The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
In lean manufacturing environments that focus on product development, how can organizations prevent marketing from becoming an afterthought? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Heather Smriga, Marketing Communications Manager of EaglePicher Technologies, shares how the company’s Voice of the Customer research is fueled by feedback across the enterprise and provides insights on how leveraging different talents in the organization improves their approach to marketing strategy.
Integrating Marketing into the Manufacturing Enterprise Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate?
Carman Pirie: I am doing well. I felt like I was maybe an inch or two too far away from the microphone when you all of a sudden asked me that question, so my apologies for the-
Jeff White: It’s like when the waiter comes, and you haven’t prepared? To take your order?
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Don’t you hate that? No, I do, because especially when it comes to drink orders, Jeff, because it’s like, “We’re all adults here. We’ve ordered a drink before.” You don’t need to have the drink menu, I don’t think.
Jeff White: You know-
Carman Pirie: You should have a standard drink that you order when a bartender says, “Would you like something to drink?”
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And then you just order, and then you can deal with some fancy or whatever on the second order, if you want.
Jeff White: Fair enough. But I mean, this is also our hundredth and something podcast, too. So, you know, we should be close to the mic.
Carman Pirie: Oh, I thought you were suggesting we should be drinking.
Jeff White: Not yet. It’s still early.
Carman Pirie: All right. Okay. Well, without getting too far askew-
Jeff White: Into the weeds.
Carman Pirie: Let’s get into today’s show. I’m really… I think we’ve got a great show on tap today. Maybe the best ever.
Jeff White: I think it’s certainly very broadly applicable, what we’re gonna be talking about, and a neat company and some really interesting experience.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. And today’s guest has a wealth of experience in marketing and in the industrial B2B space, and we’re certainly ready to learn from it, so-
Jeff White: Awesome.
Carman Pirie: Without further ado.
Jeff White: Yeah, so joining us today is Heather Smriga. She’s with EaglePicher and is the Marketing Communications Manager there. Welcome to the Kula Ring, Heather.
Heather Smriga: Hello. Thanks for inviting me.
Carman Pirie: Heather, it’s an honor to have you on the show, and I guess are you drinking? We should probably clarify that.
Jeff White: She’s in the office.
Heather Smriga: No. Yes, we are in the office, so…
Carman Pirie: All right.
Jeff White: So are we, but the keg has run out.
Carman Pirie: Yes. Yeah, that’s one of the things that happens in a pandemic, it seems, is that you terminate the keg delivery to the office. I don’t know. Anyway, look, that’s not what the episode’s about. Heather, before we get into the meat of today’s chat, why don’t you introduce a bit, tell us a bit about yourself, and I’d love to know as well more about your work with EaglePicher and maybe even the previous firm that you worked at.
Heather Smriga: Okay. Yeah, so I’ve been in the marketing side of industrial manufacturing for over 20 years, so the companies I worked with are primarily selling to OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers in different technology industries has been my primary focus, and then kind of all the realms of marketing, from marketing communication to product management on that side. Now, EaglePicher particularly, they’ve been around for about 104 years. We manufacture specialized batteries for industries such as defense, space, and medical, so this ranges from batteries used by our defense munitions and missiles, to UAVs, to the stealth bomber, and then everything that’s kind of in space, from satellites, to launching rockets, to the recent Perseverance Rover that just went to Mars, all powered by our batteries.
And then we make batteries small enough to be implanted into your body, so if you need something like a cardiac monitor or defibrillator, an implanted defibrillator, or another modulation, so we make miniature batteries that are then implanted into the body. So, very specialized. As we like to say, they’re very mission-critical. You can’t replace the battery once it goes to Mars and you don’t like to replace them once you put them inside your body, so… Yeah.
Jeff White: Are they the same teams that work on those two batteries? They seem like very different applications.
Heather Smriga: Yeah, so we’re kind of divided up by battery technology or chemistry, so it kind of depends on what chemistry, like thermal batteries are used in a lot of the missiles. You have lithium-ion batteries are used in space. A lot of lithium ion’s also used in implants, and so it kind of depends on your chemistry that is used in your battery.
Carman Pirie: Fascinating. This is why I love my job, like you know, we get to talk to somebody whose products are on Mars. Like I don’t know, that’s kind of-
Jeff White: Yeah. Or in people.
Carman Pirie: That’s kind of cool. Yeah. I find Mars more interesting than people maybe. No, it’s both very… So, and Heather, and as you mentioned, I mean you’ve been at this a while, and EaglePicher isn’t your first job, so who were you with before? Because I know some of the expertise that you’re drawing from here you’ve kind of brought with you to EaglePicher.
Heather Smriga: Yeah. So, I spent many years at Watlow. They’re an industrial manufacturer of electric heaters, sensors, and controllers. Both similar to EaglePicher in the fact that very specialized products, only selling into OEMs, and selling into very kind of technology-advanced industries like semiconductor, for example, and also medical for Watlow.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. Well, thank you for that, and look, what we’re wanting to chat about today I guess is just your track record and experience in leveraging… Frankly just leveraging operations to do better marketing. I mean, I don’t know if I even summed it up correctly, but I guess let’s dive into that, because it is… has been a key part of your success, hasn’t it?
Heather Smriga: Yeah. I think that especially if you work in a strong, lean manufacturing environment, your operations folks, the people that are on the line, they know your products very well, and they know how to improve flow. They know how to decrease change over time. They know a lot about our products, and I think leveraging those folks more also helps you do a better job at marketing. When we would setup voice of the customer meetings, we always had… Besides your sales contact was there, marketing would be there, we would have an engineer with us, and an operations manager with us, and what this really gets you is you hear what the customer needs from those three very different mindsets. So, you can’t just have… Engineering can’t just design a product and throw it over the wall and hope operations can make it. And then once they can make it, they throw it over the wall to marketing and we find a home for it.
I think that together that those three areas of the company, if they work hand in hand, then one, you’re building a better product, you’re able to make that product more cost-effective, and it’s gonna be the product that really, truly fits the needs of the customer and that has a market for continued growth. So, that’s why I think it’s really important for those areas of the company to work together very strongly.
Jeff White: So, in developing the voice of the customer research that you’ve done in the past and bringing these groups together, was it the case that they’d never really kind of been in the same room and asked these sorts of questions before? What were the responses and how did you pull out the information that you needed and also help them to see that the marketing and the sales of the product is not just kind of the dirty word that happens at the end of the gig where somebody has to sell it?
Heather Smriga: Yeah, so I think that we had, and I think in a lot of companies you find that these areas are siloed, and I do think it stems from a lot of everybody’s busy doing their day-to-day task and taking that time to look at the big picture is helpful in seeing where you have those gaps in knowledge and understanding. So, getting the teams together went over very smoothly and I think we also got the most engagement was when we would engage actually the folks that worked on particular lines in the manufacturing operation, so we could get… In all the companies I worked at we’re selling to OEMs, so we’re not shipping out a finished good product that someone uses. We’re sending out a component that another manufacturer is then gonna put into their equipment.
And I think when you communicate strongly to the operations folks, “Hey, this item that you make every day, it goes into this piece of equipment and this is how that piece of equipment is used.” When you get that kind of knowledge transferred through kind of the entire organization, you get that engagement. I mean, we’re making life-saving devices, and when people see what they do when they come to work, how that does save someone’s life, you get that engagement and people are inspired to make better products, to give you information that could help the end customer, as well. And getting that feedback from them, and I would get a lot of engagement from the line about, “Hey, if we could just get these customers to go to this length of lead, that’s gonna change over time.” And that helps everyone through the supply chain if we could decrease some of this.
And they see the products every day. More so than the engineers, or the managers, or the marketing person. So, they know what could make those improvements there.
Carman Pirie: I want to kind of hone in on that notion of people actually seeing what they make coming to life a little bit more and where its end-use ends up being.
Jeff White: And this really only seems to be… This is more B2B than B2B, when you’re really selling a component for a product rather than something that has an end-use that’s actually used by people in something.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Which is so often the case. I mean, so many manufacturers sell to other manufacturers. And I’m just wondering, because a lot of what you’ve said is that the enhanced employee engagement that happened as a result of that, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but I am curious. Did that actually… Did you end up seeing that in some of the more formal HR measures? Like is human resources doing things like measuring employee engagement, or satisfaction, or things of that sort? And did you see any of those kinds of metrics move as people could connect the dots between their work and what it was used for?
Heather Smriga: You know, where I saw at the time really strongly was in kind of our KPIs, key performance indicators from a lean standpoint. We said I think if you have a strong lean manufacturing environment, you can really see these improvements, and I would say ultimately that probably trickled down into more of that HR side, and I think just from the amount of people that would come and speak to me from the floor because they had ideas, and then they knew that they had this kind of channel to the customer from a marketing standpoint, so they had ideas that they were sharing. I think people that had offices next to me thought I was giving out candy or candy bars or something, because I had a lot of people that would come into my office because they would have these ideas that they wanted to share, and I think that all stemmed from us kind of coming back from these voice of the customers and showing them what they do makes a difference.
And then that really helped us in everything from price negotiations, contract negotiations with customers, to on the engineering side what product feature changes could we implement. So, I don’t know if I saw it specifically in some HR metrics, but you could feel the vibe change within the organization.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I like how you kind of saw the difference in your guest chair at your desk. I mean that, while it isn’t usually a KPI that people think of, there’s an awful lot of marketers that face the opposite challenge. They find it very hard to get sometimes even sales, or certainly operations, engineering, et cetera, to engage with them in a meaningful way, and it certainly seems like you were able to crack that nut. So, that’s as good a KPI as I can think of, you know?
Jeff White: Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, too, and this isn’t necessarily directly related to that, but it is in some way because you’ve mentioned to us in our previous conversations about how when you’ve come into a number of these organizations you had no metrics. Nothing had been recorded about how things were being marketed. You didn’t have necessarily marketing dashboards, or lead routing, or things like that. Talk a little bit about what it’s taken you in the occupations that you’ve had to bring that kind of rigor to the marketing effort and the lead handling that you’ve implemented.
Heather Smriga: Yeah, and I think in the organizations which I’ve worked, what leads the company is engineering and operations, and then marketing is an afterthought, right? These are companies that are focused on technologies, focused on the next generation of development, and not as much on the marketing side or see the importance, and communicating the fact that just because you’ll build it does not mean people will come is something that you really have to ingrain in kind of these organizations that are more technology-focused.
And I wouldn’t say it’s… It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to try to get into these organizations that are more technology-focused, but that’s why I think having this team, where they can see what marketing brings to the table that’s outside of engineering, that they have the customer. On the marketing side, you have the knowledge of the customer. You understand how to talk to the customer. You understand how to meet their needs and not just show a feature of a product, because if you’re not actually meeting a need of a customer, they don’t understand what a feature does. So, we can’t just focus on those aspects of technology all the time.
Carman Pirie: I love how there’s a kind of an equalization, or a calibration I should say of the organization, and an enhanced appreciation of the marketing function. When you get them to think about it as you’re the apparatus that pulls that voice of the customer into the organization versus being the apparatus that simply pushes features and benefits to the customer. Yeah, it’s a beautiful way of articulating that. I like that.
Heather Smriga: And Jeff, I think to your point about metrics, when you do have a strong operations and lean environment, they appreciate KPIs. They appreciate metrics. So, from a marketing standpoint, if you can show metrics, if you can set up some ongoing monthly messages, metrics that you communicate up into the organization, it’s something that they understand, right? They want to see red and green dots and they want to see graphs that go up, and so I think that the organization is more open to metrics than maybe one that’s not as focused on KPIs and lean, and so being able to demonstrate kind of where marketing is… Now, it’s also a little bit more challenging because most of these organizations that I’ve been with have about an 18-month sales cycle, so same at EaglePicher, when we engage with a customer, it’s about 18 months to 24 months before we’re actually producing product.
So, being able to connect that back to your marketing efforts is always very difficult, but there are things that you can do to see the peaks of different metrics, and with today’s technology, you can pretty much metric anything you want. So, picking out the ones that can really show the organization how their spend is adding value is what’s most important.
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Carman Pirie: I have a… I don’t know, maybe this is a really kind of individual thing that we’ll end up editing out of the episode. We’ll see. But I guess one thing that I’ve been kind of kicking around in my mind a lot these days is just this notion of so much of marketing these days is digital, and to your point, lends itself to KPIs, and in some way you can, whether you’re measuring it accurately or not we could probably debate about, but you could put a number that is supposed to represent something marketing related about almost any part of the marketing function in front of somebody and have some story you can tell about-
Jeff White: How it’s impactive.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly. Yes, so much more of marketing today lends itself to that, but there are still aspects of what we do that is a bit more of a bit of a leap of faith. Even choosing to do a voice of the customer initiative that brings all of these organizations together, while yes you can report on it in hindsight, it only… I guess there still needs to be that kind of somebody needs to place the bet, right? And around something that at least at the outset isn’t measurable.
I wonder as a marketer that’s obviously been successful in driving metrics-driven organizations to adopt more sophisticated marketing practices, how have you navigated those things that don’t lend themselves at all to metrics? Have you… I guess I could see a couple of ways to do it. Have you almost put some false metrics to it, just so that people feel good about it? Or have you just chosen to address it head-on, like “this thing can’t be measured but we ought to do it anyway”?
Heather Smriga: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Maybe that’s a bizarre question, but it’s just something I’ve been kind of noodling around with.
Heather Smriga: Yeah. No, what’s the saying that everything that can be counted counts? Is that… You know, so just because I can run a report about something on my website or something on social media and you can get all these digital metrics now, it doesn’t mean that they make a difference to what you’ve done. So, I think it’s a challenge, especially when you have a long lead cycle or sales cycle, to connect those dots, so you have to look at what’s gonna make me, in my day-to-day job, make the right decision for my company, and so I think I’ve always looked at metrics in that standpoint. Not as much as what makes me look good in the organization, but if this metric helps me make a better decision on where I focus my time, or my resources, or my money, then ultimately it will look better at the end of the day, right?
So, you can get drowned in metrics and KPIs if you let yourself, so it’s really picking out the ones that you know is going to drive your decision-making ability.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I have so many places I feel I could go with this. I mean, we’ve seen organizations that have been making data-driven decisions for the last four years on a broken analytics platform that they didn’t know what was broken, so you know, they’re like blindly making what they think to be very smart, data-driven decisions, and… Anyway-
Jeff White: Can be difficult.
Carman Pirie: Well, yeah, and I don’t know, I think maybe there’s a little bit of ego in it too. I mean, as marketers we want to think that we have a bit of… I don’t know, kind of-
Jeff White: View into things that others don’t?
Carman Pirie: Well, a little bit of know-how that maybe somebody… Yeah, so that can help feed… Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going with this, Jeff. You can bring us back to reality now, Jeff.
Heather Smriga: On that standpoint that you were talking about, with having these long sales lead cycles, what I really think is important is to have a good CRM or customer relationship management system, because if you can add a lead into an opportunity and connect that to where that lead came from, and then in two years or 18 months, you can track the success of those, it is a long cycle but I do think it’s important to keep that information with your contacts or your opportunities, so that you can kind of get to some dollar amounts down the road, which is very difficult but I do think it’s very important.
Carman Pirie: Absolutely. And in addition to that, obviously, the number of deals moved to closed-won is a great KPI. But to your point, when the sales cycle is long it probably ought not to be the core KPI of a lot of marketing initiatives that will end up iterating faster than the sales cycle, and in those instances, you need to calibrate those KPIs to early indicators in the sales cycle that lead you to the impression that these leads are worthwhile and are likely to, at least at a percentage level, some of them are gonna get to closed-won in 18 months.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Heather Smriga: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And those kinds of leading indicators end up driving a lot of those decisions.
Jeff White: Heather, I think one of the… You’ve told us a few other stories, as well, about some of the things that you’ve had to teach the organizations that you’ve joined about what marketing needs. Can you tell us a bit about some of the things that have happened?
Heather Smriga: Yeah, so I think it’s a lot of people in the organization are concentrating on getting product out the door, right? They have a set date that they have to deliver something by, and it needs to go. And the difficult thing from a marketing standpoint is since most of my experience has been on custom made products, you’re not actually ever really reselling these products, but you need to be able to market this technology and these capabilities, and just getting people aware of the fact that, “Hey, let’s take a professional photo of that product before we send it to the customer, since we’ll never see it again.” And then even though-
Jeff White: By never see it again you mean really never see it again.
Heather Smriga: Really never see it again.
Carman Pirie: It’s going to Mars.
Heather Smriga: Yes, so yeah, getting… And you don’t make a lot of extra of those sitting around, so yeah, and it’s across the board, like even though this is a specialized project, we can still communicate our capabilities basing it on some of our past technologies. And so, getting people to think about, “Hey, when I do this cool project or when I have this interesting customer, or if I’m about to ship something that we won’t get back, let’s call Heather and see what we can do with it while we still have it on our possession.” Or to continue to use this as a growth opportunity for the company.
And so yeah, I think just teaching that to the organization and when you let one slip out the door before we can get a picture, understanding the value of that and then getting people to kind of watch for you and safeguard, because at a large organization, I can’t know everything that is shipping out the door.
Jeff White: Yeah. Have you had people running into your office and saying, “Heather! Heather! We just remembered we’re supposed to tell you when this is leaving. You gotta come stairs with the camera now!”
Heather Smriga: Yeah. It’s been like yeah, it’s shipping in 45 minutes, so-
Jeff White: Is that enough time? Come and set up some lights?
Carman Pirie: And now all of a sudden you’re taking product photography with your iPhone.
Jeff White: It’s still better than what they had.
Heather Smriga: Yeah. A lot of people… It’s like I do get a lot of iPhone photography and I’m like, “Oh, can you just give me a little heads up so we can take a real picture next time? But thank you. Thank you for thinking.”
Jeff White: Just something. I will say, though, that an iPhone can actually save your bacon if the sensor in your proper camera dies when you’ve been brought in somewhere to take photos, not speaking from experience with a particular manufacturer we worked with, but we got some pretty decent photos with an iPhone, I’ll tell you what.
Carman Pirie: You gotta do what you gotta do.
Jeff White: It’s all we had.
Carman Pirie: Well, Heather, this has been a fascinating and-
Jeff White: Wide-ranging.
Carman Pirie: … perhaps meandering conversation about really how to… At its core, I think what you’ve communicated to our listeners is a level of kind of marketing integration into the manufacturing enterprise and a level of appreciation on the marketing side, even of the lean manufacturing processes, et cetera. I think that’s very just instructive to our listeners and I think you’ve served to inspire folks to just think about their work a little differently and maybe how they can leverage the other talents in the enterprise to just do better marketing, so I really thank you for sharing your experience and expertise with us.
Heather Smriga: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.
Jeff White: Thanks a lot.
Heather Smriga: Thanks.
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