Transcript: How Your Advocacy Program Can Generate Outsized Returns with Maria Sturgeon

On this episode, I was joined by Maria Sturgeon, Program Director, Customer Advocacy at Teradata. She manages their Peer Advantage Program, which has been in existence for over 20 years and is considered to be one of the top marketing programs at the company for the sheer amount of value that it generates. We talked about what makes their reference program unique, the metrics they use to measure ROI and how they were able to pivot during the pandemic uncertainty in 2020. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Maria. 

Margot Leong: Maria, thank you so much for joining us on Beating The Drum. Thank you for coming on. 

Maria Sturgeon: Thanks, Margot. I’m happy to be here. 

Margot Leong: Can you share a bit about your background and journey to customer marketing?

Maria Sturgeon: I would say really my path from college to my first full-time job really shaped my future in corporate marketing. I was lucky enough to join NCR during the summer between my sophomore and junior year, where I worked in their corroborative education program and then got hired on shortly after college. And then I really spent the first part of my career supporting several vice presidents, doing their executive communications and employee communications for different areas, such as their professional services groups or global learning group and their financial services division. And during that time, I always had a strong linkage with the marketing department within NCR, and then I left for a year and came back.

 I was actually contacted by a former employee at NCR, who contacted me about the Peer Advantage job, and it just sounded super exciting. It was really the first time I was going to be working directly with customers. So I was hired in 2004 as the operations manager, and then was promoted a few years later to the program director.

So I can’t believe I’ve been in this role as long as I have been, I always say I like to blame our great customers for that. And I think anybody probably in the customer advocacy role loves it for that sheer part that you do get to work with customers and see those results.

Margot Leong: Tell me a little bit about what your role at Teradata currently sort of encompasses. 

Maria Sturgeon: My role of Teradata includes managing the Peer Advantage program, which is our customer reference program, which encompasses about 200 member companies. The members have kind of ebbed and flowed over the years in terms of how many members, because of the company acquisitions, et cetera. So I manage the overall membership and program strategy, budgets and staffing. And also I stay involved in the day-to-day references as well. I help out our influencer team with any analyst references they may have.

Margot Leong: What do you enjoy the most about this type of work that you’re doing currently? 

Maria Sturgeon: I would say probably without a doubt, building the strong relationships with our customers, and really being able to see that impact of our program and driving new logos and new wins, and then the overall revenue for our company.

Our program is a bit unique in the sense that we work directly with our customer advocates to fulfill the references whereas we see a lot of companies work with their account executives to fulfill them. And we think this really provides us a better opportunity to drive more efficiency and really an overall higher fulfillment rate and a better opportunity to really establish those more personable relationships with our customers. We often know their birthdays or anniversaries, even what snacks they prefer at face to face events and more. 

Margot Leong: I’m excited to really dive more into the Peer Advantage program at Teradata. And so I know that the program is actually considered to be one of the top marketing programs within the company, right. I think in our pre-call you mentioned that there’s been like over 20 years of value that’s been generated. I’d first be curious in understanding a bit more about the evolution of this program in the time that you’ve been at the company. 

Maria Sturgeon: So the program was launched in 2001, and I would say it’s been going strong ever since. I mentioned it resides under global learning, but we do have a strong relationship with our regional field and marketing organizations such as the analyst relations team and our PR team. Our advocates complete the sales request as most companies reference programs do, which are the one-to-one calls, the one-to-one meetings, events, and then site visits as well as the marketing activities, such as the analyst evaluations, the media activities, et cetera. 

And our program is a little unique in the fact that our members earn points for the activities they complete and they can use these points to redeem for business rewards. By far our most popular rewards are registration, airfare, and hotel associated with our annual user group, Teradata education, executive education and more.

This program has been long lasting, really due to the sheer value it generates for Teradata and for our customers. We know that peer to peer conversations are critical when considering technology purchases. In fact, I just attended a webinar with Forester last week and they reiterated this. Customers definitely want to ensure that they are speaking to folks with experience and they see the value and the desire of business outcomes being delivered for not only the organization, but their clients as well. And we do feel our advocates do exactly that, and that message has been delivered to our account executives and overall executive team, so they see the great need for this program. 

Margot Leong: You mentioned how basically it launched in 2001. How has the program sort of evolved, over the time that you’ve been there? 

Maria Sturgeon: Well, I would say in terms of evolution, it’s pretty simple. I think that every year I’m seeing kind of the sheer value that we generate for the company. I would say that we’re just asked to do more and more as the importance of peer to peer conversations has really only amplified with the state of the world. I think my team has pretty much taken a step up in terms of the digital and online events we provide as well, basically having our advocates influencing prospects and customers through webinars and other online events, which we didn’t do in the early days. 

Margot Leong: You talked about how the importance of peer to peer conversations have only amplified. Do you feel as though that shifted during COVID or was there a shift that you saw happening? I’d love to hear about that a little more. 

Maria Sturgeon: We definitely saw the shift with the types of events that were going on, obviously, our one-to-one reference requests. We saw that decrease with people really focusing on their families and wellness. Really, the world stood still. So we had to find a way to kind of pivot our program and really still allowing our customer advocates to really share their story and creating some interest for our prospects and customers. So we really shifted highly to those webinars and we saw our attendance doubled during that timeframe.

I don’t know if I would say shift is the right word in terms of our references it shifted, but I think it just created a greater need for really advocates to provide that evidence and trust that they’re making the right decision. COVID created such uncertainty over the last year for everyone. In fact, it’s still doing so. Just when we all think that we’re in the clear to get back to normal, we see the new variants pop up. 

So just the overall value that our advocates can provide during those virtual references in light of face to face events being canceled, I think that’s really the most critical thing. And the fact that we can really turn it around pretty quickly, one-to-one calls are pretty quick to plan and complete, whereas the face-to-face events obviously require a lot more time and we quite don’t know when those will re will resume right now. We hope by 2022 because we really miss our customers, but it’s something that we will continue to deliver to make sure that our prospects and our customers are getting what they need to make their decisions.

Margot Leong: Customer marketing is, I think we know how important it is, but sometimes it can fight for validity or importance within a larger organization. And so I think the fact that Peer Advantage is considered to be a big program at Teradata, I think is really something that I’d love to spend a bit more time on is people really want to understand how can I up level, right, what I’m doing? How can I basically tie that to something where it seems very critical, where people understand the value of what the program is all about and what it’s delivering. So I’d love to understand how this is framed within Teradata. How has it gained that sort of reputation? How do you prove out the ROI of this program? 

Maria Sturgeon: So in terms of our KPIs, we have measured volume of references, but really sales and marketing since the program began as well as new member companies. We launched ReferenceEdge last year as our new customer reference management tool, and so now we’re able to track the revenue influenced. I look at a weekly basis to see how much revenue in terms of ARR growth and total contract value, as well as how much we have in the funnel. So looking, you know, over the course of the next year, how many opportunities do we potentially have the opportunity to influence through peer advantage calls, which is extremely important because you want to be able to see the value and the opportunities that you are impacting on a daily basis.

We’ve been able to really take all of the feedback that we get from our prospects and customers and we share this with our executives wherever we can, if it’s just an email or if it’s just sending them feedback in our quarterly reviews, et cetera. In fact, we had one of our peer advocates send us a message last month that he’s retiring. and it was just a really nice email thanking us for the value that we delivered to him personally, and to his company. And he expressed that without peer advantage, he would definitely not have been able to make the connections he did, needed to do his job.

And he appreciated our support, especially at our annual user groups. So that right there, the fact that he’s taking time out of his schedule to send us that note really really made us feel really great about the program, about the value that we provide in helping them make their connections.

We often see our members, they may go from one company to another Teradata customer, and then they want to join peer advantage right away because they see the value of our program. So that’s a good measurement to have too, is that they want to join the program immediately.

Margot Leong: And so how do you report on the KPIs, right, to the larger company? How do they keep track and know the good work that you guys are doing. 

Maria Sturgeon: I would say in the early days, we typically did this on a quarterly basis. Whereas now, as I mentioned, we’re looking at this on a weekly basis and I provide weekly reports every week to my manager and it levels up to our CMO. And then we do quarterly updates as well. Our CMO may do a quarterly updates to the LT as well. And they see all the reference references were influencing both sales and marketing volume, again, the new member companies, the revenue influenced.

We get feedback a lot from the account executives we help and they level that feedback up to their managers. So they know that this program is really critical in driving and accelerating their sales motion and really closing that deal. We worked with our marketing ops team to look at all the references we provided over the last two to three years, and we have stats that by using peer advantage, you typically have a 20% greater chance of closing the opportunity by using one of our references. And it’s also typically our higher contract value as well.

So those results are just outstanding. We basically strive to improve that year over year, but they know that again, these advocates are critical. These peer to peer conversations are critical as part of the sales motion. That’s the feedback our account executives really get from their customers requesting the calls and it’s just been consistently delivered year over year. And we gather that and again, we report it and mention it wherever we can. 

Margot Leong: What are some of the opportunities that your advocates find the most valuable in terms of being a part of this? What are some of the valuable things they find outside of the points that they gain?

Maria Sturgeon: Sure. I would say number one is just the overall connections. We try to have peer advantage- only events for our members. We’ve done a few webinars this year, but at our face-to-face events, we really, really try to make them feel valued. And we have a reception where they meet other peer members and we have lunches throughout the week. We do special events only for them during that week. 

But it’s really those connections that they’ve met obviously by being a peer member. And then they also know that they can actually request a reference as well. So they would request a call with another advocate member. They can certainly do it through us. In fact, we’ve tried to make it really easy for them. We have a member only website and rather than go through their account rep to have to make the requests, they can actually just click on the website and send the form in to us and try to make it really just a one-stop shop for them.

The points are obviously helpful, especially when you get around time for our user group and everything because we offer those business rewards that they can redeem for. But by far I would say the connections are they’re really the most valuable for them.

Margot Leong: And who are the titles and the personas that you’re typically engaging with this program? 

Maria Sturgeon: It ranges anywhere from like a DBA to director of data warehouse, to BI director. And we even have some CIOs involved in that program. You’re really not segmented out by title. What we do is when we have, for example, these luncheons based on solutions and products. So we offer, the name of the peer advantage member hosting the session and what they can speak about as a Teradata reference. That would definitely entail how the prospect or customers would sign up to attend and why they would be interested versus the titles. 

Typically, like, for example, our last face-to-face event, those were heavily cloud focused as people are shifting to the cloud. So we might have a table on Teradata on Azure, and then we would have a table on Teradata on AWS, so specific products and solutions that our company delivers, so people sign up for those. 

Margot Leong: Got it. And so I think something that you said that you felt was really unique about the peer advantage program was the fact that people could basically get points for participating in certain activities. Is there anything else that you’re particularly proud of or that you think is unique about the program? 

Maria Sturgeon: I think mostly in terms of just those long-term relationships we were able to establish, there are people in our program who have been here since the start and then myself and other staff member have been here since very early on. So we’ve all been able to see that program grow and change together. We have a members only website that members actually enroll in and then they can see all the rewards and we try to showcase some other resources they can take advantage of on that site. So I think that’s another area where we are a bit unique. 

Whereas most companies base their program on like the number of contacts, we based on the number of kind of member companies. And we have one person who we call our primary peer contact. And that person is actually the individual that enrolls on behalf of their company and agrees to what activities their company will participate in, and manages their company’s online account. So really anyone within the company can complete the reference, but if there’s that one primary peer that enrolls as the members. So yes, sometimes that primary peer stays the same for years and years, but other times we see them change quite frequently because of the fact that they move on to a new company or they’ve moved on to a new role. 

What we do try to make sure of is at the events that we’re having, you know, face to face events, if there are other members, previous members that have been there, we actually invite them back to the reception as well, because they’re part of our community and our family. And we’ve seen quite a few cases where the customer will actually come over to join Teradata. There are probably five or six people in the room at any given time that used to be former customers, but now they’re Teradata and we definitely invite them back too, because again, it’s really a family, the peer advantage family and community.

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. That’s happened at other companies that I’ve worked at as well. You’re doing your job so well that, you know, the company looks really good to your advocates and then they want to actually join the company itself, which is a really, really sort of fun evolution in the relationship.

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we can’t wait to get back to these face-to-face events and see our members in person. We’ve tried to have some meetings with a lot of them via zoom. Or any type of online event where we can see them. But we’re definitely really, really missing them at the face-to-face events.

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s say that you’re in need of finding a reference for an account executive, for someone to speak to a prospect, so talk to me about how peer advantage would factor in here. Where would it come in? 

Maria Sturgeon: Sure. For years, we had a homegrown system that our executives could request a reference through. It was pretty simplistic through a form and we basically revised the form every year in terms of when our products and solutions were changing, so we had the best information to share with our advocate members. 

We launched ReferenceEdge to be this kind of new tool for us, so our account executives rather would go through Salesforce to submit a request to us, and they can either search on the potential member themselves by validating what solutions and prospects their requesting customer would like to speak about so they can actually select member names or they can ask us to do the research for them in terms of what customers we think may benefit them. And they would just request the number of references and provide us with the criteria needed.

And let’s say for example, one of our advocates agreed to do the request, then my team would actually set up all the logistics of the request from start to finish. So if it’s a one-to-one request, then when we would actually set up the call details and send the calendar invites out to the requesting prospect and customer, as well as our advocate member, and then just do the followup to make sure the call went OK.

It’s a one-stop shop. And it’s really always been like that, which is probably why, again, we continue to provide value in this, that they see us as a critical part because they know that we want to help them. I know we’re very customer-focused, but we also consider the AEs to be our customers and we definitely want to help them eliminate as much work they can around this, and really just rely on us to make that reference happen and again, deliver it from start to finish. 

There are no Teradata folks on the calls. The only time that a territory representative would participate is typically if we’re hosting a webinar or what we call group reference calls, where for example, I would moderate the events and have the featured peer advantage customer share a little bit about their story, and then we will open it up to prospects and customers via kind of a round table. And they will each be offered about eight to 10 minutes to ask questions. There’s just someone required, like I would be required to moderate that session to moderate the time that each prospects and customers are given. 

Margot Leong: The concept of group reference calls is really interesting to me. And it’s not something that I’ve actually had a chance to talk to anyone about on the show. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about this. How big are these calls? Like basically, how many people do you typically allow on one of these larger group reference calls?

Maria Sturgeon: Well, they can be small. So as few as 15 people or is as large as you know, sometimes there’s been actually 200 people on the call. We also allow our Teradata employees and partners and influencers to listen in on the calls, and we also invite our Peer Advantage members to listen in as well.

So there’s a component of the calls that are actually live active prospects and customers asking questions. And then there’s others that can just listen in if they want to understand what’s going on, what business challenges, solutions, the overall customer story at the advocate member who’s speaking. 

Again, those have been really successful for us from early on. We used to just offer them to prospects and customers but then we expanded those to our partner and our influencer groups as well, and they do appreciate the opportunity to listen in as well. 

Margot Leong: That makes a lot of sense. And I can imagine it can be quite powerful, these group reference calls, just the ability to almost kind of have this AMA type format. What does that prep typically look like? 

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, for the reference team, it’s actually a lower level of work. For my webinar, obviously you have a very customized presentation obviously involving demand gen campaign and elements of that social media strategy, et cetera.

But for the group calls we used to use a conferencing center. Now we typically run those through our WebEx tool. And you know, we can use other tools as well. But it’s not hard to set up. It doesn’t require a pre-call with the customer in terms of a dry run, like the webinars would require, that would involve the analysts, the executives, et cetera. So these are actually able pretty quickly just to set up. 

Margot Leong: Are you open to taking any questions or are you careful in terms of how you pick and choose what you decide to basically be allowed to be asked?

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, we actually let the prospects and customers lead with questions. The only thing we prefer not to really happen discuss is pricing. I’ve heard it come up before. And if the customer who is featured would like to talk about it, they can, but every situation is unique. So, you know, you can’t say what one customer gets, the other customer gets. So that’s something we really try to stay away with and focus more on the business challenges: what led them up to selecting Teradata? How many specific results they can provide and really how are they making their customers happy and delivering business outcomes for them?

I would say the other major thing that these calls have helped us do is it allows us, you know, a lot of times, and I know every reference program sees this. You have customers that are more popular and being requested at one time r the other, and you want to prevent burnout. So this helps our most popular customers get their story out to a lot of people at once. So we help reduce the number of one-to-one requests for that one particular customer, and that’s also the concept, as I mentioned, the lunches that we have at our face-to-face events, we actually call them group reference lunches. 

We take our most popular customers who can speak about our most popular topics, and we basically asked them to host the lunches. So on three consecutive days, we’ll have 10 customers hosting each day. So we can make sure that we don’t wear them out during the entire week, you know, with 50 meetings so they can each host this table and you’re hitting five or six prospects of customers at one time. And then we might even do what we’ve done in the past with when we’d done one to two breakfast meetings, or have like one major customer host and we allow about 60 to 75 people to attend.

Margot Leong: Yeah. I love the idea of references at scale, where you’re kind of replicating that feel of that one-to-one reference call, but you know, obviously with a lot more people involved, but you still can have the sort of authenticity, the sincerity, the honesty, still mostly retained. I’m curious how you think about also measuring the results from that. Is it similar to how you guys are also tracking the effectiveness or success of one-to-one reference calls? 

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, we definitely measure those in terms of the attendee types. So we look at the prospects and customers as sales references, and then we look at the analysts who attended and the partners who attended as kind of marketing references, so we make sure that we are tracking every attendee. Obviously if it’s a sales reference, we’re making sure that we track that opportunity it’s associated with as well, so we can link that back to the rep. Every reference that we do, every event that we do, it’s critical for us to be able to track the attendees and really see, you know, if you’re in the middle of a sales motion, if that sales motion closes quickly because of that reference. We consider that the same to be as effective as a one to one reference because you’re still hearing the advocate members share their story and build trust and provide evidence of what we can deliver.

Margot Leong: Got it. And with references, you know, well, at least the one-to-one ones they often, or in my experience come towards the closer to the end of the cycle, like where, you know, someone maybe understood the technical side of things and has walked things through with the sales side. And then basically one of the last pieces is being able to talk to a reference.

And so do the group reference calls usually also fall along that journey as well at a similar stage, or do they come earlier? Where have you typically seen that live? 

Maria Sturgeon: So I would say that the companies who are in kind of that active mode in terms of asking questions, those are typically in the same cycle, but where you can generate kind of that interest in a particular topic, those customers may be not even thinking about that or maybe way down their horizon and they’re listen only. You don’t need to be in that certain sales cycle for them to be making the decision, they just want to hear the value again and that might generate interest in a certain product or solution. 

And that’s one of the beauty of these calls is you know, we have a lot of new account executive starting. Often what we find is that we often know members in the company, their accounts better than they do, because we’ve worked with them, especially if they’re an advocacy member. So a lot of times this gives them the opportunity to really reach out to contacts they normally wouldn’t reach out to so early when they come aboard and say, Hey, our peer advantage organization is offering this call. Would you like to attend? And he or she can get them signed up.

Margot Leong: Actually, I can imagine, you know, because you guys have built such long-term relationships with a lot of your members is, you guys have stayed and remained consistent with that relationship.

Maria Sturgeon: Yep. Right. And that’s one of the things I think has been great for us. You know, not only long-term relationships with our members, but there’s been a lot of account reps who have been here for a long time as well. And we love working with them and those are the ones that continuously advocate for our program because they’ve seen the value delivered year over year.

But we do make an effort. In fact, today this morning, I reached out to all of the new sales hires from July. I work with HR to get a list of those new hires, and then I reach out to them to make sure they know about the peer advantage program, as well as our executive briefing centers, which is another component of our global customer advocacy team.

Margot Leong: How big is the team that you’re managing that basically runs the peer advantage program? 

Maria Sturgeon: So we have two people full-time right now in peer advantage, and then we have another person on our team who helps out with all aspects of our team, like customer stories, peer advantage, and our executive briefing centers.

Margot Leong: This has been a really good overview on the Peer Advantage side and something that you had alluded to earlier was that shift during COVID, right, and, and one of those big challenges that you faced was that, you know, historically that program could generate a really high volume of references, but during COVID, there was a decline in the amount of one-to-one. So, I guess you guys pivoted in this really interesting way where you went more to the webinar format. Tell me about that shift for you guys and, and sort of what you saw as a result.

Maria Sturgeon: Right, so we’ve always done webinars too. We did a lot of them last year, I think it was of 11 webinars we delivered. And what we did is we looked at a lot of the key speakers are customer speakers who were supposed to be positioned or present rather at face-to-face events that were already lined up. And we said, okay, those folks were already preparing a presentation about Teradata. A lot of times they were paired with a Teradata executive and we definitely followed up with them and ask them if they could present during a webinar. 

For example, one of our first ones was Southwest with our CTO, Steven Gross, in May of last year. So that generated a lot of interest and we continue to do that throughout the entire year, which is kind of why we scaled back on the group calls at that time. We put, you know, our full force and focus into these webinars, into the email campaigns, the social campaigns, because we definitely wanted to try to entice interest and also you saw people pivoted to their home environments. A lot of times they had more time to take professional development courses or to attend webinars than they did before by being at home, so this allowed them to really attend these sessions. 

And as I mentioned, I work heavily with our analyst team to say, Hey, we’ve got a great customer speaker speaking on this topic. Do you have any analysts that would copresent with them. And then we selected either a Teradata subject matter expert or a Teradata executive member that could help moderate the session, so it’d be a great flow. And a lot of those sessions are actually, were recorded if the customer allowed and they’re promoted not only on our peer advantage members site, but also on Teradata.com. 

Margot Leong: How has that influenced your approach going forward? 

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, we’re trying to get back into more of a mix. I would say the beauty about the group calls is that you’re able to have more of an interactive format with the questions, whereas the webinars are mostly the customer and the analysts presenting. That audience is able to send their questions in via chat, but it’s not for as much time as it has during the group calls. So typically, you know, the last eight to 10 minutes of a webinar will be dedicated to Q&A from the audience, whereas the actual group calls are more interactive. You have questions and answers and it’s more of an informal format, you just give them all time to ask their questions. 

Margot Leong: You mentioned you sort of more than doubled attendance at the sessions last year, right? You got some really good feedback and then you said it was actually a great tool to help people generate more one-to-one references that, that AEs could like actually follow up. Can you share a little bit more about some of the results that you saw? 

Maria Sturgeon: Yeah, absolutely. I think from both the group references and the webinars you see after the call, we’ll have a couple of requests come in that the attendee wants to know more. So then we set up a one to one call with that customer who presented to really give them kind of a more intimate format to speak to one-to-one. So that always happens when we do the webinars and the group calls. 

The other thing we see too is we see a lot of times, one person attends from the company and they say, oh, I wish my colleagues would’ve been on this call. And so then that’s when you get to the one-to-one request too, is I want to have more colleagues from their company attend this and hear the story and be able to ask questions.

Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. So was there anything else that we haven’t covered when it comes to the Peer Advantage program or how you guys pivoted in the past year that we haven’t spoken about yet? Anything else that you wanted to add before we wrap up the conversation?

Maria Sturgeon: You know, I would just say our team always continues to be busy. We always know we can do more. I think one of the hardest things right now is, as I mentioned last year, we were very successful with our webinars in terms of the attendees. But obviously you’ve seen the number of webinar invites that you get now, because everyone had to pivot to webinars. 

So I think it’s just being able to constantly find that unique positioning and unique event that you can offer to prospects and customers. So we constantly are trying to brainstorm new ideas that we can offer for our prospects and customers, and the marketing team as well for, analysts, influencers, et cetera, to attend. 

So it’s never a dull industry, I would say, I always look forward to speaking with my other customer advocate peers and learning what they’re doing as well, especially in this kind of time of craziness for all of us. It’s a very rewarding job and it’s just been the best job I’ve ever had in my career is to get to work with these customers without directly being involved as a salesperson. 

Margot Leong: That’s amazing. The last question I have is, you know, where can our listeners find you if they’d like to connect and and learn more, you know, exchange notes.

Maria Sturgeon: I would love for them to connect with me via LinkedIn. That would be fantastic. 

Margot Leong: Maria, this was such a great conversation. And thank you for opening up the lid and, and really sharing the soup to nuts of the Peer Advantage program.

Maria Sturgeon: Oh, thank you, Margot. It was my pleasure.

 

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