On this episode, I was joined by Helen Feber, Managing Partner at Referential, Inc., a consultancy that has been delivering innovative, high-quality advocacy-related services globally for over 26 years. She is also on the oversight committee at ICCAP, the Institute of Certified Customer Advocacy Professionals. We talked about her four critical metrics for persuading the C-suite, how companies can help their advocates build networks by setting up mentor-mentee buddy systems, and the importance of getting ICCAP certified. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Helen.
Margot Leong: Hey, Helen. Welcome to Beating The Drum, really excited to have you with us.
Helen Feber: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you, Margot.
Margot Leong: What I would love to start off with, Helen, because you are such an expert in this realm, is how do you define the mission of customer advocacy? What do you think is the value that it can provide to an organization?
Helen Feber: I think the mission is actually pretty straightforward. It’s to deepen customer engagement with a company and enable them to start to naturally advocate. That, in turn, enables them to bring in more business leads, essentially, they will be naturally referring the company, and accelerates the leads coming in and they’re strong leads too. That’s, for me, the ultimate mission of customer advocacy is to fuel the growth of the company through referrals.
Margot Leong: Absolutely. I’m curious though, have you had companies that you’ve talked to, have you ever had people that are a bit more, are skeptical in terms of what value customer marketing and advocacy can bring? How do you approach talking about it with those sorts of people?
Helen Feber: It’ll often come down to metrics, proving the numbers to be perfectly honest. Once you’ve got some data behind what you’re saying, it’s a lot more substantive. So if you’ve got the right measures in place, particularly if you’ve got them at that company and can share this is what we’re doing, or if it’s a similar company, so that there’s something much more tangible for them to start to interpret and understand and embrace, hopefully.
Margot Leong: This is something that everybody is asking all the time is, how do you best measure the value and the success of customer advocacy? What are the metrics that you think sort of win over the skeptical people, right? What are the ones that make them see that, okay, like this is true value.
Helen Feber: There are four critical metrics when it comes to persuading the C-suite. And you can’t and probably don’t want to necessarily measure all four, but I think some combination, more than one, at these a couple of them, definitely have huge value when it comes to being appreciated from the C-suite perspective.
The first one is the number of sales dollars brought in from referrals that were acquired through advocates. If you can track it, you can provide a mechanism for your advocates to let the company know about which casual conversations, be it at a soccer match, talking to another kid’s parents , if in fact, the conversation turns to being about the company, enable that advocate to report that conversation and then track that as it moves through the sales cycle. Most of those are very strong leads that ultimately ends up in wins. And being able to tie that back to the actual advocate has massive value, but then it’s also a solid stream of dollars that you can tie to the program.
Second one is the time that gets freed up when sales are actually leveraging a program versus doing everything behind closed doors and bartering with one another. If they’ve actually leveraged a program and maybe leverage it multiple times for a particular deal, maybe starting out with just a name drop list, moving to leveraging case studies and collateral slides, to then finally, having perhaps a live conversation, broken between an advocate and a prospect. It will require some surveying, but if you’re able to show that you’ve been over free up their time, that speaks volumes, particularly within the sales organization.
Margot Leong: I can imagine, actually, it’s quite an interesting process in terms of how you end up measuring that. If you can walk us through how you’ve done this with other companies in the past, that would be great.
Helen Feber: Well, what we’ve done is, you’ve usually taken a sampling of sales folks , you pick a group where there’s a nice mix of those that are using the program and those that aren’t. You actually are comparing their sales accomplishments. I mean, they don’t always like it, but you start to see the reps that are leveraging the program and being as efficient as they can. And sometimes it’s a case that it’s not just by leveraging program, but also using some other tools, but studying them and understanding what they’re doing and how it’s freeing up their time, and then they’re turning that to making more sales. That’s hugely valuable to the sales organization in terms of education of the rest of the reps that haven’t been using the program. So sales management often gets on board for that kind of study group, rather than trying to do all sales, because that’s a large number of people. That’s typically how we’re able to do it.
Margot Leong: If I understand correctly, you’re trying to sort of compare and contrast how much time one group is saving potentially compared to another. So it sounds like there’s things that you can do, right. To sort of gauge and test and show some of those results without having to be like, all right. Let me get $50K from my budget to invest in this very specific program.
Helen Feber: Exactly. The next kind of metric also ties into sales in that you can measure the shortening of a sales cycle, when there’s been optimal delivery of the voice of the customer. That’s another one where you can go into the CRM system like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics, and you can compare sales cycle length. If they’re good about entering the data, that is, at the different stages, you can compare deals that didn’t use the advocacy program compared to those that did. We’ve seen some quite dramatic savings. 11% is the most common. I’ve seen 13, 14% of the time saved in some of the analysis that we’ve done. And that’s bottom line dollars to the company. The reps are back out selling again if the sales closed.
And the final fourth metric in all of this is actually looking at the active advocates themselves, because what we’ve found over the years. And this is born out by far more than just my company, is that active, engaged advocates get much more exposure to the products and services and support that the company offers, and they end up buying more. And they typically ended up buying an average of 2x across 12 to 24 months of becoming an active advocate.
So you can measure that by, every six months, doing a snapshot of their client lifetime revenue and comparing it to the rest of the customer pool that’s not an active advocate. You take your active advocates and average their longevity and spend, and then you do the same for the non-active advocates. That comparison then starts to give you the idea of how much growth there is. Now for some companies it’s a 2x and it kind of just stays there, and that doesn’t really sort of change over time. And for other companies we’ve seen it actually continue to grow, because the more you can fire up a community of active advocates that connect work with one another and feel like they’re in a circle and they’re receiving early alert information from a company. That just inspires and fuels their enthusiasm to advocate even further and actually within the group are sharing a lot more information about products, so they end up buying that much more and it just continues to creep up.
Margot Leong: I completely agree. And I think customer marketing practitioners, there’s always that aspect , we get to help to represent the face of the brand. We’re working with many advocates. But then, that true power comes in when you’re connecting the many to the many, united by this sort of love of the company. You can really push forward the program when you think about adding in that tribal element.
What I’d love to do is actually backup a little bit and talk about Referential and the type of work that you do with your clients.
Helen Feber: Absolutely. We were formed back in 1994, so we’re currently 26 years old. It’s actually a partnership with my husband, he’s my business partner as well, and we’re both managing partners. We’ve grown over the years. We basically can either wholly run a customer advocacy program for a client or we infill, so we can handle everything soup to nuts. We do all the recruitment, the fulfillment of all the requests, the generation of all materials. Or if we are talking to a client and they’ve already got their own program, but they’ve got odd holes, then we will infill them support where they’ve got gaps.
Most of our clients are in high-tech, and particularly in security, which is a very tough space. In terms of size, gosh, it runs the gamut from the F100, to the just getting started and want to become customer centric from the get-go. And I love those guys because they want to get it right, right out of the gate, rather than trying to band-aid something later. So yeah.
Margot Leong: Yes, exactly. We both know what that is, what that’s like, where you’re like, Oh, well this is great that you want to do it now, but there’s a lot of inertia.
Helen Feber: There’s a lot of bad habits that have to be broken.
Margot Leong: Exactly. I totally know what you mean there, and it is interesting. I am curious actually to get your assessment on how receptive you think companies are to customer advocacy at this current moment in time versus what it was like when you launched your company back in the nineties? How has that reception and awareness around this work evolved?
Helen Feber: It’s definitely improved. I think customer advocacy, or back then, it was customer references, it was kind of a new thing that people were very wary of. And what did it really mean? And you know, over the years, yes, people have become a lot more open to the concept of customer advocacy. I think it’s not truly practiced well across the vast majority of companies. Many, many companies are running glorified case study funnels and calling them customer advocacy programs, which saddens me because if you can get it right, and if you can really nurture the advocates in the program, they get so much more out of it. And in turn, you know, you do, but a lot of times, it starts out as a sort of case study funnel. It doesn’t progress.
Margot Leong: What do you see as the true potential for what customer advocacy can be, versus how you’re seeing most organizations play it?
Helen Feber: I truly believe that advocacy is basically a business imperative today. Sales cycles have changed dramatically. Go back to the early nineties and the sales rep controlled the flow of information to the prospect and introduced his or her favorite references for phone calls at the right time. That’s been stood on its head with the access to information over the internet.
Today, somebody has a business problem. And one of the first things they do is to reach out to their network of contacts through the platforms like LinkedIn. And they ask those questions: I’m struggling with so and so . Did you have this? And how did you solve it? And they’re starting to receive replies with recommendations of software and hardware and tools, and once they start getting some of those company names, the very next thing they do, apart from looking at those company websites, is look them up in review sites and particularly Gartner Peer Insights. I think MainStay did a survey on that and 80% of all prospects go straight to go Gartner Peer Insights.
So now two or three companies are starting to bubble to the top. They haven’t contacted any of these companies yet, but they go back out to social media and they start asking around, who’s using XYZ software from Acme company? And they started getting some replies. And then they’re now tapping your advocates. Or at least, your customers. Hopefully they’re advocates. You still don’t know about this deal. And so finally, once they’ve already solidly got some top companies that are getting good reviews, then they finally reach out, the sales cycle gets going and reps are not in charge of something like 70% of that sales cycle. So having as many of your install base as happy and advocating for you as possible is a business imperative. And those companies that haven’t woken up to that yet will lose out to those that have.
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And where I’m really emphatic, right, is that it can’t just be cosmetic. You can reach out to your customers all you want to be advocates, but if they’re not actually happy with the underlying product, then your customer marketer, is going to have a hell of a time trying to get that word of mouth going anyway. It has to be very intrinsic to the company. And I think this is why we both very much enjoy working with companies that want to do this at the beginning versus at the end. It is a lot harder to really internalize the voice of the customer unless it’s baked in within the culture.
Helen Feber: I’ve seen some companies that just do an exceptional job. They land a new deal and almost immediately, day one of the sort of kickoff , they are introducing that new company to essentially an applicate buddy, a company of a similar type, similar solution, footprint. And they’re immediately kind of giving them a mentor-mentee relationship, as well as introducing them to all the regular staff inside the company in terms of training and so forth.
But right from the get go, you get that buddy system working and all of a sudden the new customer feels a lot more protected. It’s almost like the advocate is helping advocate for them and is able to walk them through some of the hurdles or flag internally: you know what? It’s not going so well in these areas, and bridges some of that conversation that will allow the implementation ultimately to be successful. You could actually have advocates helping bring on new customers and ultimately it’s just a natural path into them advocating and mentoring.
Margot Leong: I love that idea, having that buddy system, you’re providing this really interesting third-party validation. Someone who’s a bit more impartial versus only having it be representatives from the company. And again, I think it says a lot if a company is able to source someone as a buddy, it means that yeah, like we’re confident in the software and we don’t have to listen to all your conversations. We’re just going to connect you and let you off to the races.
Helen Feber: Exactly. And then what you find is that advocate helps calm down the new customer if they’re fretting. And maybe not everything is perfect, but they are able to assure them well, support’s very strong, they’re going to be figuring this out for you, give them a little bit longer. And it’s a calmer experience for that net new customer to have that buddy.
Margot Leong: I think it speaks to the amount of love that they have for the company that they’re willing to also participate in something like this.
Helen Feber: The motivator is I think it’s just understanding, learning more because even the experienced advocate’s going to learn a tremendous amount from the new customer . There’s going to be different integrations that they’re doing, approaches that they’re taking, different processes. And particularly if they’re paired along industry lines, obviously not competitors, but kind of maybe company size, then it’s a real learning experience for both parties. Some of the postmortems on some of the mentor-mentee relationships, both sides have absolutely gushed about not only having what will ultimately be a lifelong relationship. I’ve never had a post-mortem that was negative at both sides. I’ve always really enjoyed it.
Margot Leong: That speaks volumes. How long does that engagement last for?
Helen Feber: It really depends on the implementation cycle. We usually ask that the buddy is there through the full implementation to go live, maybe even three months after go live. I’ve never seen a relationship stop. They’ve always continued that networking and sharing of information. And so for a mentor, they end up collecting a whole network perhaps of mentees over an extended period of time. That group of mentees looks out for them. So if their own job in any way becomes in jeopardy, or they’re wanting to move to the next level, they’re able to turn and put the word out through their network. And so we’ve also seen some tremendous career growth occur in those mentor advocates.
Margot Leong: I love that. I also wanted to backtrack a little bit because I love hearing about people’s stories. What was the story of why you decided to start this agency with your husband? How did you get into customer references?
Helen Feber: Well, so I was with HP for nine years and at the last role I had with HP, I was actually a product manager and I was handling the launches of their line of commercial servers and right in front of me, I was actually about to have my second child and I handed in my notice to HP. I wanted to have a longer maternity leave then was available at that time. And so I did a launch and I was so frustrated because pretty much all of the customers that had been involved in the beta testing of that particular server were never going to be public. So there were no support quotes or anything. Nobody for the press to talk to when it finally launched.
So as I was exiting the company, I opened my big mouth and said, I really felt a proper customer reference program should be stood up and that the people that were beta testing new servers were picked from the pool of advocates so that we knew that we could share their feedback afterwards, more publicly.
So off I went and I had my son. Then I get the call, I think it was only six weeks after I’d had him. Would you consider coming in and helping us start a customer reference program?
Margot Leong: Wow.
Helen Feber: Well, I did. Gotta put your money where your mouth is, I guess. To begin with. I was just focused on HP, and then the word started to spread as HP employees moved to other companies. I was starting to get phone calls and we realized that, yes, it could be a lot more than just supporting HP with a program. We can actually set up programs at other companies.
Margot Leong: How many companies do you think that you’ve worked with over the years?
Helen Feber: I added it up like about two years ago and I haven’t added on any since, but a couple of years ago, it was over a hundred.
Margot Leong: Oh my gosh, that is a lot of data points and a lot of different types of companies.
Helen Feber: Oh, yes. That accumulated knowledge, the reason we were doing it two years ago was to do with the Institute of Certified Customer Advocacy Professionals, or ICCAP, for short. We were starting to look at what are the norms and kind of best practices across a wide set of customers. And so that’s actually why we were starting to delve into that data.
The idea of certification was kicked around as discussion topics at several conferences over a period of time. Actually, Robin Hamilton from InEvidence, he ended up running a short survey of quite a number of customer advocacy professionals to start to get a sense of was their consensus that something should be done. And the answer came back as a resounding yes.
We committed a large amount of time to start to look at all the programs we’d supported, and we reached out to a wide variety of other program managers to get their input because we didn’t want this to just be the Referential data pool. It had to be broader than that. And so, we ended up having quite a large amount of input to look at and start to try and establish what the different certification levels should potentially look like. It was one of those kinds of things where a group of people ultimately came together and then we had to sink quite a lot of valuable donated time into it to get it off the ground. From Referential’s side, we had 12 staff on it. And it was over a hundred thousand hours in the end.
So we spent a lot of time hashing out what should go at which level, making sure that if we were putting forward a best practice, that it really was being utilized across the majority of programs. So sometimes there’s a lot of back and forth over that. It did take many, many hours, but we finally got to a point where we were comfortable with what we’d established at the three levels.
So the level one, no experience is needed. You just have to pass the exam, but at level two, you must have had two years in the job to attain that, as well as passing the exam. And then three, you’ve got to have had five years in the role and they don’t have to necessarily be managing a program, but you need to understand what it takes to manage a program in order to pass the three exam.
Margot Leong: I’m looking at the different levels and there’s a really interesting mix of both what you would think of as traditional soft skills versus, things that are a bit more execution and tactical focused. For example, in level one, you’ve got the one-to-many call coordination or capturing quotes, in addition to how to talk to the C-suite.
Helen Feber: And we had to be very careful to be platform agnostic, that was the other thing is you tended to get drawn into conversations where it was much more about the set of processes around a specific tool that was in use. Not everybody has that tool, so you can’t set an examination up when there’s an underlying tool that we have to know. So a lot of back and forth on some of these things, I’ll tell you, it was a heated the discussion.
Margot Leong: I can imagine. So level one. It sounds like is the fundamentals piece. And then you’ve got level two, which is customer advocacy program delivery. And I love this, because if I think about even my introduction to customer advocacy, I never had a mentor in customer advocacy. All of it was learned on the job. I think it is really nice to have some sort of education that teaches you these very important things.
Helen Feber: Exactly. I’m on the oversight committee and we basically offer those examinations and the background checks to make sure that various experiences have been acquired, but the Institute doesn’t, at this point, offer training. That was left up to agencies like mine and Robbins. Referential has come out, we have supporting training for levels one and two, and we are, I’m hoping, going to be releasing our level three, I’d love to say by the end of the year, but honestly, with us now getting into December, I think it’s a bit optimistic. It’ll be early into next year, but we’re right on that brink of the third level.
We’ve come out with online, self-paced training. We can do, and I have done in classroom training, but now we’re in this pandemic. It doesn’t make sense. So, we’ve seen a big uptick in the online, self-paced.
Margot Leong: Talk to me about what the level three certification exam is focused on.
Helen Feber: Well, there we are focused on somebody running a program, really understanding everything that’s needed to effectively be in charge of people and run the program, so there’s a lot of management aspects. You’ve got to understand how to set up a promotion calendar and keep ongoing promotion of the program going. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the right metrics in place for your organization. And if you’ve got a big team, you’ve got to have metrics in place to be monitoring the whole team’s performance, individual’s performance within that team as well. So, lots of different aspects. It’s the most complex level, understandably. From a training perspective, it will also be the longest course.
Margot Leong: Kudos to you and the team and everybody involved for putting something like this together, because I know that it’s something that I’m sure a lot of people in the space will just be really excited about, and would see as a badge of honor to be able to get these certifications. So, what do you see as the impact or the value that it can provide for customer advocacy professionals?
Helen Feber: I suppose my goal, when I set out on this was I felt like there were people that were not getting the internal recognition for the work they were doing. So for me, it’s around helping advocacy professionals be recognized internally, and in turn with that higher salaries and better titles. I could go back to this being a business imperative. Why are they nine levels down in an organization and not being given proper budgets? And many of them don’t even have manager in their title, and yet there’s so much pressure and the company is relying on them so heavily. Giving it some structure and allowing people to get qualifications, I’m just starting to see it showing up in job descriptions and hiring ads. I’ve had people reach out to me saying I’m looking to be mentored by somebody that’s already got a level two or close to a level three. And that says to me, okay, you’re starting to appreciate the amount of experience that these people have.
I’m quietly excited that it’s headed all in the right direction. I wish companies would pick up some of this in terms of people’s development plans. I wish that was happening a little quicker, but I think it will in time.
Margot Leong: This is really interesting because there’s so much that people in customer advocacy do, and yet, we don’t necessarily get that much love. And I think that is evolving, but my theory is that because sometimes it’s really hard to articulate all of the value that customer advocacy can provide. It’s too opaque sometimes I think for companies to fully grasp all of it versus, okay. Like demand gen, it’s very easy to be like, all right. We’re responsible for pipeline and leads. And it’s easy to kind of put a stamp on that and put a box around that.
I had the former VP of Marketing at Segment, and she came on and she was saying, you know, my take on this is that customer advocacy should be a whole separate pillar because it’s that important. It’s also this really interesting blend of both customer success and also marketing, but it’s because it’s so hard to put into a box that it also is hard for companies to even grasp and fully understand what the value can be.
Helen Feber: Totally. Some of the most successful organizations I’ve seen actually pair customer advocacy with customer success. Their two separate organizations, but they sit side by side and then they report into a Chief Customer Officer. What I like about that structure is that it’s no longer sort of sales dominating because it reports to sales. Or marketing dominating because it reports to them. By having it report to a CCO, then there can be that balanced trade-off, particularly when it comes to brand name customers about the activities in which they’re invited to engage. It no longer becomes this one organization dominates because they own the program. That’s where I think it’s ultimately is the best place for it is, is to not have that be yin-yang battle going on.
Margot Leong: All the other sort of teams that are involved in post-sales really have an opportunity to be real partners with each other and to really own that journey together. There’s so many sort of natural adjacencies, natural partnerships and things that we can learn from each other in order to make that experience for the customer as good as it possibly can be.
I really would love to draw on all of the experience you’ve had with everything that’s going on right now with COVID. We’re recording this at the end of November 2020, there has been continued progress of course with vaccines, but I do think that COVID has fundamentally shifted, the nature of work. I think that for a while still longer, there’s going to be a lot less face-to-face, in-person interaction between people at companies, but also between us and our customers. What are some of the interesting things that you’re seeing when it comes to developing those relationships or showcasing those stories in really interesting ways?
Helen Feber: I think during this time, the most critical thing has been to nurture customers more than ever before. These have been very scary times and so I think it is that creating moments with your advocates, whether it’s having one-on-one Zoom sessions with them or collaborative software sessions with them. Pinging short emails, when you are aware of something that’s going on in their life, creating a moment where you step away from kind of the ask of a company, into a personal interaction of, I remembered the you’ve got something or other coming up, and I was just thinking about you and hoping it goes well.
One of our clients did a lovely thing, he’s based in the Netherlands, he decided to hold a kind of thank you wine tasting appreciation session with his advocates. He sent out a bottle of white and a bottle of red, and a logo’ed corkscrew to each of the members, and then he had a wine buff over Zoom basically teach people how to a) pull a cork out of the bottle, but also how to tell from the moment the wine is opened, what to do and how the differences are between red and white, how to assess a wine, what to look for. And not once was anything about the company itself discussed. This was purely a fun appreciation session. Oh, my goodness did it go down well and subsequently I think just about every one of the participants has voluntarily come forward and said, what other things can I get involved with? So rather than bribing them with this, he kind of led with it.
Margot Leong: I think something that’s really nice about that is that you have no way of being able to say, okay, we’re going to do this wine session for our advocates. And as a result, we absolutely know that a hundred percent of them will come back and say, what can we do for you? But I do think if you have the mindset of look, we’re in this to provide value for our customers, provide maybe a little bit more levity to their day to develop a reciprocal friendship. I think if you go into it with that mentality of not necessarily expecting things back, I think it pays so much dividends and again, I think so much of this work is around developing those relationships. Like you said, that human touch, that friendship, because basically once you get past that barrier with a customer, that’s the sort of thing that never changes. That’s the sort of thing where they will give and give and give to you tenfold, because you decided to invest in that.
Helen Feber: Exactly. Actually you reminded me. There’s a really good, small, short book called Human to Human. It’s by Brian Kramer, or H2H, I think it’s called. Really good. Really covers the basics of what humans are looking for and how to fulfill that through the eyes of something like an advocacy program. I do recommend that as a good read.
Margot Leong: Helen, thank you so much for joining the show today. Where’s the best place for our listeners to connect with you or to learn more about ICCAP?
Helen Feber: For details of the actual Institute, then the URL is iccap.expert. For anybody wanting to reach out to me, you can do that through our website, which is ReferentialInc.com. The “Contact Us” actually goes straight to me, or just find me through LinkedIn. I’m more than happy to connect over LinkedIn. We do have an Influitive hub for advocacy professionals, it’s completely open, but a lot of people share discussions and so forth in it. So again, if anybody’s interested in that, I can route them to that.
It’s been a delight for me, Margot. It really has. I love chatting with you. I’m always happy to answer people’s questions and I always viewed it as a collaborative community here.
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, beatingthedrum.com. 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 beatingthedrum.com. Take care, everybody.