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.
Sales and marketing alignment is huge, and historically, sales and marketing haven’t been best friends. Steven Nghe, Head of Marketing and Communications at Kloeckner Metals, discusses when Kloeckner Metals realized that sales and marketing has changed, and they needed to change with it. He discusses the digitalization of more multidimensional and complex marketing practices that need to be enhanced for sales and marketing to make selling manufacturing more efficient. He also discusses how he gained trust from VPs on marketing being a worthwhile investment by exposing what marketing really is.
Understanding the Value of Marketing as an Investment to Help You Sell 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 are you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: I am delighted to be here once again. How are you doing?
Jeff White: I’m doing great. I think, honestly, I think this is the first podcast we’ve recorded in 2022.
Carman Pirie: Ah. See, it’s kind of like sausage. Best not to see how it’s made, you know? You tell people that now and then they’re gonna know, but yeah-
Jeff White: I think it’s okay.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. We do kind of rack and stack them sometimes, or sometimes it feels like you’re recording almost like an episode or two every hour, and then other times it feels like you go weeks without, so yeah, if our radio voice isn’t quite where it should be, that’s what our listeners should know, that we just have been out of practice.
Jeff White: Exactly. Just kicking off the Christmas doldrums a month later. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Exactly, exactly.
Jeff White: Well, look. I’m looking forward to our guest today. Really interesting story and one I think a lot of manufacturing marketers can relate to.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s interesting in this space, and of course manufacturing being like a massively large vertical, it’s not really a vertical at all. There’s just many verticals within it. But as we look at manufacturing overall, there’s a number of marketers I think that find themselves in kind of the same shoes, if you will, as today’s guest. And that they maybe are the first marketing hire or just maybe one of the few people charged with starting to make marketing a priority in a manufacturer, and it just hasn’t typically been the case. So, I’m hopeful that today’s guest is gonna kind of give us some tips and tricks of how our listeners can maybe navigate these waters.
Jeff White: Absolutely. So, joining us today is Steven Nghe. Steven is the Head of Marketing and Communications at Kloeckner Metals. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Steven.
Steven Nghe: Thank you. Thank you, guys, for having me. By the way, you guys have a great podcast voice. Now listening, I was like, “I do not have a voice for radio or a face for film,” so this is great that I get to partake in this.
Jeff White: Well, that’s honestly why it’s an audio-only podcast, because I know I have a face for radio, as well.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. The audio only helps, doesn’t it? I mean, really.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. No. We can Photoshop the hell out of the bio photos, though, you know? Make it look pretty good.
Carman Pirie: Well, Steven, please introduce our listeners to you and to the firm. Just kind of give us a little bit of texture and context before we get started here.
Steven Nghe: Yeah. Definitely. My name is Steven Nghe. I’m the Head of Marketing and Communications at Kloeckner Metals. I’ve been with the company for over six years, and so I’ve been in this role for the past two years. I’ve been tasked with essentially all things marketing and what that means to me is like that’s everything, like from design, development, customer experience, SEO, social media, so anything with… You know, marketing is just so broad, and so I think also one of my desires is for us to be a marketing-first organization and to be mindful of those experiences even internal, like with communications, and the way we deliver our messaging and follow through with our messaging, not only for our customers but also in our internal employees, as well.
So, Kloeckner is essentially in the history of the company has mostly been a steel distributor, so basically anyone who needs to buy metals, we got you. And so, most recently we’ve been trying to make this shift to really explain we are more than just a steel service center. We do some fabrication. We also do a lot with supply chain. And so, we really are experts in making sure that… I think that’s where our strength is, is just really allowing large OEMs or other of our potential customers to understand that you need to get metals from point A to point B to point C and your manufacturing plants are all across the U.S., we can definitely help you figure out the best route to deliver, and we’ll even take care of that whole process.
So, like for a while we were using the favorite buzzword, one stop shop, and so I’m sure that got killed by everybody else, so we don’t use that term anymore. But yeah, that’s essentially what we’re trying to do and just really help our customers understand their needs, not only just from a materials standpoint, but also throughout the whole supply chain.
Carman Pirie: Really cool.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s hard to own one stop shop.
Carman Pirie: It is. It is.
Steven Nghe: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. There’s a corner store near my condo that I think has kind of laid claim to that, really.
Steven Nghe: Yeah. Yeah. It’s big.
Jeff White: They don’t carry the same kind of metals as Kloeckner, though. I’ll tell you that.
Carman Pirie: This is true. Well, it’s interesting, because Kloeckner is not a small company by any stretch of the imagination, but yet you’re relatively new there and your presence there is really indicative of a renewed interest or a newfound interest, maybe not renewed, in marketing. Isn’t it fascinating when a company gets to the scale of Kloeckner, and marketing just hasn’t been a part of it?
Steven Nghe: Yeah. I mean, marketing in the sense that we define marketing, right? You know, like I think for them, they saw sales reps or territory managers as their marketing representatives, like even some of them, like when I joined the company, a lot of people had a marketing manager title and I was like, “What I do is different than what they do.” They’re more salespeople. I’m like marketing. And so, I had to really explain that what I do is completely different than… You know, I’m not gonna direct sales. So, I think just that mentality throughout the history of the organization and I think a lot of manufacturing companies is like, “Oh yeah, we’re doing marketing because we have a sales guy who showed up at a trade show, signed up for a booth and handed out promotional materials, and talked to potential customers. That’s marketing.”
And just understanding that it’s more complex than that and is not as easy as that, and then there’s also tons of opportunities to do other things than just show up at someone’s door or call someone. You know, in our business we literally… the history of it, obviously not now, but there’ve been deals that were done over dinner on napkins, like someone signed a contract over a napkin. You hear these stories, like a handshake deal, or just literally someone driving and saw, “Oh, there’s a new building. I should stop in and introduce myself.” And they saw that as marketing, so that’s where we are.
Carman Pirie: But you know, I think it’s so much the case for many businesses in many industries that a very sales-first organization and a reputation and a business that was built at a time when that was very much a face-to-face in person endeavor, and not to say that sales isn’t that now, and you don’t even have to think too much about pandemic or otherwise, but the fact of the matter is it’s getting… It’s more complex now. You just don’t drive around and look for the newest smokestack on the horizon and then head there and ask if they need something.
So, I guess a lot of manufacturers are probably… You know, they’re kind of in this same headspace where they’re looking at it for the first time and understanding that the environment is very much more multidimensional and complex, more digital. That digital presence influences sales conversations, unbeknownst to the salespeople, et cetera, et cetera. I guess how far along was the company in that realization that sales and marketing has changed, and they needed to change with it? How far along were they when they hired you into that mindset? Or did you have to kind of till some soil in terms of aiding that understanding even?
Steven Nghe: Yeah, I think a little bit of both, right? For them to be even open minded to hire a marketer where they weren’t fully sure what marketing can do for them, and I’m sure their experience, nothing against agencies, but I’m sure it was like one-off relationships mostly with creative agencies, right? So, that was their whole framework of what marketing is. Oh, you guys designed a brochure for us. You guys design a poster for us. Or you guys do some direct mail campaigns. Or whatever it was at the time.
So, I definitely commend the company for recognizing that, oh, there’s probably a need here and we’re probably lacking in some area, even if we’re not fully sure, but definitely I do spend a lot of time in my day just… I mean, that’s what I was hired to do, to kind of push the company into thinking, “Oh, can we do this? We should do that.” And just constantly pitching. It’s funny, because you know, like a marketer, but it seems like I sell a lot internally, and I want the sales guys to be more marketing focused, so we definitely see this sales alignment, sales marketing alignment is huge, and I think I know at least in my history, in my experience, sales and marketing haven’t been best friends. And so, they’ve been very… Not combative or anything of that nature, but it’s just a natural like, “Oh, we do sales. We’re really important. We make the deals happen. And you guys are here to support us.”
And you know, marketing is like, “No, we take lead on some of these initiatives, as well, and you guys need to help support us in making those leads.” And you know, and that’s the approach that we’re trying to take at Kloeckner, is just really understanding that, okay, we’re not trying to disrupt the salesperson from their day to day, right? We’re just trying to figure out ways to enhance it, to make us more efficient, and just even understanding what the sales cycles looks like, and if there’s anything we can do to shorten it, or just even make sure that the right messaging is appropriate for your customer on what you’re trying to actually sell.
We offer tons of different types of products and services, so our world is not the same. We have so many different segments. And so, it is very complex. Metals is actually overwhelmingly complex, so it is just me trying to partner with them and understanding their needs and making sure that here’s what we can do for you, and I have really been taking more of kind of like an internal agency approach since I’ve joined the company. And I will say that that’s helped, like they’ve seen the work we can produce, and they’ve seen the, “Oh, he is helping us, making our lives a lot better, easier to close this deal, so let’s rely on him for this type of support.” So, yeah, it’s just constant education.
Like I said, I think if you’ve been working in an industry, like a lot of these guys have been in the industry for like 20-plus years, and they’ve only done sales. They never had to interact with a marketing person to be like, “Oh, I need this and that,” and so I commend our sales guys, actually, because when I came in there wasn’t like a ton of even materials that they were giving to the customers. It was just all conversations. And they were able to lock in multiyear contracts with just talk. And so, that’s impressive to me, and so I think coming in, I wanted to make sure they understood that I valued them and their skillsets, as well, and I need to understand like how did you sell? Can we replicate that? Or can we create evergreen content from the things that you used to kind of help grow your career and help the company grow in revenue, as well?
Carman Pirie: That can be such an interesting challenge for an organization. And I know a number of them that are kind of navigating this right now, that they have a number of salespeople that have been with them forever. Their 30 year, very long tenured salespeople, and to your point, they carry so much information in their head that they’re closing multiyear deals with conversation, and I find there’s an interesting edge that yes, you can provide marketing support to those folks, but actually in some ways harvesting what they know and turning that into marketing support is in some ways almost part of the knowledge transfer that needs to happen, because these folks aren’t gonna be working there for very much longer. You know?
Steven Nghe: Yeah. And you know, and because of the history of the company, or just even history, like I’ve seen this with other manufacturing companies, is like their CRMs might not have been as sophisticated, like they might have had recorded notes on a notebook that they carry around with them, so it wasn’t like they had a suite of digital tools where they were documenting all their knowledge. And so, it really is, it’s challenging, and I think that’s the challenge too, is like now you’re telling that guy who’s been doing it successfully for X amount of years to be like, “Okay, everything you do on a daily, change that. Can you log this into Salesforce?” And he’s like, “Whoa, whoa. This is just extra work for me. I’ve been showing success. Why do I have to change my ways?”
And you know, for us to come in and not say that it’s a threat, like to not pose it as we’re a threat, we’re trying to change your everyday workflow, we’re trying to make your lives more busy, more complicated, like that’s not beneficial for us, so yeah. I definitely would highlight certain individuals, like even just when I first joined the company, and try to just build a relationship with them, pick their brains, and then try to convert that information into some kind of marketing material or into a content calendar, and just try to ride that wave as much as you can. Because they’re busy too, so it’s just like really like working within their work schedule, so it’s like we’re a team, but they still have to go and make sales. I’m not their top priority.
So, it is really also showing the value in that, right? Showing the values like, “Yo, if you take out time in your day, here’s what we can produce. And that’s what you can use to also sell. And then see that as an investment, not necessarily as me just taking up minutes out of your day.”
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Jeff White: Has that been internally, when you came into the organization, obviously there are going to be not necessarily confrontations or anything like that with the sales team, but has that been the biggest headwind, getting the sales team on board with kind of digitizing their approach and getting them to understand the requirement and why a CRM is valuable?
Steven Nghe: Yeah. I think it’s a combination of both, right? Because like for marketing, when you look at the stereotype you see in Silicon Valley, the CEOs are usually dynamic, like Apple, right? Everyone talks about Steve Jobs, and he was just a marketing-focused individual, and so you think when you join a company, everyone’s gonna be that gung-ho about marketing, like, “Oh, here’s all the great things that we’re gonna do.” And I don’t think the average person, like if you’re an engineer, like we have a lot of engineers, salespeople, production, quality control, shipping, logistic folks, like when do they ever interact with marketing ever?
And so, I think I really had to understand that oh, man, I am literally dealing with an audience where there’s no communication, like there’s nobody on the team that’s communicating. HR is as close to a communications manager as you have, and then there’s no one else who ever deals with marketing. They always deal with sales. They deal with salespeople. They deal with internal salespeople. They deal with external salespeople for vendors and stuff like that. So, yeah, it was definitely learning that I had to do a lot of education and give them more exposure to what marketing really is, and it’s just more than just me designing you a brochure that we’re gonna print and ship out to X amount of people, and so, that’s just one thing, and so just really trying to explain how it’s all connected, and this is all marketing is probably the biggest challenge, because yeah, they had no foundation at all.
Jeff White: I wonder, too, when you came in over six years ago and looked at this organization, and understood the sales-led focus of it, how did you decide what to do first? I mean, obviously there’s learning for you to understand the company, understand the products, understand the flow, but how did you kind of approach putting pixels to paper or getting organized? What did you do first?
Steven Nghe: I really took a content approach first. It’s like we had a website that’s… We’ve been around since 1906. Now, granted we haven’t had a website since 1906, but it’s like, “Oh, and look at the opportunity.” Just from just an SEO standpoint, it was like no other competitor was investing into their website, or design, or look and feel, or any of that stuff, so I knew that oh my gosh, if we just start dominating the digital space with content, we’re gonna rank easily. There’s not a lot of competition. I mean, it’s kind of like the wild, wild west, right? Where it’s like, “Oh, we know there’s land out there, but no one’s claimed it so far, so we just have to make it out there.”
And so, I really, I think in the first two years, I produced over 70 videos, and then we hired some writers to do some blogging, some technical blogs, like related to metals. Anything where we were like, “Oh, here’s a natural keyword that might resonate with our customer base,” and just we just started grinding it out. And I think it’s funny, because until people see a final product, they don’t quite grasp what’s really happening, and so I think that’s what helped, is like I had to take a really MVP approach on everything. Here’s what a blog would look like. Are you guys comfortable with me talking about this subject in this way externally to our customer?
One thing you’ll learn about our industry, too, is like it’s very fear based. So, they’re afraid to make a move to either offend someone, or oh, that’s too much information to share. For example, we have customers that would be great if I could say, “Oh, just like any other company, please validate that we’re legit,” right? And so, you see on everyone’s website, “As seen on Good Morning America,” or you know, stuff like that. For the life of me, I could not ever share who we actually do business with, and that’s… I think that’s universal. A lot of manufacturing companies do not like to share who they do business with at all publicly, and so it’s like if we’re doing something new, wouldn’t X customer… I would see that as a win, right? If you’re trying to sell X company and you told them that your competitor also works with us and thrives with us, then that should validate that we’re a legit company that you should partner with.
But you know, the organization didn’t always see it that way, but-
Carman Pirie: Have you changed their mind? Or are you just working with what you got?
Steven Nghe: yeah. I think so. Because you know, along the way, I’m grateful for when I first joined the company, I reported to the CFO, and so one thing that marketing does not do well is that marketing spends money, and so, you know, the one person you don’t want to basically look at you always under a magnifying glass is the CFO who’s also worried about expenses. And so, if I’m saying, “Hey, I would like this X amount of money,” and he’s looking like, “No. What are you doing?” So, you know, I think the organization recognized that and so we had created also a digital innovations team, and so they actually stuck me under the digital innovations team. I tried to explain to them like marketing’s a little bit different than DI, but you know, to each organization their own, right?
And so, we’ll make the most of it, but I was really grateful that they put a VP there that really was an advocate for marketing, an advocate for, “Oh, we should probably try to do business this way.” And so, he obviously helped bridge the gap between my role, and the leadership’s, and the executive team’s, and the sales team, to really understand like, “Oh, the value of this.” And so, he really supported me even in pushing me to get out there, like to make these face-to-face visits, the way they’ve been used to be doing business with customers, making these face-to-face visits and just really breaking down the types of things we can partner together to make this company grow.
And so, I think that helped. Having advocates for you within the organization, especially when it’s something new, and so I think to this day, and I value our CEO, too. He’s always trying to be forward thinking, as the rest of the team, but they’re open minded. It’s just that when you don’t know, you don’t know. And so, it’s not as easy to say yes when you’re like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And I’m just telling them, “Say yes to me. Trust me. Just hand me a plate of money and let me run with this.” Obviously, in the real world, it’s not as easy as like, “Oh. Well, what kind of impact? And show me the business case.” So, we’re doing those things now and I’m grateful in my time here, it hasn’t felt that long, but yeah, that I’ve been able to make waves and at least have a voice and try to convince them that, “Oh, let’s push even further.”
Carman Pirie: And how big is the team now, Steven? How many do you have working with you?
Steven Nghe: I have a team of three now, so yeah, we just hired a communications manager in December, and so my first hire was right when the pandemic started I tried to… We hired a marketing manager, but basically she started in June, so we’ve definitely… You know, the thing about small teams is that you have to be scrappy, and the mindset that we took is really like we have to be a production house, and at least in the beginning, right? And then we can get a little bit more strategic once we have some foundations and set some… Once things have momentum, then you can be a little bit more strategic, so I was grateful for that first hire because she definitely helped a lot with producing projects. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: There’s a real wisdom in that, like this notion of people don’t really know kind of until they see it in some ways what they’re talking about. It’s that early emphasis that you had on like, “We’re just gonna show you lots of stuff, then. We’re gonna produce and churn stuff out so that you can begin to wear this, try this on a little bit, see what you think.” And beyond that, I love something you said. Man, probably like 10, 15 minutes ago, around wanting the salespeople to see that it was not a waste of their time to speak to you, but rather a worthwhile investment, like in your voice there there was some pressure to produce something out of that that was worthwhile and can help that sales process so that they actually look back on their hour or two hours that they spent with you and say that was worth my time.
That’s a lovely, I think, little kind of yardstick to hold up against the work in the early days there. I think that’s really cool, Steven.
Steven Nghe: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, and ultimately we’re all trying to be excellent for the company, right? And we just have different definitions of what excellent means. And at times I think my definition is correct and yours is wrong, so you know, it is really about collaboration and understanding, okay, what’s your definition of excellence? Okay, well, let me help you get there, because I have my own definition, so how do we marry the two together to really show excellence in that sense? And so, it is, but it does… With any organization, it does take a lot of, and I give kudos to the team, and the individuals in this organization. You also have to be open minded to be like, “Oh, let me work a different type of way,” or, “Let me let this person in to help work with me or collaborate with this person to make these things happen too.”
Because you know you can’t produce content unless you have… I can’t make a video if no one’s agreeing to be on film. So, yeah, it definitely is a partnership all the way and I truly believe that, and I think that’s where organizations, like I’ve been in organizations where they’ve had challenges with egos, and more stricter, “Oh, I’m a VP. You’re a director. You’re a manager.” These silos. And so, obviously any organization this size can have silos, but I do think that collectively if the organization is thinking about, okay, this is how we partner and you are helping me, then it makes it a lot easier to kind of get things done.
Jeff White: What would you say was the thing that made people truly begin to appreciate what you were bringing to the table? Was there an early win or something that you did that everybody just kind of went, “Oh, yeah. All right. I get it. I see it.”
Steven Nghe: Yeah. I don’t know. Me getting approval for money is a sign that things are working, right? So, I don’t get a, “Good job.” It wasn’t necessarily directly like, “Great job.” Obviously, my direct VP, he would give me some kind of the sentiments, but you know, what really I think helped is that when we started producing things, and we started to approach branding in a certain way, and design things in a certain way, people started to notice externally. And so, and then they would make comments to our CEO, our COO, to our sales teams, and so they… or other companies would start changing or investing into what we’ve invested into marketing, as well.
And I think that kind of like helped solidify, “Oh, he might actually know what he’s doing, and we can trust him a little bit more and give him a little bit more to invest in, and to basically push the company forward.”
Carman Pirie: The kind of external validation, if you will.
Steven Nghe: I’m sure there was. Because you know, I didn’t get any internal validation. They didn’t communicate. Maybe they didn’t want me to get a big head, but yeah, as long as I’m saying, “Hey, I want X amount for this campaign,” and they said yes, that’s to me a sign that something’s working for them to say yes to.
Carman Pirie: For sure.
Jeff White: Yeah. Nobody stopped by with a box of donuts or a case of beer, eh?
Steven Nghe: Nope. Nope. What’s the next one? And that’s our role as marketers, right? Our role as marketers is like it’s onto the next one, so it’s not like we can celebrate too much, like even these viral campaigns on the consumer side that I see, it’s like, “Oh, man. That was a great Super Bowl ad. Okay, what are you gonna do next?” It’s not like we can live on something that we’ve already produced. It’s always like… Yeah, like what can we do better?
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s always what have you done for me lately, isn’t it?
Steven Nghe: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. It’s a very short-lived relationship.
Jeff White: Well, that opens a great door for a final question, I think. What’s next?
Steven Nghe: Yeah. No, I think for us, we’re continuing to push sales alignment. I think there’s a lot of things that we can continue to grow the team. This organization is the smallest marketing team I’ve been a part of. Now, obviously I’ve only been the head of the department at this organization, but I’ve been part of teams that were over 100-plus, so it is really showing the value of like, okay, not to have heads, just to have people in these seats, but really these people have a purpose and we need to drive these initiatives, so I’m hoping that we can continue to grow. I think for us, it brings us great joy when we’re creating materials, we’re driving traffic to the website for lead gen, for qualifying those leads, from a marketing standpoint, we’re doing anything we can to say, “Hey, look at our attribution report and look at how much revenue we’re driving from all our digital efforts.” And so, that’s really the next chapter, is like really trying to show them that… Let us take a piece of sales. That’s really more marketing, but it’s obviously sales related, and let us show you how we can even grow even more. So, that’s where we’re trying to push and really get them to see in the organization, so I’m truly grateful for the opportunities the company has given me, and for even me to triple my team within the last two years, so I’m hoping for more continued growth not only in revenue, in our production that we do, but also in the size of my team.
Carman Pirie: That’s really cool, Steven. Thank you for sharing the story with us today. It’s been a real pleasure to chat with you.
Steven Nghe: Yeah. Thanks, guys, so much, and like I said, I appreciate you guys’ podcast voices. It’s impressive.
Carman Pirie: We thank you for that.
Jeff White: Indeed. Have a great day.
Steven Nghe: Okay. You too.
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