a culture perspective, right. And this is just like, what is the company like? What are the people like? What are the principles? Do you have additional parameters that you think about  when it comes to, Hey, like this is the type of place that I need to work at to be able to be effective in terms of customer programs. 

Cynthia Hester: Yes. And that’s really important. So, to bring up a really good point, customer programs, I always kind of describe it as being at the center, at the eye of the storm in a lot of ways, because the customer programs team or customer marketing team, whatever word you’re using in your company, is working with sales, they’re working with customer success, they’re working with analysts relations, press relations, comms. They’re working with executives. They’re working with the product teams. They’re working with the product marketing teams. 

And it becomes very important that if those teams and the culture within the company don’t support a collaborative effort so that you can interlock on it and come up with, Hey, these are our joint priorities. Then, one, it makes the work for customer programs very, very challenging and hard because we need a village, right? It’s a team effort. My team can’t do it by themselves. We need sales and customer success. We need product marketing. We need products. We need all those people talking to each other, talking to us, so we get a really good sense of: what the right story is, and then how to get to that goal. 

And by the way, they each bring own their relationship to the customer to the table, to the customer programs team, which is so fundamentally important with the work that we do. It makes us smarter. We show up as better partners with our customers. We can make data-driven, informed decisions if we’re connecting with all of these other groups well. 

Because it’s not just asking a customer to speak at an event. You’re taking up their time, you’re establishing a relationship. So you want to know as much about that person as you possibly can. And you want to know as much about their organization as you possibly can, because that will give you cues to the questions you want to ask. And the story that potentially is there that you want to uncover and just bring to light. 

Margot Leong: We talked about this in our prep call is that, “customer marketing,” the “marketing” piece is kind of a misnomer, right? It’s really more advocacy and, you know, even the journey to advocacy, but marketing implies that it’s just sort of on the surface, right? It’s like we are, you know, externally trying to get pipeline, and so we sort of tell a story, but in terms of embedding with the customer, that’s support that’s success. When you get in deep with a customer, there’s so many other things that that affects. And like you said, the importance is around knowing the history, all the things that can happen because there are ripple effects and there’s so much that is involved when you become close to customers.

Cynthia Hester: Completely true. And that’s, again, another reason why I really like doing this, is understanding the different perspectives from your customer from different people in that organization. So you might work with the CIO or the CMO on one project. You may work with the VP on another. You may work with practitioners and developers on other projects. All of that builds into this very rich, holistic story about what’s going on with that company and how your company is actually partnering with them and enabling them to achieve the goals that they’ve actually set out, and it is about relationships. So, you know, my attitude is, I can never have too much information on the customers that we’re engaging with.

That’s why if I’m going to talk to sales, I’m like, tell me everything. Because all of it helps me navigate. So if know there’s a sticky part in the sales process around a topic , and my team’s gonna be talking to that customer around how to share their story. One, there might be a question we can ask to start to uncover more information about it and give us more context. Two, we may actually have an idea about how we pull that out and diffuse it if it’s a huge issue or make it an opportunity to tell a better story, if it’s just like a nugget that someone drops in. 

I really think of my team and the work that we do is that we’re part journalists, because we have to ask lots of questions to uncover this. And sometimes, the rep has their view. The customer success manager has their view about what the key story is for the customer. And then, and I know we’ve all had this happen, you sit down with the customer, you’re doing your interview and they tell you something completely different than any other person in your company has said. That’s the reason that the customer programs team exists, because if we only went on the information that customer success, sales, if we only went on those two inputs, we would miss half the stories.

Margot Leong: Yes, absolutely. The lens. I totally get it. 

Cynthia Hester: You want the wide lens, which means everybody who interfaces with the customer has a piece of the story to tell. It doesn’t mean you’re going to amplify all of it, but you need all of that information to actually discover the real story that’s going to be compelling that people are going to want to hear about, that lets your customer shine. At the end of the day, advocacy is all about letting the customer tell their story in their voice and really showing what they’ve done around innovation, transformation, just change of business for their employees. 

Maybe they’re doing work that’s actually going to change the experience of all their internal employees. That is still a powerful story. It doesn’t always have to be about what they did with their technology externally, whether embedding it in their products, using it to engage more effectively with their customers. I mean, all of that is true, and you could have a really powerful internal story as well. And going into all of your conversations and interactions just with a blank sheet of paper, in some ways, is sometimes the best way to pull those stories out. 

Margot Leong: I think to your point, right, is the realization that, success only knows enough about the customer and the lens around talking to them from a success angle. Sales only knows about them sometimes only up until purchase. The honor that we get from a customer advocacy standpoint is a completely wide berth. It’s weird because you can come in with different narratives in your head already around the customer, but then, you don’t have a specific agenda a lot of the times. My analogy is like a truffle pig, you know? This pig is just trying to like turn under this like rock, or this dirt, and then you find the truffle and you’re like, Whoa, like this is even better than I could’ve ever hoped for. 

Cynthia Hester: Exactly. And I think if you leave yourself open to that discovery, that’s when the best stories come out.

Margot Leong: The storytelling piece is really important too, right? There’s the idea around what’s traditional or what’s always been done from a storytelling angle, which is case studies, testimonial videos, and it has to follow this type of format. Versus people are changing how they absorb information, and so tying what you’re doing to true effectiveness changes too, in terms of how you’re telling your story. So I just wanted to get a sense of your lens on that as well. 

Cynthia Hester: I definitely think we have to be open to tailoring our stories differently because the world has changed. I think we’re going to have a big pivot, or we have had a big pivot. Even going through COVID, where up until now, using video was usually expensive, usually reserved for, Oh, we want to interview the CIO, or we want to interview the CEO and very selective because it’s a pretty big investment. So you want to be able to get as much ROI or result from that as you possibly can. So if we’re going to spend all this money, you want to make sure it’s going to be the most compelling story, you want to have the right person. 

And I think now that everybody’s at home and all of us are on video chat, all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, we have lots of different ways to tell this story. It doesn’t have to be as buttoned up and formal as it’s been in the past. We can do things like use a technology that lets us record a video over anybody’s mobile device. So I think there’s going to be innovation around how we tell the story and what channels we use to amplify the story. Obviously, social’s still a big push, but how we’re going to use that social media. 

I remember when customer-generated content became the thing, and it kind of came and went, right? I’m just talking about more from a corporate tech world. And I think that is going to come back. Primarily because we want to be agile in terms of your storytelling and your strategy and your approach. And one of the ways to do that is to listen to what your customers are telling you and let them take a little bit of ownership and leadership and how like the story gets out. 

I’m a big proponent of cross-promotion, where we have an advocacy or a partnership with our customer that is at a level where they will ask us to promote and we will ask them to promote. And we see it as beneficial to both companies, both organizations. And I think you’re going to see more of that now. 

We are going to be looking and wanting more different opportunities to tell these stories. If I think about video, it’s really effective, relatively easy to do. And how much time are people really going to want to spend on video after spending eight, ten hours a day on these video calls for work. Right? And it’s like, Oh, I want to go, I need to research X topic. So I think if I have a choice between listening to it on a podcast, watching it via video, or reading about it, I’m going to want it those options. 

Because maybe I’m going to get on a treadmill, go for a walk and just listen to three podcasts about what’s the latest thing is going on in security, versus having to sit in front of a device and watch a video. Or having to sit with my device and read something that’s long-form. I actually want to be outside while I’m doing this type of thing. So I’m going to just listen to four podcasts. And you don’t see lots of companies using podcasts to do storytelling. I see a lot of it at the technical level. I don’t see as much of it at the business level in different areas or aspects that we might try to do storytelling. So I think, and I want for my team in particular, for us to be looking at podcasts and some other formats, so that we just have a diverse set of ways to tell the story. It’s not that any one of them is better than the other. It’s all contextual and situational, but let’s have more than one way to view stories. 

To your point, a lot of it has been based traditionally on case studies. Long-form, 500, 750-word case studies. And I don’t know about you, but I have so much reading to do on an ongoing basis, whether it’s personal reading that I’m doing for pleasure, whether it’s just me being geeky and reading about stuff I find really interesting and that I’m passionate about, or work reading that I have to do, it’s a lot of reading. And I might want to be able to listen to it versus just read. I think that’s going to really be increasingly important going into next year. 

Margot Leong: I think this is starting to shift, but for a long time, the measurement was very much around output, but not necessarily around measuring effectiveness. And, you know, it could be like, okay, you did a great job if you were able to increase your references by 20% every single year or quarter or something. You get siloed because you’re not actually able to measure it. Like you don’t have a really a sense of, is this working or not? How is this working? Could we be more effective? Can we layer better into other parts of the team as a result? And so I would be curious about how you think about the measurement there, the effectiveness, from a customer advocacy angle.

Cynthia Hester: You have a really good point. And this has always been probably one of my Achilles heels in doing this work, is almost every organization, to your point, looks at, Oh, we did 50 case studies. We did 200 case studies. And it’s usually case studies, but it could be videos. And I absolutely believe that that is the wrong way to measure. If you are only looking at quantity, you’re just looking at something based on the budget and the resource you have to produce said content. It’s not about the quality of the story. It could be, but it usually isn’t because you’re focused only on the volume. It’s less about the resonance of the story. So you could create a story, write it, put it out there. What’s the feedback? Did the people that read it, did they find it compelling? Was it a value to them? 

And the third piece is around relationships. We’re talking and building these stories around people. And if you’re looking at a volume number around how many case studies you produced , that metric doesn’t tie back to the relationship and engagement piece. It doesn’t tie back to resonance, in terms of how connected that story is to what people want to hear and what they think they need. And it doesn’t tie back to actual impact. So if you only look at volume, I think you’re really missing the point. 

And so what I like to do is understand the priorities for the business, whether that’s from an industry context, a product or solution context. Once I understand what that strategy is, we go a level deeper and say, how can customer stories and customer advocacy have a positive impact to the priorities that they’ve set? 

So let’s say, for example, there is a new set of products that are going to be launched next year. And what I want to know is which audience are we talking to? What’s our end game? How’s this going to impact the business. And then instead of coming up with, we need 20 case studies, what I want to come up with is, here’s the strategy and approach so that you can do the work you need to do along marketing and fulfill your marketing goals. Here’s what you need to do to support sales and support the work that they’re going to need to do to actually sell this product. 

And then how do we demonstrate that we’ve actually made a difference for the customer? Well, that’s actually, to me, the funnest part, which is talking to them. And then you come up with, Oh, we’re going to be in three regions. We’re going to be in five industries. So we want really a plan that looks at two or three anchor stories that we can get lots of awareness and visibility from. We then want to set of stories and people that can talk to real results, real experience, and the features and the function of the product and what we were trying to deliver. And that set of people all can either talk to another prospect. They might be a great group or person to actually talk to a larger group of people at an industry event.

And if we do it that way, the number you come up with is based on information. It’s a data – everybody likes to say data-driven – I like to say data-informed . What I want is metrics that are data informed, which is not just saying, Oh, we need 10 case studies. If someone says that to me, my usual response is , how did you come up with that number? And then what usually happens is crickets. Nobody says anything. Because they really actually don’t have a basis for it because they haven’t gone through that thought process. 

And sometimes it’s a little painful for some of our product marketing colleagues, I understand that. And that is seriously the work you need to do in order for us to be most effective. And for us to be able to support you in the best way that we can to achieve whatever goals that they’ve set for themselves and for the company. 

Margot Leong: And to make a case for your existence, to be honest, right? 

Cynthia Hester: Right. Like this is why we’re here. It doesn’t always make me the most popular person in the meeting. It’s important to remind everyone that the reason we’re here is in service of delivering a set of products and services to our customers that make a difference in a positive manner for them, their employees, their communities, and their customers. The only way we can do that is if we are grounded on the priorities about how we want to get that done, and really understand who we’re talking to and how we want to reach them.

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And I think that it’s very clear why, right, the numbers are there. It’s because it’s easier. It’s an arbitrary number. And then I’m just going to work really hard at getting there. And then it always comes back to the question for me of , well then, how many is enough? If I’m looking at some of the companies out there, and I see that they have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of case studies on their website, myself as a “millennial buyer,” like I don’t even, it sounds terrible to say this. I don’t read case studies that vendors send me. Because I know that, I know that they’re written – 

Cynthia Hester: Margot, you and me –

Margot Leong: Do you not do this either?

Cynthia Hester: I don’t. Which I think some people are like, well, that’s kind of hypocritical, but it’s not because my whole position and what I try to bring to the table at any company I work with, is the case study should not be our end game. Tell a compelling story that means something is the end game. 

Margot Leong: I mean like the interview is the most important part. The capturing of a story. The case study is just a potential channel or potential piece of collateral that is used to persuade someone. But I feel like that method of persuasion has been going out of fashion for a very long time. 

Cynthia Hester: I would absolutely agree. Having worked at some of these larger companies, it’s hard to get everyone to get off of that. Executives still think about that, product marketers still think about that. We need to change. And my hope is, that through everything that we’ve gone through this year, especially with COVID and everybody having to work at home, that this will be the tipping point to really get everybody else to have them think about how we do that differently. Because I think case studies are a legacy asset. I do not believe people are really reading them. Technical people, maybe. Technical case studies, I could still see a sweet spot for them, especially as it relates to learners and practitioners and developers actually learning about new technology and best practice, et cetera.

So I definitely think there’s still a space for it. I do not believe broadly that that should be where everybody still lands and everybody is still landing there. Like some people literally think customer advocacy and case studies are the same thing. It makes me crazy. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Margot Leong: Yes, and I think this also relates to your earlier point, which is, I want to understand the persona, like, why am I creating this piece of collateral? Who is going to be reading it? Are they as skeptical as you and I are when it comes to this? Does our persona read these things? What do they read? What do they care about? Do they prefer video or whatnot?

Like, at a few companies now, I’ve done backtracking where I will talk to customers that I’ve developed close relationships with. And I’ll say, what won the deal for you? What were you reading? What were you utilizing in the sales process? Did you ever read a case study? And pretty much none of them ever bring up the case study as, you know, something that they ever really read. I think, you know, what was interesting to them often was, was the sales person able to internalize an interesting story that related to their industry, right? Like, was there resonance for them. 

And I think that is a whole separate topic around effectiveness versus efficiency. It’s efficient to churn out tons of case studies. What’s effective is much harder, right? 

Cynthia Hester: Absolutely. And that is why I’m focused on resonance and the effectiveness, versus churning out a lot of stuff. Because we’re only gonna make a difference if we focus on resonance and the purpose and the why of the person we’re talking to, versus, Oh, I just need 20 of these things. And then have no insight into what’s the quality where it needs to be, the tone, the message – did that land where we wanted it to land? So if you’re producing case studies, and again, you’re not going back to look at what people say about the content. Not how many web page views you got, or how many downloads, because that is still a volume number and gives you no indication. I download lots of stuff that I never open. All the time. 

Maybe I’m different than a lot of other people, but I’ll be reading something, like, Oh, there’s a download? I’ll download it, especially, you know, Miss Geeky , and then I’ll move on to the next thing and never go back. And yet there’s a marketer on the other side somewhere, counting that as something good. And little do they know, there’s nothing. I had 10 seconds to click the download button and then I actually moved on to something else – another piece of content I actually found more compelling.

And I still see lots of measurement around quantity. And I want to change that conversation to be much more around resonance and effectiveness. And I think both of those things together can be your guide as to, are you actually creating the content that you need to create to make a difference in the business, and for the people that you’re creating it for. 

You know, I think a lot of times we forget who we’re actually creating the content for. We create it as if we’re creating it for us. Based on our views, our perspective, our opinions, versus what you just described. If you talk to the customer and ask them like, what actually was the pivotal point when you decided this was the right decision and it hardly ever is the case study. It’s almost always a person or people. I know SiriusDecisions, probably about five years ago plus, has done a bunch of different surveys about how key buyers make their decisions, not just on the buyer journey, but like, what do they do, kind of step by step. And what’s the thing that they go to first and they find the most valuable? 

At the top of the list, full stop, is the opinion and feedback from their peers. That means talking to a potential advocate or another person. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case study. 

Margot Leong: And also, I mean, you know, even recent research shows that buyers are actually getting more and more suspicious. Like they’re not turning to salespeople for the answers. There’s so much more ability to find out what you need to know about a vendor before you ever even decide to engage with someone on the sales side. 

Cynthia Hester: Absolutely right. There was a report I read – basically, I think by the time a potential customer talks to your salesperson , they have done six or seven hours or more of research already. And it doesn’t just include your website, like that’s like down further in the list than you would think. And it’s talking to their staff and their teams. It’s talking to their peers. It’s what they see out in the wild, in terms of news, however, which way they’re consuming their newsfeed these days. So by the time they get to your sales person, they are well-informed already. They have their list of concerns and questions that they want to ask. 

And what that says to me for companies like ours, is you have to do a lot more work connecting to the customer insights of the customers you have, so that you can use that information to talk to the customers you don’t have. Because they are not coming to you. They’re not coming to your website. They’re not reading case studies to actually help them make that decision. They might use it to verify what they’ve heard for sure, but that’s not going to be the one piece of data they need to make their decision. 

Margot Leong: Everything is sort of old school a little bit in terms of still how we, I think about attracting customers. And to your point around earlier is, wanting to think about podcasts as a medium is, thinking about the attention economy. We are so overwhelmed with so much noise, not necessarily as much of high quality. And so basically what consumers are starting to turn to is more curation. Right? I have a few trusted sources that I’m turning to, and I’m shutting everything else out. 

And I see, for example, with podcasts, it’s actually one of the few places, kind of like a newsletter, where you get to build a very direct relationship with your audience. And they get to know you in a very intimate way, and it’s something that if you have consumers that are deciding to sort of stick with you every single week or every few days, right, to download a podcast, that, in my opinion, matters so much more than, like MQL, SQLs, what are all these downloads? Because you can see conversions are starting to get lower and lower and lower. 

Cynthia Hester: Yeah. It’s like, there’s no secret. Like we all know why we’re creating it and why we’re, which again, I know I probably sound like a broken record, which is why I go back to that people connection and the authenticity of the story is so important, and knowing the purpose of why they’re doing what they do as an organization is so important. Because if you can get to that and pull that out, then you’ll trigger the part of our brain that has empathy and emotion. And once you do that, then you can connect and actually persuade people. 

But if you don’t hit those parts of the brain, you will never be able to do that. 

Margot Leong: And so I think you, and I understand this intrinsically, I think customer advocacy, we understand this, but when it comes to that resonance piece, which very hard to measure, how do you think about the effectiveness of whether one story is more effective than another, how do you think about that?

Cynthia Hester: It is very new, which is unfortunate, that this is just starting to emerge as I would say – should be emerging in customer advocacy programs as something that they look at. So I have been, this year, had the opportunity to really look at how you measure resonance and working with one of our agency partners, on a methodology that they’ve developed so that we can look at how what’s resonating in market, which is what are our customers saying about that content.

So I’ll give you an example. Let’s say we push out a case study or a video, and we put out on social. Someone consumes that content. More than, than just re-tweeting it or sharing it, do they make a comment about it? This is really a great best practices on the latest thing in security, and then mentions like five of their peers or whoever, then drops it into their networks. It’s great that they shared it, but that’s not the most important piece of data coming out of that interaction with the content. The most important piece are those four or five words that they said: “this is great information on the best practice.” Because it tells me they read it, and it had what they were looking for.

If they just share, you assume that they found the content valuable because they’re sharing it, but you actually don’t know why. Because there’s no words. There’s no context attached to a share. But if they start commenting on it, as they’re sharing it, that’s the piece you want to get to because that tells you the resonance right there.

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And I know when I think about for myself, right. It’s not often that I will share content from vendors. And so I think even to develop that level of trust with the consumer, with your customer, to the point where they don’t feel as though this is only purely marketing at them, where then they feel comfortable to even type it a few words about it, I think actually like says dividends. Because it’s so easy to not do anything at all. And then to write something about it, like I feel like that is real currency. 

Cynthia Hester: Absolutely. Like, as you’re talking, I was thinking about it, like, that’s the payoff. That’s what you should be looking for right there, is what did they say about the content? That is your biggest indicator of, was it valuable or not? That should be the currency. Not that they opened it. Not that they downloaded it. Not that they shared it. What did they say about it? 

Margot Leong: And you have to think about the story completely differently, in a way that doesn’t feel as though you’re being sold to. That it’s not only about your product, that there’s something larger to tell here that has resonance with your target buyer, right? I feel like it’s also consistency over time. It’s not just one story. It’s like constant, which is why I’m sure that you have long-term engagements with your advocates. 

Cynthia Hester: Yeah. I like to frame it like, it’s a journey, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It’s not something that happens for just a specific moment in time. Going back to this advocacy and engagement, part of the work that we do is so important because you want to build the relationship to last and to really be able to be strong over the test of time, because we’re going to have hopefully not another COVID, but we’re going to have another moment that’s outside of our control. That’s going to impact all of us and relationships that are strong will survive, but they have to be built on something, a pretty good foundation. 

And that is partnership. Trust. To me, those are the first two key pillars, and any customer advocacy or customer marketing or customer relationship, everyone should be looking at partnership and trust . If you have those two things, it’ll stand the test of time. You will be able to get through some of the challenges that happen, because things just happen. People make mistakes. Companies get bought and sold. The environment that you’re in today is not the environment that you’re going to be in in two weeks or three weeks or six months or a year.

And so what can you do to build stability? And that is build the strongest customer relationship you can, and tell a story based on that, that resonates with people. And so when you have these pivots, when we have these moments where things change suddenly, you and your customer can navigate it together. Including things like, maybe you screw up as a vendor, you know, that’s never happened. But anyway, let’s just say if it does.

Margot Leong: You only work for companies that make no mistakes, right? 

Cynthia Hester: Let’s say you make a mistake as an organization in a company. In your mind, like how will you get through that with the best possible outcome? With a group of customers that you have little to no true partnership and trust with, or with the group that you have a strong partnership and a high level of trust? That you can go to them, and literally just say, we screwed up. We’re sorry. And here’s what we’re doing to fix it. 

The customers you’d have trusted partnerships with will be like, okay, thank you for doing that. And, like let us know, right? Like keep going. We’re with you. 

The customers that you don’t have a really strong partnership and trust with probably will not say anything. So silence will be the first thing. And then you’ll just lose them as a customer. So to me, customers that you don’t hear from, you should be very concerned. Because there’s nothing worse than apathy. From any of us, right? No matter what relationship you’re in, whether it’s work or personal. If someone is apathetic, that means you can either be there or you can not be there. It means they don’t care. And that’s the worst situation you want to be in. 

And people are like, they’re happy if they don’t say anything. I said, I actually don’t agree. I think if people don’t engage and you don’t hear from your customers, I never assume that they’re happy. I actually take the reverse. I assume they’re not happy and they just are done and they do not want to take the time to probably communicate back to us why they’re unhappy. And that’s a situation to me that is way worse than a customer who gets their VP, their CEO, their C-whatever on to either a phone call or email and say, you guys screwed up. We are not happy. 

That customer cares. They took the time to tell you how they were feeling and they’re giving you an opportunity to make it right. Versus a customer that says nothing to you. 

Margot Leong: It’s really interesting. Within tech, there’s this idea that in a digital world, that you can apply that same sort of thinking to relationships. And that we can automate away relationships or that this can be taken care of with a great product. And we want to cut down on people costs, but at the end of the day, we’re still in a people business. People buy from people. I think that that is the most important thing. And actually with COVID, I think that will shift massively, there’s much less places to get new pipeline. There’s much less places for new growth. So everything’s going to start shifting back towards, Oh, is there a reason? Why is our churn so high? Like why is retention so low? Oh, it’s because we’ve not been investing. 

But that’s the thing is if you were an investing before, you know, you’re going to have a real problem now. You should never rest on your laurels and you should never just be satisfied thinking that the state of things is okay, because there’s always something that you can be doing more or better, in terms of how you treat your customers. And like you said too, is even if you make mistakes, I find that customers are very forgiving if the intentionality was always there. If you always are doing your best to be better, they understand that. And I think that’s what is missing actually a lot in our current landscape. 

Cynthia Hester: Completely. And you’re right. I mean, people in general, we as humans want the best from everybody we interact with, that’s just kind of how we’re wired. Like everybody wants it to be positive. And if they believe that you have good intentions, even when you make a mistake, because they believe that intention was good, they are very forgiving. And they will let you correct that, and do whatever you need to do to actually make it right. 

And I think where a lot of times things go astray or go wrong is where, if you have a high level of trust, they’re going to trust you to have good intent. If you don’t have a high level of trust, they may not know. And because they don’t know, they might be more apt to think, huh. I wonder if they really intended for this? Like what was their intention? And again, to me, that’s the place you don’t want to be. 

Margot Leong: Like, I think this is all really, really interesting, and I think something that would be great as well is to understand, when you came into New Relic or when you came to Google, how did you think about what was the charter first and foremost for what customer advocacy would be providing?

Cynthia Hester: So the charter that I had is that our job is to build a group of global advocates. And that charter serves in the service of showcasing customer success through storytelling, delivering back to the business so that we can accelerate for sales, and we can support the momentum we want to have in market. But our remit, full-stop, is really around those relationships with our customers to develop a really solid set of global advocates for the company. 

Margot Leong: I like that the focus is on relationships versus stories specifically, because stories are sort of part of that, but where does that all come from? Is the relationship building. And so then when it comes to the programs that you set out, I’d love to understand how you structured your team. So what are people responsible for? How big is the team, I’d love to get into that. That would be really interesting. 

Cynthia Hester: So the structure that I had at New Relic, and I’ve used it in a couple different job roles, was really around a group. Part of the team is responsible for that relationship part. So those are usually the reference managers or customer marketing managers, and their responsibility includes actually talking and working with sales to identify the champions inside the organization that want to tell our story. And so their whole job is relationship-based, understanding the story, understanding the people who were involved with telling that story, what have been some of the pitfalls, whatever they’ve seen success, best practices, what’s their ultimate purpose and goal as a company. 

So it’s one thing for us to walk in with our point of view and our story. We really need to listen to hear the customer stories. So for customer reference managers, their top priority is really understanding that. Because what I want to develop is a group of people inside the organization that have a relatively objective and holistic view of the customer. So if you’re a sales rep, you’re looking at it mostly from through a revenue lens: what’s my opportunity to actually sell this customer whatever products and services? Customer success is really focused on deployment and making sure that customer can use the product that we sold them. Marketing and demand gen is focused on getting more eyeballs, right? Attracting more people to the brand, and to the solution, and to the services. 

The customer reference team is responsible for developing the relationship outside of revenue, outside of deployment status, outside of trying to get more eyeballs. I like to say we’re a marketing and a sales-free zone for the customer. They can come and talk to us and tell their story without us trying to pitch back to them anything other than an opportunity for them to share their voice. 

 The other piece that’s really important to me for any program is operations. Tech stack. Are you set up to actually scale your program and support the business? Lots of companies try to skim – this is a place where they try to spend the least amount of money as possible. So if they don’t have technology to track all the customer stories and the work that they’re doing on the customer relationship side, they’ll do that through some type of spreadsheet.

I categorically believe that’s bad. That’s not a good way to start. Because it doesn’t set you up for scale and you want to do that, whether you’re just building your program, whether you’re revamping and taking your program to the next level, you really want to set it up so it can scale and grow with the business. And the way to do that is to have the right technology and tools in place from the very beginning and make the investment. It will pay off over time, usually pretty quickly for a lot of these fast-growing companies. 

Also, in operations, is where you’re going to track all of your metrics, so whether that’s the number of case studies or videos you’re producing, because we know people are still doing that. Or whether it’s resonance, whether it’s insights, increasingly from things like Gartner Peer Insights, and G2, and TrustRadius, and these other companies that are giving our customers an opportunity to organically give us reviews on the products and the services and the experience that they’re having. So you have that piece of data and information that you really want to be able to make good use out of. So that sits in operations. So again, you need to have the right framework and infrastructure set up, so you can capture that information, feed it back to the business and then feed it back into your program to make the program better. 

The other thing is all around content and storytelling. Very key and important. Again, I think a lot of programs literally don’t have a person who’s responsible for storytelling, editorial, and making sure that the resonance of the story is powerful, and it’s going to have the impact that we want. So, editorial and content. Amplification, how are we sharing and pushing that story out, whether that’s internally to sales reps, customer success, our executives, or externally to prospects and to our other customers. 

Margot Leong: I mean, the amplification piece is pretty interesting because it’s very rare that I hear about any customer advocacy teams thinking about amplification. It’s more that we create the content, and then, you know, amplification is someone else’s job, basically.

Cynthia Hester: And it’s really important because you spend – again, I’ll go back to kind of investment model, all you spend anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 producing a case study. At least in the US. And if you think about that, you do hundreds of these, and in some cases for some companies, thousands, that’s a lot of money to invest in content that just sits, and doesn’t actually give you an ROI that you either want or expect or need. 

And so, looking at amplification, what is your amplification strategy and model? Mine is to always amplify every single story that we’ve taken the time to invest in to tell. So I would not invest in a story if we’re not going to amplify it. That’s the whole point. Why would we create these stories if we weren’t going to amplify them?

Sometimes, you know, you get situations where – and I’m not going to name any names and out anybody – but you get situations where the sales person has told the customer, yes, we’ll do a blog with you, without any insight into how powerful the story is. Does it align with what the story we’re trying to tell? Is it part of our prioritization from a go to market perspective as the business? So we need everybody to think about that carefully. Because all stories are not created equal, and if we’re going to make the investment, I want them to be the stories we want to amplify.

Margot Leong: So, customer advocacy people. I mean, we bump up against this constantly is that we could just be buried all day long in tactical requests from other teams, but basically gets us nowhere in terms of the actual stuff we talked about. Which is, how are you measuring your success in the first place, even when it comes to like an output perspective? If you’re not creating the stories that at least align from a company goal standpoint, like what are you doing? Just trying to make people happy.

So it would be really interesting to understand about how you infuse this sort of critical thinking when it comes to like not making promises to customers or being thoughtful about the stories we pursue , from like teams that are not under your purview standpoint. Or how your team basically like pushes back or talks to that rep and says, Hey, we can’t do that.

Cynthia Hester: It’s not easy always. Right? Like nobody likes to say no. Everybody wants to say yes, especially to your stakeholders and your customers. You want to deliver to them whatever they’ve requested for you. I try to get an established proactive model in place as quickly as possible. And that is making key partnerships with product marketing. It’s making key partnerships with our comms organization, so that if I understand, especially product marketing, this is where I’m going to kind of lean into the business piece of it and go in a little bit about why it’s so important. 

They are setting priorities about what we’re taking to market and how we’re taking that product or service to market, and what the messaging is around that. So we want to anchor on that. We want to anchor on the business priorities. That then gives us the agency that we need to have a conversation with a sales rep or customer success person, when they want to tell a story about product B, when really product C is the priority. And being able to refer back to a strategic plan and a prioritization for the business gives us the agency to say, we would love to tell that story if it aligned to these sets of metrics and messages that we’re really focused on this year, this month, this quarter. 

And that gives you a really solid basis from which to approach those types of requests. We all get them and it’s definitely not always easy. And sometimes you are going to lose the battle. Sometimes an executive, someone’s going to say, we said we were going to do it. We’re going to do it. And then you do have to just go ahead and do it. But I think increasingly, we, as customer marketers, can get in front of the game, and get in front of this type of request by setting up our plans upfront every year to align to what the business priorities are. 

Margot Leong: Something that’s actually interesting was when you mentioned product marketing, this is something that quite a few of the people in the audience are running into is, where’s the line between product marketing and customer advocacy when it comes to the stories that you decide to pursue? Because it can get a little bit fuzzy. 

Cynthia Hester: It can. And I think it’s a partnership that is probably not unlike being brother and sister, sister. It’s like, you’re one of your siblings. Yeah, you have, right. Like you love each other. You’re in the same family and they make you crazy at times. Ideally, what you want is for both teams to have the same goal in mind from a customer experience perspective, which is we want to be developing advocates and we want to have the best experience for our customers. And what that means that we have to get on the same page from a priority perspective and who we want to talk to and what stories we want to share.

This is one of the reasons why that I believe that your customer reference person should be, outside of the sales rep, the most informed person about that customer in the company. And by building what I call a, “Customer 360”, you give that tool to the customer advocacy group, so that they can be the most knowledgeable. Because they’ll not only have a view of what’s going on in sales, they’ll understand what’s going on with customer success and deployment and usage of the product or solution. 

And they will also have a view into: what are the other engagement points with customers? We haven’t talked about this very much, but customers have advisory programs. They have community programs, and it’s really important for the advocacy team to understand those engagement touchpoints, because it gives us a really full view. So if we get into a conversation about which story to tell, we can come with a very informed point of view, which is: this customer story is good because, and we list the three or four things. Or this story isn’t really very good, and isn’t ideal. And here are the three or four things. 

You can only do that if you have a 360 view of that customer, because the reasons for or against could be tied to usage, it could be tied to timing, mergers and acquisitions, a go to market change on the customer side. A change in who our champion is on the customer side. All these things are very dynamic, and change at a moment’s notice. The group that usually finds out about it first, again, outside of sales or customer success, is the advocacy team. 

And the reason is, that set of people, my team, they’re talking to the customers on a day in, day out basis. Whereas product marketing might be engaging with them for a specific set of time, around a very specific set of activity and work. It’s around getting a new product to market, and this customer is going to be involved in our beta program. So for the three or four weeks or month or whatever, they established a good relationship, they’ve been engaging with the customer around that body of work, and then they launch and they move onto their next thing. 

And they don’t know that that customer isn’t using the product as much as they thought they were going to because they got bought or they have a new CIO, or their business priorities change. Whereas the advocacy person, if they’re doing their best work work and doing a really good job, they will have insight into a lot of that activity. Just because they’re talking to a lot more different people who are touching the account, and product marketing did it for a few weeks. And the customer advocacy team becomes that red thread of continuity in the relationship, along with sales and customer success.

Margot Leong: Got it. And so basically it sounds like the reference managers are not only responsible for developing that relationship with the customer and talking to them all the time, understanding everything that’s going on potentially a day to day basis, but then also keeping track of like, what are all the other engagement touchpoints within the company that these customers are working with? How do you make sure that you’re not overlapping? How do you make sure you’re not touching them too much? Is that correct? 

Cynthia Hester: Yes, absolutely. That’s correct. And part of the operational model is to have a tool or a platform or database where you are tracking all of that activity, where you can see this person that’s been speaking at events on your advisory boards, in a community, like literally they are touching your organization in some way, multiple times a month, multiple times a week maybe. And that’s a really important thing to know for the reference and advocacy manager as they have a conversation, because it might be time to give that person a break. You know, I love to say they don’t work for us. Look at their business card. You know, if I think about an old school model, like go look at their email address, I’m pretty sure it does not have New Relic or Google or Salesforce or VMware on it. It’s got their company. 

And so the advocacy team knows that and keeps that front and center always when they’re engaging with customers. So if a customer comes back and says, Hey, it’s not a good time. We don’t try to talk him into, and argue with them about making it a good time. We make note of that, inform the rest of our stakeholders and our partners, like this is not actually a really good time for them. We’ll come back in 30 days or two weeks or whatever the timeframe is. 

But I do have another customer that is absolutely the right time. They’re eager to do something with us. And that to me is part of the superpower and the value in the customer advocacy and reference team is, them really keeping that 360 view of the customer. That they can then make sure that we make the right decisions internally about what stories to tell and which customers to engage with. 

Margot Leong: And at the end of the day, I mean, that is really important because you’re protecting the customer experience. You know, at least some sort of protection, a wall up a little bit around making sure that the same customer, the same person within the account is not being touched a million times. I’ve always wondered about at massive organizations like Google, there’s what you’re working on. But then there’s like these other ecosystems that all touch the customer. And this is separate from success, support sales, even things that either live with an advocacy or are adjacent to advocacy. So community, advisory boards, executive engagement programs. How do you think about how you work with all of those programs as well? 

Cynthia Hester: So from what we’re doing is we have, what I call, cross-collaboration relationships with each one of those groups. Which is great, right? We’re not involved in decision making. We’re not involved in their prioritization for their programs. But what we do have is a really good line of sight and transparency. And that’s really the fundamental thing that we need with those groups, is to understand what the strategy is for the advisory boards, who’s actually sitting on those advisory boards, having this 360 view that shows us all of those engagement points.

So for example, we have a program internally where we look at some of our key stories that are at a top of the list in terms of prioritization for us. And it’s really important for us to understand, are they on the advisory board? Are they part of a community? Are they part of an executive sponsor [program], just so we can have and create a better experience for them.

So if we know we’re engaging with them a lot, then we want to make sure we put the right things in front of them, and that we give them the breathing space and the time that works for them, versus having it work for us. So I think if you have a good line of sight, transparency, and a really strong collaborative partnership with those teams, those are the fundamental things that you need. It doesn’t really involve a lot of technology. It involves talking to your business stakeholders and to your colleagues, and having really open communications. So you can do that and it doesn’t cost you anything to make sure you have those relationships built. 

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And again, like as long as you guys are all on the same page and in the spirit of always taking care of the customer, protecting that experience, that’s really helpful at least in making sure that you guys aren’t necessarily doing too much bumping up against each other. That sounds really, really important. 

Cynthia Hester: It’s very important. Avoiding overlap is hard, especially in larger organizations. And if you have of the right tools in place, so you have a system of record, so you can at least look at the data with one single view, and you have good collaborative partnerships with your stakeholders, the combination of those two things helps you to avoid overlap. 

And the added benefit is it actually can make you more productive and more efficient. So if you see an opportunity to put in front of your customer the request of three stakeholders versus each one of those three separately, two things happen. One, you give them a really great experience. They don’t have three people coming at them. And then two, it becomes a much more strategic level of engagement, versus three tactical things, because you position it in a way that it aligns with the partnership, it aligns with that body of work that we’re doing with that customer.

Margot Leong: Yeah, I love that. As you said, it’s protecting the customer experience, but also, being very thoughtful about understanding, okay, there’s going to be all these different requests coming in around the same time. I have visibility into that and we can sort of package that up in a very nice way. You’re setting the standard for how these things should be done in terms of what the customer expects. 

Cynthia Hester: Exactly. And at the end of the day, that is why companies should invest, are investing in customer advocacy programs, is to really preserve and enhance the customer experience. And make sure it’s the best that it can possibly be. 

Margot Leong: I think my last question for you is, something that I hear a lot from the audience, especially because customer marketing is still relatively nascent, I would say. And there’s just also not as much training around management. What does it mean as you grow within your career? I hear a lot around, yeah. Okay. I’m a manager now, or I am a senior manager. How do I move to a Director-level? I would love to get your lens on this. 

Cynthia Hester: I mean, to get to the next level, you really have to be thinking more strategically about your advocacy program overall. And that includes some of the things we’ve talked about already, which is, what’s the relationship like with customer success and sales and product marketing. What does that start to look like from a strategic perspective? Thinking about the operational impact to your program.

A lot of companies start off with very immature platforms or infrastructure, it doesn’t really set them up to scale. So as a Director level, I would expect that person to not only understand that that’s key to having a successful program, but then they should be able to understand and identify the technologies and the tools and the best practices for the infrastructure, so that that actually sets the program up for success. Understanding the data that you need to measure the effectiveness of your program. What are those KPIs that you should be setting up? How do you have an executive level conversation with someone who thinks your job is, or your team’s job is to create a hundred case studies. 

You want to have a much more open and informed conversation that pulls them back into the purpose and the mission and the charter for this group is around building relationships. So we can build advocates for the long-term, for the company. Once you’re able to have those level of conversations and then understand what it takes those strategies and tactics, you’re ready. So you go beyond kind of just understanding, Oh, this is all about storytelling. It absolutely is, but it’s only one of the pillars around this discipline and around this work. But the first thing you need is the relationship in place. Do you have a strong partnership and a trusted relationship with your customer? Without those two things, you can’t actually tell a compelling story. 

Margot Leong: In terms of the shift from thinking more tactically to more strategically, was that a discernible shift for you? Was that something that came naturally to you or something that you had to work at earlier in your career? 

Cynthia Hester: For me, it came naturally, and part of it could be, I started off in sales and then went into marketing. I spent some time in sales training. My brain has always worked where I’m always looking at, what is that strategy? What’s that vision ? I think that’s probably part a little bit of my superpower and as I get older, I appreciate it more and more. And there was a time in my career where I thought that I was a generalist and I didn’t think that was a good thing. You need to have something, a specialized skill that you can really anchor on. That’s what’s going to make the most important impact to your career and how you’re going to move up. And I thought that for a very long time. And as I had that thought in my head, I was literally kind of in the background, building all of this strength and expertise around really being able to see the vision and the strategy, as well as what the execution model needed to be for the program. 

And I think for anyone who’s out there, who’s a manager now, like ask yourself those types of questions. What part of the work really interests you? And then how does your brain operate? Are you able to see vision and strategy and bounce back and forth between that, and activation or execution of those strategies? Do you understand both of those worlds really easily? If you don’t, then that’ll give you an idea of like, Oh, I need to probably do some training around the piece that I’m not as comfortable with.

  But you need to be able to do both in order to move up because that will then give you what you need to look at the landscape very broadly, because going back to an earlier comment we both made, which is the level of maturity and the nascency of some of these programs, and some of these very large organizations, says that there’s an opportunity to transform and innovate them and get them up to the next level. I believe that needs to happen sooner rather than later. 

And for companies that have gone through this year in particular and not realize that, they will get left behind eventually. It’ll start to have an impact. So if they haven’t started thinking about it more holistically and strategically, they need to. And if they’re still focused on what I’m calling like a lot of legacy and kind of old school thinking around, Oh, we need more case studies, again, they’re going to find themselves not being part of the conversation, losing touch with their customers and what the customers want, and getting left behind eventually. Because you can’t grow your business without having insight into what your customers need and what actually is important to them and how you tie back to their purpose. I just don’t believe you can survive as a company in this business without having that understanding. 

Margot Leong: This is long-term wins. This is long-term thinking. You know, it’s not easy, to put any of these programs into place, but why does a company exist if not to serve its existing customers? You actually started out in sales, which is very outcome-based, right. It’s like you are very close to revenue. You are much more sort of accountable personally for that, and so you can try all these different tactics and strategies, right. And then you go with what works. With customer advocacy, we’re pretty far away from anything relating to do with revenue. And so that is exactly tied to effectiveness, resonance, But is what I’m doing, just going to live there and no one will ever look at it? And am I okay with that? Or do I want to actually understand how what I’m doing is going to be truly effective for the business. And that’s the difference, right? 

Cynthia Hester: Yeah. That’s exactly the difference. Full stop. You have to have to have that understanding, because this work is not easy to your point. And sometimes people will say like, especially internally, like, you know, in your company, a lot of times they’re like, Oh my God, you guys have the hardest job. How do you do it? 

And for me personally, the reason, my ‘how do I do it’ is, every time I talk to a customer, my face just lights up. That is bringing me joy to hear their story, to be able to help them if I can. You know, there’s been cases where customers are having challenges in other parts of the organization, and they’ve told a reference manager on my team, I’m having trouble with X. Can you help? And my team knows, like they just have to send it over to me and I will figure it out. You know? It’s like, oh, we need to go talk to somebody in support. 

Margot Leong: You’re the fixer. 

Cynthia Hester: Absolutely. And I think that that’s a good thing that your customers trust your groups so much that if they can’t get answers or get action in other parts of the organization, instead of just moving away and disconnecting, they come to your group. Again, that is an indication of the value you have to the business. And everyone should see that as a good thing.

Margot Leong: Well, I think this is a perfect place to wrap up this amazing conversation. This has been incredible. There’s just so much good stuff that we were able to touch upon here. So thank you again for taking the time to chat, Cynthia. I really appreciate it. 

Cynthia Hester: Thank you. I appreciate it so much. It’s been really fun and exciting to have this conversation. As you can tell, I’m not at a loss for words on anything. 

Margot Leong: You’re only slightly interested in this topic. 

Cynthia Hester: I am only slightly interested in this topic, so it’s really my honor and pleasure to have the chat today. It was really fun.

Thanks for tuning into this episode of Beating The Drum. For more interviews with advocacy leaders and tips on creating customers that will sing your praises, head on over to our website, If you enjoyed today’s show, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to rate and review us. If you know someone that would be a great fit for the show, I would love to hear about it. You can reach out at Take care, everybody



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