As the economic tides have shifted, full prospect pipelines and accelerated sales cycles have been upended, replaced by tighter budgets and an essential-tools-only mandate. Companies from emerging startups to BigCos are keeping an extra-close eye on their balance sheets, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to trimming any budgetary fat. Customers who were once clamoring to get their hands on your product are suddenly asking to renegotiate their contract – or walk away altogether.
It’s a shift that’s pushed the focus from acquiring all sorts of new customers to preserving the ones you already have — by shoring up your relationships with champions who are in it with you for the long haul.
“These days I find that more startups are thinking about customer advocacy, and more revenue leaders and founders are reaching out to me for advice. When I first started in a customer advocacy role and I would tell people my title, I would either get confused looks or ‘Oh, so you make case studies?’ kind of comments,” says Kalina Bryant.
Bryant served as Asana’s first Head of Customer Advocacy, as well as holding customer-facing roles at Talkdesk, Anaplan and Marketo. She also shares her knowledge with the broader startup community as a Forbes Contributor and teams up with founders 1:1 to offer tailored advice on customer advocacy and community development as one of First Round’s Experts in Residence.
As Bryant notes, it’s safe to say the customer advocacy function is often underutilized and misunderstood. Especially in the scrappy startup setting, customer advocacy can seem like a function to tack on much later. Resource constraints play a role here, to be sure, but this phenomenon is also fueled by the simple truth: Early on, there’s a temptation to just focus on eng and product. The quest often centers around growth, not retention and engagement. As a result, customer success gets siloed, viewed as simply support or a cost center.
“The focus is often on demand gen. Securing buy-in is one of the biggest challenges in getting a customer advocacy program off the ground. But the ability to turn customers into advocates — individuals who don’t just love the product, but want to rave about it — is an incredibly powerful tool in a startup’s arsenal — especially these days,” says Bryant.
And the connection to revenue is certainly there, even if some founders fail to spot it. “I always say to sales leaders and founders that the transition from a $50,000 quota to a million-dollar book of business is possible, but it requires you to get extremely strategic about your relationships. When you layer on advocacy, you can get those three- to four-year, multi-million dollar contracts.” (Her focus on the bottom line shouldn’t be surprising — Bryant started her career in sales before cutting her teeth leading customer marketing.)
Yes, you need to generate pipeline and fill the funnel. But third-party reviews, quotes, reference calls, case studies, and customer advisory boards are what get you over the finish line.
We’ve previously written about the power of customer advisory boards as early customer and product development tools. CABs provide an excellent forum for feedback on everything from mockups and prototypes, to strategic next moves. But that work doesn’t stop once you successfully get a product off the ground and start scaling. And a CAB isn’t the only tool on the customer advocacy leader’s belt.
In this exclusive interview, Bryant serves as our guide to all things customer advocacy, giving us both a lay of the land and the advanced tactics that will help existing programs hum. She also tailors her advice specifically for the early-stage startup context, offering tips on how to get started and infuse the principles of customer advocacy into your everyday work.
Whether you’ve been tasked with crafting the first customer marketing program at your company, or you’re an early employee at a fledgling startup looking to pick up a few lightweight, customer-centric pointers, Bryant’s advice makes for a worthy read. Let’s dive in.
CUSTOMER ADVOCACY 101: A CRASH COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
“I’m biased, but I think customer advocacy is at the heart of being a customer-focused company. Every startup claims to be customer-centric, but if you’re not hiring for it and putting resources behind that work, it’s easy to lose that focus and slip into a more transactional mindset — where you’re just thinking about what your company needs, whether it’s closing those support tickets, or getting a new logo up on the website,” says Bryant.
This tendency has saddled her work with some misconceptions. “Most people think customer advocacy is just about producing case studies. I will debate that all day long,” she laughs. “I look at customer advocacy as an iceberg. When it’s done right your customers will be raving fans and they'll be ready to partner with you in anything. That big and shiny result is very visible. You have all great branding and customers that love you — but you don't see the under-the-surface work that it took to get there.”
Customer advocacy is about getting to the point where your customers don’t just see you as a product or a service but as long-term partners.
What customer advocacy does:
But what does that submerged stream of work entail? “Customer advocacy builds the strategy and plans for how the company will engage with key customers, providing them with tools and experiences that will help them understand how to achieve their most important goals with the product,” says Bryant. “To boil it down to a more simple definition, customer advocacy is focused on building programs that achieve three things: improve the health of the customer, meet the needs of the customer, and eventually, amplify our partnership.”
We’ll dive into this more deeply in the following section, but for a quick, high-level summary, these programs can include:
Customer advisory boards
Executive briefing centers
Executive sponsorship programs
Customer events, such as roundtables and meetups
“All of these programs are designed to touch top-tier customers — primarily focused on VPs and above who are decision-makers. We want to organically build a relationship with them and understand their needs, with hopes that it will enable them to fully utilize our product and to want to engage with us more,” says Bryant.
“Sometimes you’re only starting with 10 or 20 existing customer advocates — sometimes you’re starting from scratch with zero. Regardless of your entry point, you always need to begin by creating a wishlist of where you want to go,” she says.
“I outline the key customers that we are or would like to be engaged with, and what that long-term size of prize looks like if that customer were to receive the right engagement — will we get an expansion opportunity out of this? Will the retention number go up? Then you can start designing the right programs.”
The two-way street nature of her work is critical, Bryant says. “We need feedback on our product, not only to inform our own future product strategy but also just to continually check that we’re currently meeting the needs of our customers. And I’m a firm believer that customer advocacy influences revenue and brings a lot to the table,” she says.
“But we have a duty to make sure that our customers are treated in a standup way. No one wants to be seen as a dollar sign — and your customers can pick up on that quickly. For me, the beauty of customer advocacy is that we’re able to make customers feel heard.”
When customers feel more deeply involved in the direction of the product, when they see that their feedback is actually being leveraged, and when we can design experiences that add value instead of wasting their time, that’s when they’re more likely to become long-term partners.
How customer advocacy fits into the org chart:
“Ideally, customer advocacy should be situated on the revenue team. But I've also previously sat in marketing and customer success. It really is such a cross-functional role. One way to think of customer advocacy is about providing a standout customer experience. But on the other side of the coin, it’s about closing the gap internally between multiple departments that are trying to ultimately achieve the same thing: making sure our customers are happy,” says Bryant.
“My job is to design programs that can tick off all of the different goals that the sales, customer support and marketing teams want to accomplish, from closing bigger deals and reducing churn to telling our brand’s story,” she says. “With the customer success team, I really dig into what those CSAT and NPS scores look like. If there are any red flags, can I design a program that will actually elevate that score? With product, what feedback or feature requests are we consistently hearing that I can pass along? With sales, is there a customer reference call that would help us close a late-stage enterprise deal? Once it’s signed, how can we turn that one-year contract into a long-term partnership? With marketing, it’s identifying who’s ready to be that external-facing champion.”
You can’t close large deals, tell your brand’s story or improve the product without the voice of the customer. If you don’t have at least a few customers who are willing to go to bat for your product, what programs can you build to start creating those champions?
DIGGING DEEPER INTO THE “HOW”: THE PYRAMID OF ADVOCACY
“Outside of case studies, when many startup folks hear ‘customer advocacy,’ they immediately think of customer advisory boards. I’m a huge fan of them, but I feel the sweet spot is around 10 to 12 individuals, so that limits the capacity of those who can be involved. CABs might be the right tool for your company, but they’re certainly not the only one,” says Bryant.
Here are her thoughts on which tools to use when: “I think about customer advocacy in levels or phases. To help communicate how customer advocacy can bring in results and tie into the work of other teams, I designed the pyramid of advocacy,” says Bryant. “Typically, startups are focused on finding traction in the first couple of layers, whereas more established enterprises have the resources to build something like an executive briefing center, but that’s not a hard and fast rule — there are principles you can apply from every layer, no matter your company stage.”
Level 1: Find your champions.
“Starting at the base, you’re working hand-in-hand with the customer success team. You need to identify your internal champions. Who is geeking out about your product? Who is always reaching out, wanting to learn more?” says Bryant. “If you’re a startup with just a handful of these customers, you can approach building the relationship in a really bespoke way. If you’re a bigger company, you’ll need to formalize an internal champion program and create a workflow, so customer success managers can identify these customer champions from the outset.”
Level 2: Plug them into your community.
“Next, grow engagement and awareness inside of the organization by building out your community program around the champion. For example, plenty of companies have ambassador programs open to all customers to engage, connect, or talk to like-minded folks and learn more about the product,” says Bryant.
“To go deeper here, perhaps with those mid-market accounts, you can introduce councils where customers can sit down with the product marketing team to learn more about our product, challenge the product, test out new features, and so on.”
Looking for more advice about building a community from scratch? We published this guide to getting your first 1,000 members.
Level 3: Bring on the VIP treatment
“Once you have an established community, the customer will very likely be interested in upleveling their existing relationship with your product and identifying more ways you can add value to their organization and employees,” says Bryant. “This is where VIP customer experiences make sense, and those events could include executive dinners, customer meetups, roundtables, and so on. The guest list is usually a combination of existing customers and prospects.”
But obviously, the transition to virtual events has meant that customer advocacy teams need to change tack. “In a perfect world, customer advocacy is on the road about 60% of the time. We're either going in-person to customers, or we're creating these customer meetups or user conferences to bring them in to engage with us,” says Bryant.
The key is to still add a special element to add the VIP factor, even in the virtual world. “We’ve done a virtual wine-tasting experience, which was a good antidote to a day of back-to-back Zoom calls. You can also do something like a chocolate tasting if you want to keep it alcohol-free,” says Bryant.
Segmentation is also a critical step. “What’s our audience and what topics do we want to tackle? Do we want to curate our invite list based on industry? Titles? We’ve done e-commerce events, as well as CMO roundtables — you can come up with a slew of combinations.”
Level 4: Target the executive layer.
“As you go deeper from there, you get into the territory of executive programming — fostering relationships at the highest level and solidifying your shared commitment to a strong partnership between your companies,” says Bryant. “This includes executive briefing centers and executive sponsorship programs — and in my experience, these are the most underutilized and the hardest to pull off.”
She digs into each one in more detail:
Executive sponsorship program:
“These pair your own executives with the top customers that you’re looking to develop deeper relationships with. It usually makes sense when your business goals are to expand or develop better relationships with bigger brands,” says Bryant. “If you ask an AE, ‘What do you need to see a full wall-to-wall deployment?’ and they respond that they have the director-level relationship, but they’re lacking that VP-level champion, that’s a good sign of an account where an executive sponsorship program would make a big difference.”
But there are some caveats. “First of all, the pairings have to make sense and be authentic. You can’t just automatically say, ‘Hey, you’re our COO, go talk to the COO on this account,’” says Bryant. “Second, I can’t emphasize enough that this is about developing and deepening relationships for the long haul — it shouldn’t be seen as the latest quick-fix sales tactic. I’m a broken record here, but that means making sure the customer or prospect gets something meaningful out of it. For example, maybe you can bring all of the accounts that are in your executive sponsorship program in for an end-of-year event, so they can network with each other. Maybe you can do a big survey or interview series, producing content that amplifies their own brands.”
Additionally, don’t forget an important set of stakeholders here: your own executives. “It’s typical to think of the VIP execs on your customers’ side, but don’t forget that you're working closely with your own C-suite. You don’t want them to view these programs as a time suck,” she says. Here are Bryant’s two tips for maximizing the impact of your own execs:
Outline what good looks like: “Give each exec a list of the goals for each account, and share how much they’ll have to engage. For example, expectations that they meet with the customer once or twice a month, just so they understand how much effort they’ll be putting in.”
Make sure they’re getting something out of it too: “With every call that they take, the sponsor should be learning something too. Have them take notes if you can. They’ll start to recognize patterns in customer pain points, and can bring that information back to their own departments.”
Executive briefing centers:
“An executive briefing center is a space for customers to come in and highlight what they need from the company or the product to be successful. From a customer advocacy side, that requires getting your own team ready — prepping your core leaders to showcase what you can offer, fine-tuning the presentation so it’s customized to the customer’s industry and needs, and getting a deeper understanding of what they're trying to accomplish within the next one to two years.”
A fair word of warning: “When customers decide to engage with your executive briefing center, first off they've committed, and second, they've done some homework, so expect that they're going to come in with the tough questions.”
Level 5: Amplification
“Once the relationship is at the executive level, the partnership is usually at the stage where both companies benefit from working together and amplifying each other's brands — which is helpful because it seems like less of a ‘favor’ that the customer is doing on your behalf,” says Bryant.
This layer is very intentionally at the top of the customer advocacy pyramid. “People often invert this, and start by asking to add the logo as soon as the contract ink dries, or requesting a case study cringingly soon,” she says. “But with the pyramid approach, if a customer has hit every single program, then they're actually ready to be amplified. That’s when I feel confident to send that over to the customer marketing team, and let them know that a VP or C-level executive from a bigger brand company would like to engage.”
Instead of looking at your account list and saying, "Hey, we need a case study on this person,” reverse the order of operations. Start with building a true relationship — the quotes and blog posts will be all the stronger for it.
FOR THE STARTUP SETTING: HOW TO BUILD BUY-IN AND GET YOUR CUSTOMER ADVOCACY PROGRAM OFF THE GROUND
Every startup leader would likely agree that getting close to your customers, especially early on, is critical. But resources are scarce and other priorities can stack up. Here, Bryant makes the case for baking customer advocacy in from the start, and offers more lightweight tips for shoestring budgets.
The case for early-stage customer advocacy:
“I’m always advising founders that they should keep a laser focus on churn — it’s very easy to adopt a growth-at-all-costs mindset that’s dangerous. But we often think of churn in terms of losing current revenue that we have to make up elsewhere in the immediate term. And with startups, that pressure is real, especially when you’re in those make-it-or-break-it months when a customer failing to renew would have a devastating impact,” says Bryant.
“But focusing on the additional expansion opportunities you could get from customers who don’t churn is an extra incentive. Creating those programs to build relationships will help you boost confidence that they’re going to expand.”
If your customer advocacy program is successful, you don't have to worry about churn because that customer is happy.
Here are some red flags that indicate a customer advocacy-inspired approach might be missing at your startup:
Low customer satisfaction. “Monitor your NPS and CSAT scoring closely. If they’re starting to drop, you risk churn. There's some type of engagement that's needed, but not taking place.”
Constantly revamping the website. “A common line of thinking is, ‘We just need this amazing website,’ or ‘More logos will solve our problems.’ But that process isn’t easy. If your brand is feeling stale or it’s slim pickings between what customer testimonials you can put up, that’s a sign to consider advocacy.”
You’re lacking validation. “At my previous startup, we were really focused on how we were reflected on G2, because that came up in tons of sales conversations — ‘Why should I go with you versus your competitor?’ But when you don't feel confident to showcase where you stand or share any of those third-party reviews, those are risks.”
Tips for getting started:
A fully built-out executive briefing center is likely not the best place to start. Here, Bryant offers tips tailored for the scrappy startup:
Tip #1: Start small and build from there.
“At a startup, you likely don’t have the biggest budget to work with, and you’re probably doing a million different things at once. In a nutshell, you need to gather a list of key customers, understand their needs, understand the company's immediate needs, and choose a specific program to focus on first,” says Bryant.
“What are the business goals? Increase engagement? Have better relationships with a certain segment of customers? I then look at all of my customers in tiers, creating three buckets that I want to focus on. Can you think of a program that will satisfy at least two of those business goals and benefit those customers you listed?” she says.
“For example, at one startup I worked at, we were under 250 employees and we had no engagement, no relationships — we didn't know how to get customers more involved. So I started off with designing our first customer meetup. I created a cocktail rooftop experience and found a senior leader that would want to do a fireside chat and actually talk about their career experience, not talk about the company or the product. I invited folks from my tiered list, and we actually had a great turnout, but it was a bit of a gamble at the time. After the event was a success, we had other leaders reach out who offered to do a similar fireside chat, and we were able to build from there.”
Tip #2: Identify what’s working.
“The other benefit of focusing on just one program first is that you can get a baseline and see what actually worked. If you’re trying tons of different things at once, it can be hard to see which experiment moved the needle, and make the clear-cut case to keep building customer advocacy programs,” says Bryant.
“For one of my early programs at a previous company, I launched our first third-party review campaign. And we went from zero to hundreds of reviews, so I knew we were making progress. But I didn't realize that the sales team was actually using that report to close multiple deals. That made requests for more resources easier — I could clearly show the founder that we were gaining new customers from advocacy programs.”
Tip #3: It’s the little things.
Small touches can make a big impact, even when there isn’t a big budget to match. “It’s a great way to stand out. If you're hosting a roundtable and all your competitors are doing roundtables, then all your prospects are getting the same invitation. Why would that executive come to your round table versus the five other options they have?” says Bryant.
“How can you custom-tailor the event and showcase the customers who are showing up for you? For one of our events, guests received a bottle of alcohol engraved with their last name and we named one of the cocktails on the bar menu after the guest speaker. In my experience, executives notice these thoughtful details.”
It’s also helpful to turn the budget constraint into a creative challenge. “Often when my budget was smallest, that’s when I was at my most creative. I’ve launched a customer advisory board with a $5K budget and it was still very good,” she says. This is also where building momentum is key. “If you’re joining a startup as the first person in this type of role and they don’t even really know what a CAB is, then asking for $10K right off the bat seems a little bizarre.”
Tip #4: Remind yourself to slow down.
“Often there’s pressure to show results immediately, to launch that CAB in a month. But you need to make sure you have the right people in the room — being wrong is very expensive, and not just in a dollar sense,” says Bryant.
“You could be going after the wrong customers. You might not be sure what kind of feedback you’re looking for yet. You might not have a developed-enough roadmap to even show them. You can waste time by moving too fast. Outlining the customers and business goals you’re going after might take some time, but it sets the foundation for fast, creative experiments in the future.”
Tip #5: Think about what you can uniquely offer
Without that marquee name recognition, getting customers and prospects to attend your events or volunteer their time seems like a herculean effort.
“At one of my previous companies, we reached the point where we were in a good position to start a customer advisory board. Our goal was two-fold: First, to solidify our relationships so we can produce better reference calls, and second, to understand if our product was heading in the right direction,” says Bryant.
“The CEO and I sat down and went through our customer list to see who would be a good fit. But it was a big time commitment, so we needed to figure out what we could offer in return. And coincidentally, we had just finished up a fundraise, so our founder had just been connecting with all of our investors. So we offered up intros to our investors and our network, in addition to the opportunity to influence our product — and we actually ended up with great participation.”
Can you offer up a network that your customers can't get anywhere else? That's what gets people to give you their time because many people can make money or generate branding opportunities, but they can't always get connections without the right introductions.
Tip #6: Always remember to close the loop.
“You don’t want to create a series of one-off events. Can you make customers feel appreciated? Can you get their feedback to better inform your future programming?” says Bryant.
“For example, after our first virtual roundtable at a previous company, we sent a very detailed survey immediately. What did you like about the format? How frequently do you want to be engaged with us? Would you consider leading a future event? I learned that folks wanted more breakout sessions.”
Sending heartfelt thank yous is of course also important. “For VIPs, I always have my execs send out personalized notes to every customer who attended. It's a thoughtful, typed-out email highlighting some of the things that they talked about. Seeing that a senior leader is taking time out of their day, and not just sending a generic Marketo email can make a big impact,” she says.
Tip #7: Don’t get distracted by shiny metrics.
“When I first started off in customer marketing years ago, I had to produce a customer newsletter, and success was about tracking opens and clicks. That doesn't work for me anymore,” says Bryant. “For me, engagement is reflected in how many executives are showing up and having conversations with us, and how many customers have become actual partners. How many advocates are you adding a quarter? How much of revenue was influenced by a reference call?’
When I think about measuring the impact of advocacy, it's not about having a 60% open rate of a newsletter or an invitation. How many people actually show up to the programs that I've designed specifically for them?
WRAPPING UP: STEP BACK TO MOVE FORWARD.
The key to starting off in a customer advocacy role on the right foot is to take a step back, Bryant says. “As a company’s first head of customer advocacy, I came in understanding that this would be a blank canvas that I would have to create. I fell into a common trap, which is rushing in full speed and thinking, ‘I’m going to build our first customer advisory board,’ or ‘I’m going to launch this new program.’ But taking a step back, relying on my cross-functional allies, and getting a lay of the land was important,” she says.
This is doubly true for those taking on this work at smaller startups. “They’ve likely done a ton of experiments that you can learn from, and they might already have pieces of this customer advocacy work in place, just not under that specific title.”
A common mistake is trying to take on too much and launch everything overnight. Effective customer advocacy programs require thoughtfulness and strategic consideration. Take your time, trust your gut, and outline plans that work in parallel with business goals.
Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills.