February 27, 2020

A CMO’s Guide to Cultivating Customer Champions

How important are your customers to your business? This one should be a no-brainer—the relationships you build with your customers are vital to success. Leaders that actively focus on customer engagement and satisfaction are able to nurture a customer-base that will champion your product on your behalf and help push innovation. With a wealth of experience under his belt, Chip Rodgers, CMO of WorkSpan, knows the quantifiable value of cultivating customer champions and is here to tell us how he nurtured these relationships from WorkSpan’s early startup days to now.

Chip puts a special emphasis on building and retaining trust, and shared a perfect Bill McDermott quote on the subject: “Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.” For more gems like this, listen in to this week’s Renegade Thinkers Unite and learn about how cultivating customer champions can boost your business value, shape your product, and bring in new prospects. Plus, for additional material on the subject, take a look at the aptly named 8th chapter of our guide to effective B2B brand strategy, “Cultivate Customer Champions.”

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in Conversation with Chip Rodgers

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! You all know that we published a report on B2B branding. It’s 12 steps to a more effective strategy and the outline for my book. I was chatting with a good friend that I’ve known since 2011, Chip Rodgers. We did an article on “community” for fastcompany.com and he volunteered to help me flesh out a section called “Cultivate Customer Champions.”

I want to report that there isn’t anybody I could think of that could do this better. When we wrote the article in 2011, Chip Rogers was in charge of SAP’s private social community. They had, at the time, I think 4 million members. I actually went back and looked at that article and there were some really good points. If you don’t remember them, Chip, I promise I will bring them back. But anyway, Chip Rogers, CMO of WorkSpan, welcome to Renegade Thinkers Unite.

Chip Rodgers: Drew, thank you. Always great seeing you and spending time with you and this is a great topic. So, it wasn’t quite that, thank you for the compliment, we were actually at 2.5 million members at the time. Fast growing, but one of the things we were most proud of is that the community was very engaged. We had a lot of active members and really great content, everybody helping each other, and it was pretty unusual, I think, for an enterprise software company at the time.

Drew Neisser: You know, it’s funny, I was thinking how, in the meantime, we also recorded a Blab, which doesn’t exist anymore. I think that’s somewhere in the archives. You also contributed to my book. I found you on page 219 under “community building,” and I wanted to go back to that because when I went through the 9 points of building a community, it felt like they might as well been the same exact things now.

I’ll refresh your memory on a couple of them. Member growth was not a KPI that mattered. It was all about community engagement. You know you have a community when they defend the brand. Those are just the first three, but all three of those things are just as relevant today and I remember you and I had conversations about what it means when your community defends the brand. Maybe we should pause there because that feels like something that everybody wants to get to but in this case, in the community that you had, they did.

Chip Rodgers: Those are some really great, great points, Drew. Absolutely, I think engagement is critical. That really was how we measured. We really stopped measuring that top-line number because it was big, and it was really about how are we connecting with our members. By the way, we were pretty passionate about calling them “members” and not “users.”

Drew Neisser: That’s a good point. What’s the difference and why that? I’m curious.

Chip Rodgers: I think it was just conceptual, but we’re members of a community. It was we’re all in this together versus “users,” which sounds a little bit technical or clinical. Absolutely it’s about engagement and also, I think a critical part of that is trust. Getting to the point of defending the brand, I think it is about trust. For example, we had a policy in place that we would not remove a post.

Drew Neisser: Not one? Wow.

Chip Rodgers: Other than for language and defamation kinds of things, but if somebody had a complaint or an issue with the product or direction or something like that. There were some interesting discussions with some of the product teams like, “You got to take that down! We’re not going to!” I think that helped build the trust and we watched what was happening in the community. We had 700 moderators keeping an eye on what was going on and if there were things that were a concern, we would alert the product teams or whoever might be the recipient of the criticism and encourage people to comment and provide our point of view and just say, “Sorry to hear that that’s how you’re feeling about things but this is our perspective and this is what we think.” It engendered a lot of trust that way. The community did feel like they aren’t being shut down, this is an open conversation. And again, to that point, if someone was going off the rails, you’d see other members chiming in saying, “Well, I don’t know about that” or, “My experience is more like this.” It wasn’t just SAP that was coming to the defense. That’s really what it takes, having this open conversation and being willing to stand behind our convictions.

Drew Neisser: It’s interesting. If you look at any e-commerce site, I remember this study very clearly, the sites that have no negative comments are much less trusted than ones that do. It’s fascinating because if you see no negative comments you go, “Ok, this is all a fix.”. I think that’s really important because people really want and crave honesty from brands and from people. Since we’re talking about cultivating customer champions, that’s really the topic of the show, there is nothing like a community of users to cultivate customers. By definition, these individuals have raised their hand and said, “I want to be part of this. I want to participate in your brand. I want to give you real-time feedback.” If you’re lucky enough to get an army of people that want to give you feedback, one, you better listen, and two, in some cases, you better respond. I seem to recall that one of the things that the community provided was some real value in terms of product development.

Chip Rodgers: We did actually have a pretty good-sized critical mass in the community. We did create an area, we call it an Idea Place where members could chime in. One of the things that we did is we didn’t open it up broadly, we would open it up by topic areas. Our sense was, look, if we open up a topic around a certain product line, for example, we have to make sure that we do respond.

Drew Neisser: There’s that. Yeah.

Chip Rodgers: If everybody is just saying, “Oh, it needs this. It needs that,” and there’s no response, then that’s not a good thing, so we did do it fairly judiciously. We would open it up one at a time and it depended on the product teams. We would approach the product teams and say, “Look this could be valuable, are you interested?” When they said, “Yeah, we’d like to do it, we’d like to hear from the community,” then we made sure that we had their commitment to keep track of what was going on and respond.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than responding to the community. I think it was Dell, the community said at one point through their idea storm or whatever it was, “We want Linux laptops.” It was a famous apocryphal story. “We went to Linux laptops” and of course they made them and then nobody ordered them. They were like, “Oh, thanks, community.” It does take some filtering. People don’t always know what they want. Now, I think in the case of software though, if there’s a bug, if there’s an issue, they’re having a problem, a lot of these folks were really the people who are working with the product. All right. Well, that was a long time ago. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about some of the things that you’ve been doing to cultivate customer champions more recently. Stay with us.


Drew Neisser: Ok. We’re back and we’ve been talking about cultivating customer champions. You’ve been at WorkSpan now for how long?

Chip Rodgers: About two and a half years actually now.

Drew Neisser: Wow. Let’s talk about your customer cultivation journey, starting with, where were you when you started?

Chip Rodgers: When I joined WorkSpan, we were 26 employees. Now we’ve grown to over 100 now. 105, 110, somewhere in there.

Drew Neisser: Times four. Wow.

Chip Rodgers: It’s just been phenomenal. We’re a Series B startup and when we started, we also had fewer customers at the time with more nurturing of our customer relationships. They were helping shape the product and taking us in a new direction. It was a very hands-on type of relationship with our customers.

Drew Neisser: Let’s stop there for a second. It’s really interesting, in the startup world, you have this challenge where you think you have a product and an opportunity, but you’ve got to get somebody to use it to prove it out and then they create their own use case. Then you have to decide, how far do I go with that use case and is that use case marketable? So, as we cultivate customer champions from a startup perspective, it’s pretty tricky. I’m imagining if you went from 26 people to 104 people, one could easily imagine that you now have four times the customers that you did, if not more than that, since you started. Talk a little bit about how you, one, you cultivated the champions initially. Clearly when you’re a startup company, you have to have customers because nobody wants to eat the first oyster, that takes a brave one. You’re so dependent on those individuals, those first customers, so I imagine you spent a lot of time with them as the CMO?

Chip Rodgers: Absolutely. In fact, the whole leadership team did. We had very close relationships with them. We would bring them in, we had customers at our sales kick-off, we had customers speaking when we had public events and they were just phenomenal. One of the things, again, as a startup, our early customers saw the vision, they understood what it was that we were trying to achieve, and it’s something that just hasn’t been done before, so they were excited about it. I think they wanted to get the word out as well to say, “Hey, check this out. This is something that’s really interesting that WorkSpan is doing, you guys should understand it and come along.”

Drew Neisser: That’s really interesting because I think a lot of B2B businesses struggle to get their customers to be available for case studies, to want to do it. What do you think was different here? Was it that you really chose those first ones well? I know they saw your vision, but what was it they saw that made them feel like they really wanted to support you?

Chip Rodgers: I think first and foremost it’s probably that we’re solving a problem, a big problem that no one else is solving. When you’re managing partners and an ecosystem of partners, everyone is using spreadsheets and emails and conference calls and PowerPoints and things like that to manage everything. You’re doing a joint sales pipeline and you work with your counterpart and your partner and they do an extract from their CRM, you do an extract from your CRM, and then you sort of reconcile. Then everybody’s doing that with all the other partners and everybody’s got different data models and different ways of looking at products and regions and industries and all those things.

All those things are different, so there’s a lot of manual effort just to try and pull everything together from one company to another, to the partner that they’re working with. It’s time-consuming, it’s manual. The partner managers are taking so much time that they can’t be strategic and then if you’re leading the whole group, you have no visibility into what’s going on. That’s the problem and that’s just the reality of today. I think when our early customers saw that we had this solution that was solving this problem, they wanted their partners to jump in and be a part of it as well. And so, it’s a virtuous cycle.

Drew Neisser: Right. Just for those who are trying to figure this out, WorkSpan provides software that helps companies that work with a lot of B2B companies that work with a lot of partners. Those relationships can be multimillion, multibillion dollars; they’re huge relationships. What’s interesting about what you said is, because they’re trying to create an ecosystem, if I’m a Microsoft or an HP or, you know, pick a company—

Chip Rodgers: Yep, all our customers, by the way.

Drew Neisser: I thought it was more than random that I just pulled those out of the air. But with those types of companies, it behooves them to get as many partners to use your software as possible because it makes their management easier. Now I get why they would want to be champions. That’s interesting and that’s an advantage that you have based on the product that you have. What kinds of things do you think that you have done that have really helped in this area, in getting these folks to really want to be champions?

Chip Rodgers: In the early stages, and we still do this today because every customer is different, but it’s really understanding the customer needs, listening, then helping shape the product in a way that is solving a real need. Now we’re at a stage, two and a half years later, where we see patterns of similarity between companies, so the product itself actually has the ability to customize quite heavily because you’re trying to bring companies together. This concept of templates, company templates, where you define your own data model, but then there’s a way to reconcile between the partners. I think, to answer your question, it’s really listening and hearing what are the challenges? As your customers get a sense that, “Hey, we’re in this together and you guys are really trying to help us solve these problems,” then that builds a lot of the trust and an emotional connection with the company and the brand and the people and all that.

Drew Neisser: I want to get back at this idea—how are you walking this tightrope between having a product that anybody who has partners can use and these special requests and this need for customizations? There are so many different pieces of software. They have a different CRM, they have a different data lake, and each combination is different. I’m just curious how you’re walking that fine line, being responsive and listening, but at the same time, not having customer iterations completely for every single customer.

Chip Rodgers: Great question. I’ll put you in touch with our customer success and implementation team. They do a terrific job, and you’re right. You’d need to have flexibility because everybody has different structures and different ways of naming things. However, there are also best practices or good practices that we’ve seen have been common amongst our customers and then try and bring those. There’s flexibility, but there are some guardrails to make sure that things aren’t just totally chaotic, I guess.

Drew Neisser: Exactly. You don’t have different iterations at every single outpost so that when you push the next generation live, it breaks. I’m curious about how things have changed over the last two years in terms of the things that you’re doing to cultivate champions.

Chip Rodgers: One of the things that we’ve been doing recently, and some of it is maybe because of our particular business model, is that we have our customer and our champion and the folks inside of the company who are the program owners for this initiative that they’re driving with us. Three or four months ago, I brought on a gal that runs customer marketing for us. She’s fantastic and what she’s doing is connecting with customers and helping them be successful, helping them think through what is it that they need to do to make their program successful.

One of the things that they need to do is they want to bring on all of the partner business managers within their company, PBMs, so we’ve done things like lunch-and-learns, put together an internal value deck that’s customized for that customer that they then share with the PBMs inside the company. We have one customer that said, “I want to do a regular newsletter,” and so we’re helping them build content for that newsletter that goes out, again, internally. That’s one element and that could be applied to pretty much anybody, I think, that is in a traditional SaaS business.

Because of the work that WorkSpan does, we have another layer: our champions want not only to bring all of their own company’s partner business managers in, but they also want to provide materials that the PBMs can send to their counterparts outside of the company, to their PBMs on the other side. We’re also providing those similar kinds of materials, emails and lunch-and-learns and things like that for our customer’s partners, to bring them in.

Drew Neisser: First of all, I want to make the point that whatever you were planning in your marketing organization, if you don’t have a person dedicated to it, it’s just a line item, it’s not real. But if you do have a person, then you really know they’re really committed, so you have somebody called a Customer Marketing Manager. At first, I thought you were talking about someone who is like a service and support person, but really what they’re doing is marketing the partnership tool for your customer and that makes a lot of sense. That’s part of it. Your product in HP or Microsoft is only as good as the number of partners that are onboarded. I know a number of companies that are in that situation, where if you don’t have everybody in the ecosystem, it doesn’t work as well.

Chip Rodgers: And that’s our customer’s responsibility to do that, but we can help them. We can provide some of the right messaging, the value points, the personas, all of those marketing kinds of things. We can help them shape it in the right way.

Drew Neisser: Well, it’s enlightened self-interest as well. If your customers don’t get their partners onboard, then everybody loses. If that’s the weak link in this thing, you’ve got to put energy there. All right. We’re going to take a quick break, and we’re going to come back and outline the killer customer champion program. Stay with us.


Drew Neisser: Ok, we’re back. One of the things that I know you do—and we share this—is that you have a podcast (Ecosystem Aces) and you interview a lot of folks that are in this business. Do you see that podcast and this content as one of the tools in your arsenal to cultivate customer champions? Just curious.

Chip Rodgers: Yes, actually, it’s interesting. Our podcast has evolved. I’ve done about 100 podcasts, and we started with this blanket concept where this was an audience that hasn’t been paid much attention, so let’s learn from them. Some are customers, some aren’t customers, and we have an open conversation about what’s working and what’s not working. We actually get about 2500 downloads a month, which is terrific.

Drew Neisser: That’s awesome, considering how micro the audience is. That’s great.

Chip Rodgers: In addition to bringing this great content to everyone, it also comes with an interesting dynamic that you build with the guest. If the person is a customer, then that’s great, you’re helping to share their vision and thought leadership and things that are working, but even if they’re not a customer, it’s a great way have a conversation and build a relationship. We’re very careful not to all the sudden turn it into a sales opportunity, that feels like a bait and switch, but I think that, through that process, you learn about the company, you learn about the things they’re working on and some of their challenges so that then, down the road, there’s a chance for a conversation to say: “Oh, well, you talked about this, maybe it’s something that we can help with.” It becomes a more natural conversation around ways that we can help each other.

Drew Neisser: There you go. In your experience, you spent a lot of time in your career cultivating customer champions. Obviously at SAP and here again at WorkSpan, I don’t think there’s any question in the audience’s mind about why this is so important, but let’s talk a little bit about the business value that cultivating customer champions means to you at WorkSpan.

Chip Rodgers: It’s everything. When you build champions around your product it becomes part of the community. It becomes a positive reinforcing dynamic where you have customers that feel like they’re part of something bigger. They’re part of the brand, they’re part of the overall community, they’re connected to other peer customers who have similar challenges, and they can learn together in a common way. To build that kind of energy and dynamic with your customers and partners and the external world is hugely valuable.

You’re going to have an investor discussion, and they might be willing to have a conversation with them, something with the press or an analyst or another customer, or just something as simple as, “Hey, would you provide a quote” or “we’d love to have a case story” or all of the different kinds of things. They’ll share something on social media, write a blog. All of those different things. It’s so much more valuable and credible when those kinds of stories and messages and comments—and the positive reinforcing dynamic—comes from customers rather than just us blasting out the next message.

Drew Neisser: The famous phrase, “word of mouth” comes to mind. If you don’t have good customer references and you’re a B2B company, it’s problematic. Let’s face it, it’s really a problem. But when you do, life is so much easier at every step of the journey because then they say, “Well, who are their customers? Can I talk to them? Can I speak to them? Can I involve them?” Then how do they talk about it? “Oh, it’s fine. Yeah, we use it. It’s OK,” or, “Oh my god. This was life-changing. This has really made a difference.”

If you think about how hard it is to sell a software into enterprise today, it’s a long sales cycle, there are a lot of people involved, and the one thing that will be consistent across this thing is that people, no matter what job they’re in, will say, “Ok, who can I talk to that’s a customer who’s done this?” That’s what they’re going to want. So, if we talk about the business value, I’ll put it to you a different way, if you don’t have customer advocates, your business, your salespeople are suffering. The sales cycle is even longer and you’re reliant on other things. You’re probably reliant on price or you’re reliant on some other factor. When you think about this area, what are some of the biggest lessons learned? Is there anything in the customer advocacy world of developing customer advocates that you know doesn’t work?

Chip Rodgers: I’ll go back to SAP days. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but maybe that it’s not necessary. Within the community there was a reputation system, so as you would contribute and add comments or write blogs or answer good questions, you could get points from other community members. They would reward you and say, “Oh, that was really good.” That helped build up your reputation.

In the early days, we thought that we would need to do t-shirts or Starbucks cards or some kind of monetary value. It became, first of all, a logistical nightmare because we had customers literally around the world. And second, we said, “All right, let’s just try stopping. We’ll tell everybody, but we’re just going to stop doing it,” and I’m telling you, the internal, intrinsic rewards of building your reputation, helping other people, growing your brand within that that community of people is very powerful and continues to grow. Not that it’s a problem, but just maybe it’s not necessary.

Drew Neisser: And it’s so interesting because you should never underestimate the desire, particularly of a programmer or a product user, to share their expertise. It’s almost insulting to say I have to give you a t-shirt to do it. If I have the expertise, I want to share it.

Chip Rodgers: Exactly.

Drew Neisser: So that’s really interesting. Another thing though is that if you created a store of swag, one of the ways of measuring it is by how many of those folks would want to pay to wear your brand. Our brand has so much value, our customers are such great advocates, that they wear our brand when they walk around. So anyway, that’s an interesting area. I imagine one of the advantages we haven’t really even talked about concerning customer advocacy is that those are the people that come and show up at your trade shows. They come and knock at the door. They want to talk, they want to chat, they want to be part of this thing. And that’s really key, because when you’re at an event and a lot of your customers come in, then when a non-customer comes and sees nothing but customers, that’s a really good thing.

Chip Rodgers: Talk about an experience. You’re exactly right. We have an event coming up in New York City next month, and I was on a call with the sales team last week and I was like, “Guys, this is the time. Bring your prospects here” because we do four of these events a year and they are very powerful. It’s an incredible experience because we have very senior partner leaders, the head of partnering at Google, the head of partnering at Equinix, head of partnering at NetApp.

Those are folks on the panels, and they’re in the audience as well. Very senior folks. You have people coming in that are asking, who these WorkSpan people are and then they see and say, “Oh my gosh.” We had one guy from PTC who was like, “I had no idea that Workspan had this level of pull, that this level of partner folks is in your orbit.” To have that kind of experience is really strong, person to person. You get a group of people together and it’s exciting, it builds energy and excitement.

Drew Neisser: Amazing. I’m going to attempt to summarize and add some punctuation to this thing as I’m wont to do. The first part of creating customer advocates and cultivating them is that, obviously, you have to have customers. But more importantly, you have to do something for them. It really helps if your product does something unique for them because it solves a problem that they have that no one else has solved. Ok, so now we have the customer and, obviously, we have to deliver, but then, when you really are trying to cultivate customer champions, it doesn’t hurt to put a staffer full time on that job. You called them a customer marketing person and once I understood what they did, that made a lot of sense. You have to dedicate staff to this idea, and any chance you get to put your customers in front of your prospects in a way that makes those customers look good and smart and helps them, whether it’s to build their personal brand or build the company brand, is a good thing.

I’m wondering, Chip, if there are one or two other things from the lessons learned standpoint that you can talk about that will take us home?

Chip Rodgers: I think the wrapper or the thing that ties everything together is really building trust with your customers and the broader community around you. I think that’s critical. All of those relationships are built on trust. I saw Bill McDermott do the keynote at Sapphire, I think last year, maybe the year before, and he said, “Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.” I think that’s a really important lesson to learn, it does take time to build trust and to have your customers feel like they trust you, and once you’re there, protect it. You really have to protect it and do everything you can. Mistakes are going to happen, but the way that you fix problems and show that you’re in the boat with them to make them successful, that’s critical.

Drew Neisser: All right. I think we nailed it. I love that “drops in buckets.” I look at it at any kind of customer advocacy program as a way of putting goodwill deposits in the bank, because you know you’re going to have to withdraw them at some point and hopefully it won’t bankrupt the company. You just keep building trust, it’s a never-ending process. Chip, thank you so much for being on the show.

Chip Rodgers: Absolutely. Drew, thank you for having me. Always fun chatting and I really love what you’re doing with Renegade Thinkers. Best of luck continuing the growth of the show.

Drew Neisser: Thank you. And speaking of listeners, thank you all for staying with us here. I hope we’ve stimulated some thoughts on what you can do to keep your customers. And of course, until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.