Customer Advisory Board Best Practices

Throughout this Customer Feedback series, I’ve focused on methods and tactics you can use to improve your product or a particular offering. A Customer Advisory Board, or CAB, is your opportunity to tap into your most insightful, influential customers, and gather their opinions on where the market is going, or what they are anticipating in the competitive landscape. It’s the chance to pose strategic questions to executives, and amass trends based on their insights. It’s a focus group on steroids (all legal, of course).

What is a Customer Advisory Board and Why Use It to Gather Customer Feedback?

“A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is a marketing program made up of strategic customers who work closely with company executives to provide guidance on corporate strategies, offer input on products and services, and address and create solutions to industry challenges,” says Ignite Advisory Group.

A CAB is a strategic source of feedback from people who have already purchased your products and made a commitment to your organization. A CAB typically consists of people who are at the executive-level, can represent their company’s goals and objectives, and are invested in seeing your organization succeed.

What kind of feedback will it get you?

Turn to your CAB for advice on key industry or segment challenges, product roadmap and vision, and even feedback on upcoming product releases. Don’t subject CAB members to usability tests; think of them as your most important and knowledgeable focus group. Depending on the composition of your CAB, you will likely have members who are focused on where the market is going, not where it currently is. Tap into this vision to make sure your products can get them where they anticipate they need to go.

The Facts

Collecting the Feedback: Moderate difficulty.
CABs are similar to focus groups, in that you need to prepare an agenda, provide enough context for members to understand how they can contribute, and ask well-constructed questions. But, CAB members have a lot more knowledge than many focus group participants, so they will likely have more to say, and will be more opinionated.

Analyzing the Feedback: Moderate
You’ll likely get very detailed feedback, but you may not end up with a clear consensus from the group, so will need to draw your own conclusions.

Reach: Narrow and Deep
Think about who you want to have on your CAB, and how they represent your customer-base as a whole. You have an opportunity to create a diverse panel, if you so choose, or to remain conservative and only invite happy, content customers. My recommendation: avoid the lovefest and include some agitators.

Scalability: Difficult 
Very manual and very time intensive to create a CAB, prep for them, conduct the meeting(s) itself, and make use of the feedback you receive. Very valuable and very high-touch.

Cost: Expensive 
You can convene virtual panels, yet you will get much more valuable feedback by bringing the group together in real life. You may choose to bring the customers to your office (or someplace nearby), or you might sponsor a session or breakout at an industry event which your customers are already attending. In either case, a CAB is an investment.

Pros & Cons
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Pros… with Benefits

Dear CABby:

I could really use your advice. Our Product Managers want us to stay away from the CAB. They  insist it is a sales-free zone. So many customers in one place…I can just smell the upsell opportunities. Don’t they understand the potential sales?!

Signed,

Get it Now!

I Love the Smell of Commissions in the Morning

Dear Smell:

Imagine you were a customer who was asked to reveal their plans and aspirations for the coming year, and you knew a sales professional was lurking around the corner, taking notes. Would you be open and honest? That’s not a trick question – the answer should be, “No, I’d have my guard up.” CABs are a place customers should be able to let their guard down. Be patient, more sales will follow.

Respectfully,

CABby

  • Tactical Feedback: Provide Rich Product Feedback. One of the reasons customers may join a CAB is to see early, pre-market versions of your product and influence what actually gets shipped. CAB participants can help you improve existing products, validate new ideas, test-drive upcoming releases and provide generally constructive feedback on your product and features, while also challenging you on inadequate areas of your products.
  • Strategic Feedback: Align with Your Customers’ Roadmaps & Business Strategy. A Customer Advisory board provides an opportunity for your to hear where your customers intend to go, and get insights into their Business Strategy. “Your customers—the consumers of your products or services – are the best (and surprisingly most often overlooked) resource to provide input to your company’s overall direction and business strategies. Such customers should be able to advise you on the products and services they desire, what they would pay for them and how they want them delivered,” writes Eyal Danon on MarketingProfs. He continues, “[T]here really is no one more qualified to counsel you on how to best target, approach and serve your client base. Your council can provide invaluable direction regarding which markets to pursue, how to capitalize on market trends, what customer pain points to address, which companies to partner with or acquire, how to best exploit competitors’ weak points, and how to position your company for optimal advantage.”
  • Soft Sell: By giving customers a voice in determining the future direction of your product and company, and, by extension, getting them further invested in your product (both personally and emotionally), it’s very likely that you’ll see incremental revenue from CAB members and their extended networks. But tread lightly – it’s a fine line between asking for advice and feedback and turning CAB sessions into extended sales pitches (more on that below). Eyal Danon supports this point, “[O]ur data shows that B2B companies that have active and successful customer advisory boards enjoy a 9% increase in new business among advisory members starting after year one of advisory programs above non-advisory council customers.”

Cons… with Weaknesses

Dear CABby:

Really Influential Customer (RIC) asked me to include a feature in the next release, but it’s totally not on our roadmap. I’d feel dirty saying yes to RIC’s request, but I don’t feel like I can say no.

Signed, Dirty in Dayton

Dear Dirty:

Just Say No and explain why. RIC will understand. If RIC doesn’t, you weren’t meant for each other.

Respectfully, CABby

  • The 1%: When defining the membership of the Customer Advisory Board, there can be a tendency to want to include your “best” customers – those who have already bought the most, or the ones Sales is counting on to buy more. Who to include, and whether you want the CAB to be representative of your diverse customer base, will determine how broadly applicable their feedback can be. If the CAB represents only your happiest or largest customers, their feedback will reflect those needs. Consider the overall composition of the CAB, the interplay between participants, and whether you need to impose “term limits.” This can be a highly influential source of feedback, so make sure it aligns with who you are building your products for.

Is your Customer Advisory Board made up of “The 1%” of your customers?

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  • More Feature Requests: A key reason customers agree to serve on a CAB is to have the ability to influence product direction. Or to put it another way, they want to ensure that the product meets their needs. Expect more feature requests.
  • Saying No: Continuing from the previous point…it’s not just that there will be more feature requests, but you may find yourself in a position of having to say no, often, to requests which don’t align with your strategic roadmap. CAB members may expect special treatment; beware a scorned CAB member.

Using a Customer Advisory Board Throughout the Product Development Lifecycle

product development lifeycle

Dear CABby:

Our marketing people always hover in the back of the room during CAB meetings, and it makes the customers uncomfortable. How can I let the marketingfolk know it’s uncool and is impacting the output of this group?

Signed, Hovering in Houston

Dear Hovering:

The CAB meetings are too tempting for marketers desperate for good case studies.  You’ve heard of a swear jar? Institute a CAB jar, and make the penalty steep.

Respectfully, CABby

At what point(s) in the PDLC will this type of feedback be most useful?

Product Development Lifecycle:

  • Phase 1: Conceive – imagine, specify, plan, innovate
  • Phase 2: Design – describe, define, develop, test, analyze, validate
  • Phase 3: Realize – manufacture, make, build, procure, produce, sell, deliver
  • Phase 4: Service – Use, operate, maintain, support, sustain, phase-out, retire, recycle, dispose

Customer Advisory Boards can provide critically useful feedback at all stages of the Product Development Lifecycle:

  • Phase 1: You’re planning your roadmap and investigating how to refine your existing products or which new ones to bring to market. A CAB can serve as a litmus test, providing insights into whether the market is ripe for your next innovation and whether there might be headwinds you will need to deal with.
  • Phase 2: As the product comes together, frequently solicit feedback from CAB members to ensure it meets their needs.
  • Phase 3: Before bring the product to market, validate marketing and positioning concepts with your CAB to ensure they resonate.
  • Phase 4: Now that the product is in the market, how are CAB members using it? Where is it falling short? What alternatives or competitive products and services are they looking at? Use your CAB as a sounding board when it comes time to phase out or sunset a product-line or feature. They can help you anticipate problems and address them in your communications.

Best Practices / Pro-tips

pro tips advisory board

Customer Advisory Board Charter and Key Objectives

To get the most from this group, spend time up front – before even recruiting any customers to join – defining the Board’s Charter and Key Objectives. As a product manager, you might be interested in:

  • Market validation for new enhancements and expansions.
  • Real-world feedback on how the product is being used along with insight into its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Insights into competitive offerings.
  • Industry expertise.

There are a number of great reasons for instituting a charter. Chief among them are it defines the goals and scope of the group, and it explicitly defines the non-goals for the group. If it will be a marketing or sales-free zone, for instance, you can define that at the outset.

There are a lot of other helpful tips about how to start a CAB in this post, “How to Found a Customer Advisory Board: Best Practices for Product.” It’s a superlative resource.

No Sales Pitches, Please

Chris Koch recounts how Cisco typically runs a CAB meeting:

“Brief presentations are given by Cisco executives, product managers, and other key decision makers who want to gauge market interest for new programs and products, discuss new initiatives within Cisco, or provide updates on focus areas considered at previous meetings. The goal is for Cisco to listen 80% of the time and to present 20% of the time. For example, after presenting ideas and gathering feedback, presenters come back at the end of the event to validate the concerns of their audience.”

Customery Advisory Boards are for listening, not selling.

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They take a listen-first approach with a focus on gathering feedback and customers’ opinions. It’s not an extended sales pitch. Sales may result from CAB meetings, but that should not be an explicit part of the agenda.

Give CAB Members Time to Network

One of the biggest benefits to customers of participating in a CAB meeting is having the opportunity to network with a group of their peers. They do not often have the chance to share their knowledge or learn from others who are in a similar situation. So make sure to include a lot of time on the agenda for them to interact with each other. You will learn plenty, and gather, feedback simply by providing a safe space for them to interact.

Invite Grumpy Pants

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Invite Grumpy Pants to your CAB. Dissenting opinions can mean more constructive feedback.

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It may be tempting to only include happy customers on your CAB. “CAB meetings are not supposed to be a lovefest where content customers talk about how awesome your products are; they are a fertile source of information to help guide your company and product initiatives going forward, which can and should include conversation about what you’re doing wrong.” The “best” customers for your CAB are the ones who are willing to provide the constructive criticism you won’t get elsewhere. Best could be a happy customer or a curmudgeon – the focus needs to be on the feedback. A dissenting opinion often sparks great discussion.

Sean Blanda makes the case in The “Other Side” is Not Dumb that you should try to understand the “why” behind opinions that differ from yours. It’s an entertaining read that touches on the “false-consensus bias”, or the idea that everyone is like us. An effective CAB should not be an exercise in groupthink. It should dispel any perceived homogeneity of your customer-base.

Your Feedback is Dead to Me

Be clear about what you intend to do with the feedback from a Customer Advisory Board. Let participants know how it will be used and whether it will get special weight during the prioritization process (it will, whether consciously or unconsciously). Also let them know if Sales and Marketing will have access to their feedback, and whether it will be anonymous or identified. And finally, close the loop. Show them how their feedback has influenced your plans, and thank them profusely for their participation and insights. It’s a relationship, and works best when reciprocal. Otherwise, you’ll find very few takers for subsequent CABs, and this feedback channel will abruptly turn into a dead end.

TL;DR

A Customer Advisory Board is a strategic source of feedback from people who have already purchased your products and made a commitment to your organization. Turn to your CAB to understand market and competitive forces and get early feedback on whether your product roadmap is in tune with their needs. As with most types of feedback, make sure participants are getting something from the experience as well: CAB members will expect to learn more about your future plans and will also want to learn from, and network with, other CAB participants.

A well-managed CAB can become a group of trusted advisors you can rely on to give you an accurate view of how to make your product even more successful.

About the Author

Steven Telio
Steven is a Product Management Consultant who specializes in defining and delivering stellar digital products. He has held senior level Product Management roles with a number of startups, including 4 which had successful exits. He has led projects in a variety of industries for organizations that include EMC, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Syngenta, Boeing, NASA, and Harvard Medical School, and began his career doing technical support for a medical device start-up, where he answered “patient-on-the-table” service calls from neurosurgeons.

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