Transcript: The Power of Asking ‘Why’ and Becoming a Strategic Business Partner with Angela Burk

On this episode, I was joined by Angela Burk, Senior Director, Customer Marketing at Confluent. Angela has previously worked in customer marketing roles at companies like ServiceNow, NetApp and Jive Software. We discuss her three pillars of customer marketing (and how they all feed each other), how to be strategic about extracting customer insights for internal and external use, and her advice for how to be seen as a business partner instead of a drive-thru request taker. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Angela. 

Margot Leong:   Thank you so much for joining us on Beating The Drum. How are you doing today?

Angela Burk: I’m doing really well. Thank you so much for having me. I feel really honored that you’ve invited me to join you today. 

Margot Leong: I’m really excited for this conversation. There’s going to be some good stuff in here. Let’s start off with the charter that you’ve laid out for customer marketing at Confluent.

Angela Burk: Yeah. That’s great. So basically, how we’ve set up customer marketing here is really to be the hub for all of the activities that come together that help us identify, activate and attract those hyper engaged and passionate Confluent customers who want to share their story. And we’re really focused on not only ensuring that the stories align with the things that we need to see amplified, and that will help credentialize us in the marketplace, but also in ways that honor their own brands.

For us, it really includes the way we go about identifying our advocates, the way we go about telling their stories and ensuring that there’s that alignment between what we want to see amplified in the market and what aligns to what they want to see amplified in the market.  I think the two other tenants that we’ve set up here that have been really important is one, the methods and the programs that get us closer to the executives. So things like our CABs and our executive sponsor program, and then also the way we extract those customer insights from our install base. So our program has sort of those three tenets, right? You’ve got the references and advocacy, you’ve got the executive programs and then you’ve got just this good install-based customer insights arm. So it’s sort of the trifecta, I think. 

Margot Leong:  It’s hard to pick a favorite, but you were to say like of these three, which of these three are you proud of? 

Angela Burk: Here’s the thing. I’m gonna give you the answer that every parent gives, right? Like I love all my children equally, but the magic that I think has come from this structure is that they all feed one another. There’s like the network effect, right? These things all feed one another, and by connecting them together, it makes each of the separate pillars even more successful. So I love them all, but I think that the magic comes because we’ve connected them together and we’re really extracting that multiplier effect. When you put in place the methods to get you closer to the kinds of contacts that you want to draw insights from, when you are very deliberate about the insights you want to draw out of those folks, when you then give them the opportunity to showcase those insights on platforms that make them look great, it’s like this little virtuous cycle. So I really think that it’s the combination of those things and it’s the multiplier effect that you get when you invest in that kind of circle, and it makes each of the individual pillars even more successful. It’s like that one plus one plus one equals infinity. 

 Margot Leong: So for each of these pillars, what would you say those align to when it comes to what the goals are for each of those? 

Angela Burk: It’s very much about relationship building. It’s very much about ensuring that we’re connecting with the folks that are going to drive our strategy. It’s ensuring that we’re connecting with the folks that are relying on what we offer as a product to kind of make their teams and their work successful. When we’re really deliberate in doing that, it makes the identification, it makes the activation, it makes the promotion of all of the things that our customers are doing even more targeted. When you have those underlying foundations, right, and you approach any one of these programs with the idea that we need to give them a place to come together, we need to give our customers a place to feel like they’re inputting into our strategy, we need to give our customers an opportunity to take their great insights and then like broadcast them out and make them look like heroes. When we have that like mentality and that mindset, regardless of what program or what pillar we’re running, it’s just like an underlying philosophy.

 It’s that connection of being really mindful of everything that we do needs to drive a success motion, drive an engagement motion across our install base, and when we do that well across any one of those three pillars and in other parts of the business too, I might add, we will naturally build relationships that allow us to create kind of those lifelong advocates. And when you get those lifelong advocates, they become the hyper engaged, the hyper passionate, they want to tell your story because it helps them tell their story.

So again, it’s kind of like the connection of all those things, and more than like each one of those pillars aligns to one activity, it’s like a mindset and it’s a philosophy. 

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. It can’t just be sort of painting a fresh coat on top of a house. It has to be foundationally there, right. You can’t just have a program that is designed to get customers to tell their stories. I think it’s always like, what is in it for the customer in the first place? You know, are they being backed up by the product? Are they being backed up by support? Like are they being backed up in every way possible. What’s that reciprocal relationship to ensure that they are getting as much out of us as we are getting out of them. 

 Angela Burk: It’s so true. And I really do think that, you know, when you give your customers the opportunity to get access to your execs, get access to things like your company’s strategy, your product strategy, make them feel like they have a voice in that and give them the platforms to do that, it builds that trust, and then it really does create a relationship that is based on like we both feel like we’re getting an equal amount of goodness. And so I think that, you know, the, the magic of bringing these pillars together is that we sort of control a lot of those avenues, and ultimately when you can kind of connect those avenues internally, but also for our customers, they sort of start to see like, Oh, wait a minute. I feel much more engaged with you. I feel much more engaged with your brand. I feel much more engaged with your executives. And when I feel like that as a customer, I want to talk about it. I want to advocate and I want to talk about the things that I’m doing and the things that you’re giving me that allow me to do that.

Margot Leong: And so thinking about these pillars, right? References and advocacy, you know, that makes sense. It’s something we’ve covered a lot on the show, same with executive programs, right. That makes a lot of sense. Talk to me a little bit about what the customer insights arm looks like in execution. 

Angela Burk: I think a lot of that is we do a lot of partnership with our customer success group and we find the opportunities and sort of connect efforts around things like customer listening, voice of customer, programs where we are being really thoughtful about how we communicate to our install base and when. What are the things that we’re promoting at any given point of the customer life cycle? And then even if you look at things like, a really good example is our CAB program, our customer advisory board. So much great discussion happens at that CAB. We really need to be the arm of determining how do we extract that insight and package it into ways that not only are fueling our internal capabilities across the company, but how do we take that and package it into thought leadership that we can market outside of the company. And so that insights piece is really important because not only is it allowing us to kind of be that like voice of customer pillar, grabbing feedback, really listening to our customers at very deliberate points in the journey.

But then also how do we take all the things that they share with us across these programs and turn it into valuable insights that we inside the company can benefit from and that we can leverage for outside thought leadership. And so that’s really the vision with the customer communications and insights piece.

Margot Leong: I mean, it’s so important to capture all of those insights and when I was running CAB programs at previous companies and it’s like even just in the course of a few days, there’s so many hours of insights just packed into these short sessions and how do you distill that, right. And so I love what you’re talking about is that it not only feels internal, but it also can be used from an external standpoint. Give me some examples of what that might look like externally actually, in terms of thought leadership. 

Angela Burk: Absolutely. So a lot of it is based on like what customers approve for external consumption, of course. But if we’ve got a  that has to do with a campaign theme or a thought leadership theme, and we discussed at our CAB and sort of dissected it, and we’ve asked for our CAB to give us input and insights into how does this relate to what you’re saying and you’re doing in your industry or your business.

Then the onus becomes on us to go, how do I take all that and weave it into anything I’m doing and anything I’m marketing to support that theme. I like food analogies and a lot of what I talk about with the team is this notion of create once ,use many. You know, anything that you’re talking to your CAB about, whether it’s a thought leadership topic, or  an industry topic that’s pertinent to a particular vertical market, or it’s a topic that relates to a campaign that you’re bringing to market, we really need to look at that CAB interaction as our Thanksgiving day Turkey. What is that CAB telling us? How do they view that topic? And then how do I take that insight and how do I infuse it into all the things that I’m developing to support that topic? It puts a little bit more of the onus on how we think about running our CABs and how we collect the feedback that we’re getting during our CAB meetings, and then how do we turn that into useful things that our marketing counterparts can benefit from? 

Over time, you get those advocates who are willing to go, yeah. You know what? I talked to you about this at the CAB. I would love to talk about this same topic at your industry conference, or I’d love to come in front of your sales organization and share my thoughts on this topic. You’re building up the inventory of advocates and advocate content over time, but then you kind of have to look at it across the aggregate, and we need to make sure that as we run these programs, we are instilling and enabling our marketers to a) have access to what our CAB members are talking about, b) understand how to like infuse those insights into the things that they’re creating and then c) over time, we want to build those members up to become those public advocates. And so it really puts a lot of responsibility on us in terms of how we manage our program, how we show up at the meetings and then what we report on after the program.

Margot Leong: Something that sort of grabbed me about what you said is that it’s not only about sharing it, but it’s also about infusing the insights. Have you run into situations where it’s like, okay you know, I’m passing over these insights. But then, basically it’s up to them or it’s in their court to kind of actually infuse them throughout. Have you experienced situations where you’ll give them a ball, but then they don’t take it?

 Angela Burk: I’m going to be honest with you because I do think that I am very fortunate in my career. I’ve worked with a lot of leaders who really understand that the evidence that you sort of get from customers and those customer proof points really make everything that we say in market credentialized. It becomes true. It becomes the center point of taking anything to market. You’ve got to have evidence and you’ve got to have proof points from our customers to go, yeah, this stuff is what they’re saying is actually true. And so like understanding and appreciating the value of customer evidence and the value of customer insights and proof points, I’ve just been really lucky to work with leaders who get that and who support it. And so I think that a lot of that infusing comes from the top down, right. You know, you can look at anything that you put in market and it’s always made better when you’ve got it validated through the lens of the customers.

When you create a marketing message and you share it internally and you’re socializing it internally and you’re dissecting it, well, if it makes sense to everybody internally, but it’s not the way your customers speak, then is it really going to land the way you want it to?

And so I think a lot of this stuff comes down to just an organizational philosophy on, we’ve got to be outside in. We’ve got to be really relevant and talk the way our customers talk, and then we’ve got to be mindful that what we say in market is made even more powerful when it can be credentialized and backed up by customer proof points. Again, it comes down to mindsets and philosophies and top-down appreciation for that stuff. It makes it a whole lot smoother. 

Margot Leong: You’re a woman after my own heart with all these food analogies. 

Angela Burk: I know it’s like lunchtime right now. So I’m like really hungry, I think. But yeah, I do like to talk in food. 

Margot Leong: You know, these pillars all feed each other. We got the Thanksgiving Turkey, like I’m excited to see what else you’re going to pull out from this cornucopia. So the next piece that I wanted to talk to you about is, how do you think about measuring success?  

Angela Burk: Well, so this is an interesting point, and again, I kind of want to like level up the way I sort of think about this and that is, you know, I really viewed that a lot of these programs that we put in place, when you see customers and you see them willing to advocate for you and you watch customers become active with you on your boards and you are listening and extracting these great voice of customer insights, and you’re putting all these to good use and customers start to see the value of that. They become even more engaged, right? So for me, I look at individual metrics and, you know, making sure that the stuff we produce is performing the way we want it to in the marketplace, for sure. 

But I also want to really kind of think about are we improving customer engagement overall. And I can’t say that the things that myself and my team do are the only contributors to customer engagement, cause that would be grossly incorrect, but I really care about this concept of customer engagement. Because we know that when customers are more engaged, when they’re on your boards, when they’re on your product councils, when they’re advocating and speaking publicly about what they’ve done, when they feel connected to the company and the role that we as a company play in their success, they behave differently.  Engaged customers spend at higher rates, they remain loyal, they often have higher satisfaction rates. They become those advocates for life. Those are the kinds of things I want to make sure that we’re impacting and we’re contributing to in terms of success and like, not just immediate long immediate success, but like for the long haul. 

Margot Leong: This is a really good segue into this topic around customer engagement in general. It’s really important, right? To engage your existing customers. We all know that in reality, like there’s so much focus on new pipeline, new growth, like you said yourself, you’ve been pretty lucky to be in situations in which, you know, you have executive leadership that deeply believes in having engaged customers. But how do you then think about metrics within this lens? What are the goals that you’re setting out? 

Angela Burk: Yeah. The goals that we set out are really like, we’re really focused on identifying the accounts we want to target, the kinds of stories we want to tell, the personas through which we want to tell those stories. And so a lot of what we do is really like, do we have a healthy mix? Do we have the right mix of the kinds of stories that we want to tell across the verticals that we want to tell them through from the lens of the right personas and the altitude that we need to tell these stories from. It’s like the mix of all those things, right. 

Margot Leong: It’s not about we’re going to do 50 case studies this year or something like that, but it’s more around, first off, are we understanding what are the goals at a very high level for the business? And then as you said, it’s figuring out, okay, what’s the mix of all of these things that will then help to align to those goals?

One quarter, we may go all in on this thing because we’re trying to go after enterprise. And then the next quarter, like, we may like do a different mix because we’re trying to go after SMB or from a product marketing perspective, we’re trying to tell this message. So we need to get this message out and target those types of stories.

 Angela Burk:  A hundred percent. You’re absolutely right. When you start with that mindset, it kind of gets you out of the drive-through reference requests. Like I’m going to drive through the reference requests window and order up 10 case studies or five press releases or six customer speakers. Because are those individual assets, the right assets? I don’t know. Is the number, right? Not sure. 

 When you can start with the, what is the business trying to achieve? What is the problem I’m trying to solve? And like start at that altitude versus I need to fulfill a number or I need to deliver a specific set of assets,  maybe the number is wrong or maybe the asset request is wrong. Like, so you’ve got to start from the top. And I do think that like, when you can start with that level of connection to where the business trying to go, what are the priorities? And then how do I deliver the, kind of the evidence that will support that? It just changes the conversation. 

Margot Leong: It’s one thing to be like, okay, this is how we think about it within my own department. But then how do you advise your team or how do you specifically deal with other departments or other people going through to trying to like go to your guys’s drive-through window and order what makes sense in their minds? How do you have those conversations? 

Angela Burk: I think a lot of those conversations are born out of trust, right. And mutual respect and you, like, you establish a relationship built on credibility and trust. And I think it is really just sort of going look, I hear what you’re saying and I got what you’re asking for, but like, can we take a step back, like help me understand the problem that we’ve got right now, or help me understand the opportunity that you’re trying to capitalize on today. And then how do we think customer evidence or how do we think customer voice, or how do we think a customer insight is going to help?

Let’s start there and have that conversation. You might get to the end of that conversation and go, wow. The thing that you thought you needed, you actually don’t need. Because the problem wasn’t really fulfilled by, I need six case studies or I need five press releases. So I think it’s just having that kind of conversation. You know, sometimes it can be a little jarring for folks because it’s like, wait a minute. You know, I know what I need. It’s like, well, let’s just take a step back and educate me, like, help me understand your business, help me understand your priorities, because I want to really deliver the kind of customer insight that’s going to help you, and I think people respond really well to that. 

I think it’s just about being a really good business partner, right. And if you want to elevate your role from a strategy perspective, if you want to elevate kind of the value that your team provides, forget  the company that you’re at, asking why, really understanding where somebody is coming from, helping them to problem solve and elevating your role in helping them through that process. It’s being a good business partner. When you have that kind of conversation and you feel supported by having that conversation, people really respond well to that. So it’s a philosophy and I’m kind of thinking back across my career and in customer marketing and customer advocacy, and it’s just sort of the way I’ve always worked. I can’t really think of an example where somebody was like, wow, I really am sorry that you’ve done that. You know, I think it’s good. 

Margot Leong: I want to get like more tactical here just because this is something that I have dealt with a lot, especially at larger organizations and especially when the trust has not been established.  I’m very similar to you in that I want everything to be as intentional as possible, but then a lot of these conversations, like they can happen over email, like maybe a VP will shoot me and my team a request to go do this thing immediately. I’m staring at this email trying to think, how can I reach this person over the phone or talk to them, but then it’s hard to get on their calendar. And then how do I even like broach this whole thing over email? So you know, selfishly, I just want to know if you have advice for me in the future if I may ever run into this again, 

Angela Burk: Yeah. Well, and so here’s the thing, like just about my personality, I love  So often when somebody shoots me over a request or has an idea, my first question is like, okay, help me understand why this is important or I understand what you want to do. Just help me understand the why, because I just need that context. 

From one of my past bosses, she had this this philosophy and it was, if it takes more than two, I’m going to call you. So basically it was, you know, if it takes more than two slacks or if it takes more than two emails, I’m just going to pick up the phone to call you. I’ve sort of adopted that, and I think that, you know, maybe being remote over the last year, people are a little bit more accepting to yep, somebody is just going to ring me or somebody who’s just going to Slack call me or somebody who’s going to pick up the phone and call my cell, or somebody’s going to send me a text to go, Hey, I need five minutes.

But it’s just help me understand the context. Like I want to help you, but I have a couple of questions that will help me help you better. So help me understand why. And then if I can’t get what I need over an email, look, I’m going to call you for five minutes. I just need five minutes. And people respond well to that.

Margot Leong: I think that’s a fantastic tip. It’s something that I’ve struggled a lot with,  you are leading customer marketing, but you have a small team and then it’s a fast moving company and everything is going so quickly. Everything feels like life or death sometime, even though it’s definitely not. I think this is like a really good point and there’s this quote that I heard about it through like the CEO of Shopify. And he was saying it’s your job to be likable, but not liked. And so the difference there is that  basically you don’t have to bend over backwards for every single request, just because you want to make people happy because you’re also losing a lot in that exchange. But if you are a helpful person in general, and you’re a nice person, that means you’re likable, but it doesn’t have to mean you have to change yourself in the moment to be liked. And so I love that distinction. It’s something that I tell myself all the time, especially if I’m going into battle or like, if I’m going to be going up against, conflict or having these types of conversations. 

And I think you said you’ve done this for so long, this is sort of your default. And I think the consistency of that is also like really important in order to establish your reputation as someone within the organization that is not just going to say yes to everything, but who will really be very thoughtful about all the considerations and maybe even by doing so like, you are actually also maybe helping that other partner reconsider or think more intentionally about what they’re trying to do, and that can also be helpful for them as well. 

But I think all of this is super, super important when it comes to thinking about, okay, like, how does customer marketing become elevated? How do they get thought of as truly strategic? And I think it’s having to push past some of this discomfort around like, let’s slow down. I’m not just going to do this because someone asked me to. 

Angela Burk: It’s a hundred percent. And I do think, you know, I like frameworks and I like models, right. So, asking why. There’s a lot of power in asking why. I do find that sometimes you might get requests where people sort of have a presupposed idea of what the solution is, but maybe when you start to ask why, the dissection of the problem isn’t as clear for them. And so when you start to have a conversation that really is rooted in why, and help me understand the context and you know, like what problem are we really trying to solve here? The original request might not actually solve the problem and what sometimes it does is it could create a brand new problem that you didn’t even intend.

Having that as a philosophy and then like doing so in a way that you tell yourself, like I’m showing up well for my business partners, I’m showing up well for my stakeholders and I do think people respond to that. You know, you might find yourself in a situation you get through all that and the request is still on the table, and you still have to deliver and you still might not be a hundred percent clear on the why, but at least you have elevated the conversation, and I think that there’s a lot of power in that. 

Margot Leong: I do too. For me, at least like, it’s like pushing past that discomfort, you know, also means that, you know, showing up for yourself, showing up for your team. It helps that person know that you’re not going to not necessarily be taken advantage of, but just more that like you will basically require that anyone who asks you to do something also is as thoughtful about it as you are. And there’s definitely power in that. I think that this also means that when people come to you in the future, they will probably be a bit more thoughtful or like have more of a case, right. Because you’re kind of almost like training them to think  when approaching you too.

Angela Burk: Exactly. And here’s the thing, like, I really believe that so much of what we do here in customer marketing, customer advocacy is about relationships. And so I feel like just as much as I’m really excited when our customers want to advocate for us, I sometimes feel like I have to advocate for them as well. I probably tend to err a little bit on the side of like, I need to protect the relationship with our customers. And I want to make sure that when I go to them, I have thoughtful requests that are not immediate or not well conceived, and then I’m putting the relationship first. I sort of come back to this idea that we’re building lifelong advocates. I come back to this idea that when you start with forming a relationship, and you want that relationship to carry over, not just from a single request or not just from an immediate opportunity, you want this relationship to carry over the course of that customer’s relationship with your company. It’s like any relationship you have to nurture, and so for me, a lot of what we do is it comes from that, like I’m building a relationship and I want to advocate on behalf of our customers.

I want to make sure that I’m bringing them the opportunities that are really going to elevate them. I want to make sure that I’m thoughtful about how I do that and that I’m not viewing this as a transaction, or I’m not doing this as like a favor or a request, and so that kind of philosophy I’d look, this is relationship building. And I’ve got to do that internally so I’m viewed as a great business partner. And more importantly, I would say I have to do that with our customers, so that I’m again, viewed as a great business partner. 

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And, and I think the ironic thing is that a lot of times I feel like the things that you do to protect your customers are sometimes, thought of as odds with being a good partner internally. It’s just a really interesting sort of push pool always with that. But I do think that like, you know, if you like something that can help motivate you is again, like if you are making sure that you want to build these fully long-term relationships with your customers, like it’s all of these things that add up,  and being just as future-facing about it as possible.

Angela, you know, I think this is a perfect place to wrap up the conversation. I know  we’re getting close to time, I think we could probably talk all day about this stuff. 

Angela Burk:  I love your podcast, I’m just always interested in hearing from people in our space and learning from them. So I just feel really grateful, like I said, that you’ve invited me to join you and yeah, it’s been great. 

Margot Leong: Okay, fantastic.  I think last question for you is where can people find you if they’d like to connect.

Angela Burk: Absolutely. Best place is LinkedIn, and I would love to connect with folks in our network and in our space. So looking forward to doing that. 

Margot Leong: Awesome. Thank you, Angela. 

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. 

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