Cheryl Keener, senior director of customer development at Sunnyvale, CA-based Network Appliance, leads NetApp’s installed base marketing initiatives and customer reference program.

Her organization is focused on promoting continuous customer engagement and cultivating relationships with NetApp customers to drive brand preference, customer affinity and revenue acceleration.

Her team enables Sales to accelerate and expand revenue generation with compelling customer content and proof points, references that strengthen credibility, and high-impact programs that open doors and help overcome sales barriers. Keener reports to NetApp’s head of worldwide integrated marketing.

* * *

Roy Young: What type of marketing champion would you say you are? And how has your educational and professional background contributed to your ability to champion marketing in that way?

Cheryl Keener: That’s easy: I’m the customer-centric type! I come from a pretty diverse background. My undergraduate degree is in organizational communication and my graduate degree is in international business and marketing. I gained experience with market research and business development in the pharmaceutical industry and with finance and marketing (especially outbound marketing, customer programs, sales development and product management) in high-tech.

I learned early on about the importance of strong relationships. I was working for a pharmaceutical company in marketing research, had a strong work ethic and was eager to learn a lot. I happened to do some project work for the vice president of business development while in market research. So, when an opportunity came up in business development, he hired me and gave me a chance in the role—even though I was less qualified and less credentialed than nearly all of the other candidates.

RY: What about your experience in high-tech—what did that teach you about customer relationships?

CK: When I was at Sun Microsystems, I also worked on several customer programs. One group, quality and customer care, was focused on operations, quality of customer service, and managing customer escalations when problems came up. I gained a whole new view from this experience: Problems are always going to come up for high-tech customers—technology’s going to break down, parts will fail. What makes the biggest difference to customers is not whether your product or service is perfect—it’s how quickly and helpfully you respond when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will.

RY: In your view, how is marketing generally perceived by non-marketing executives at NetApp? And what has contributed to that perception?

CK: The word I’d use to describe marketing’s reputation here is “changing.” About twelve to eighteen months ago, non-marketing executives who were doing a lot of strategic planning realized, for the first time, that they would need marketing to help them take NetApp to the next level of growth. We’re a pretty young company, and had been driven by engineering and sales previously. NetApp people don’t apologize for that—our engineering is excellent and the sales force has regularly exceeded its goals.

But the management team knew that at this point in the company’s life cycle, we had to build out a best-in-class marketing organization. They brought in a new CMO who came from a marketing background specifically. (Previous CMOs were star salespeople.) He rebuilt the entire marketing organization at NetApp—including bringing in top talent and creating new marketing functions that we had never had before, such as marketing strategy, worldwide integrated marketing and channel marketing.

The CEO, his team, and executives at the next level down now have a different perception of marketing. They understand its value—and know more about what marketing is and what it does.

RY: In what ways do you contribute to this greater appreciation for and understanding of marketing’s value?

CK: I view our customers as a strategic asset and they need to be treated as such. Many companies intuitively know how important their customers are, but industry data shows that many companies don’t put a focused effort on nurturing and cultivating their current customer base and therefore lose customers at an alarming rate. NetApp is focused on growth, execution and results—caring deeply about the customer base. But because customer development is a relatively new function at the company, I took the approach of starting with small pilot programs for customer-related initiatives, then measured the results and showed how those results matter to the company.

We’ve also got an incredible marketing team that is driving some phenomenal results across multiple disciplines. So I constantly communicate the importance of an integrated marketing approach and customer-centricity to non-marketing executives throughout the company. We start by talking about the results, then tell them what marketing is, why it works, and how we do it—putting things simply so it’s easy to understand.

RY: Do you educate non-marketing professionals on marketing language?

CK: Absolutely. For example, permission-based marketing is key to our marketing strategy. I’ve had to explain to non-marketers what this means—and then overcome their objections to it. Permission-base marketing enables us to shape our message so that customers/prospects will willingly accept it because they've volunteered, or given us permission, to market to them. By talking only to volunteers, permission marketing guarantees that consumers pay more attention to the marketing message. We ask people if they would like to receive additional information from NetApp at every touch point: email, Web-site visits, trade shows, etc.

Non-marketers couldn’t get this at first—they kept saying, “What?! You’ll narrow your field!” But we’ve shown them that this type of marketing actually gives us better profiling information about prospects and customers and helps us tailor our message content to them. We’ve actually built a significantly bigger database of contacts this way. And we don’t overdo our communications with contacts.

RY: In your opinion, what are the most important skills for becoming a customer-centric marketing champion?

CK: I’d say two things: communicating effectively, and being results driven. By communication, I especially mean listening—to your external and internal customers. Being empathetic to understand what they care most about, then tailor your message and approach to those cares. Always keep in mind that you don’t market to companies; you market to people—individuals who each have unique concerns and needs.

As for being results driven, by this I mean always defining quantifiable goals and tracking your performance—in terms of your impact on customers—against those goals. I know this all sounds very basic and obvious. But it’s amazing how few people really do it.

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Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.