Starting a customer advisory board can be challenging. But a CAB is a great way to truly understand customers and find ways improve your product whether it’s just been introduced or has been established for some time. Even at a very basic level it’s easy to see why plenty of organizations are turning to customer counsels for feedback throughout their product development lifecycle; you get some customers together virtually or IRL, they provide some feedback (and probably some fresh feature requests); you bounce some ideas off them and gather input from real users, and you generally get to know them better (maybe you even find some juicy material for a case study or a lead on a potential expansion for your company).
Benefits of Customer Advisory Boards
Plenty of companies (both large and small) have successfully used CABs to improve their existing products, validate new ideas, and to test-drive upcoming releases and provide constructive feedback. Take for example, Chrysler; back in 2006 automaker leveraged their fleet Customer Advisory Board to gather customer input on future models:
“…CAB members traveled to Detroit to preview the new minivans scheduled to be introduced in the 2008 model-year. Board members provided product input during the early stages of vehicle development, input implemented in final vehicle design. The CAB also had the opportunity to test drive current and future products at Chrysler Proving Ground locations… The board provided positive input for the redesign of the Chrysler Fleet Web site, serving as a pilot group for a variety of enhancements, including PDF generation. Other initiatives include improving order-to-delivery timing, recall applications, and product package content for current and existing Chrysler products. Board members also played a pivotal role in the redesign of the annual “Fleet Buyer’s Guide,” from determining the medium — print versus electronic — to the content and mode of delivery.”
While your own board members may not be able to test drive your product as literally as Chrysler’s did, they can often offer a lot of highly specific advice and recommendations, even to a less-than-agile organization such as an auto manufacturer.
However, before you grab a random smattering of customers from your CRM system and fly them into town, there’s a few things you should ask yourself (and probably some of your internal stakeholders) and even more things to keep in mind while you get your CAB up and running.
Customer Advisory Board Charters and Key Objectives
This one’s a biggie–and it’s the consideration most often overlooked by companies when they set out to create a customer advisory board of their own. Before you make your case to senior management, you should be sure that you know what your goals as a product manager are and that others’ goals are also being factored in. From a product management perspective, you will likely be seeking:
- 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
This may or may not be the same thing others within your organization are expecting. Marketing, for example, may be thinking the Customer Advisory Board will be a great source for referrals, testimonials, case studies or other opportunities that may lay outside the scope of a Customer Advisory Board and therefore could jeopardize its efficacy.
Draft a Customer Advisory Board Charter
One way to get organizational alignment on this topic is to create an official charter, not only will a charter help your company be on the same page regarding the purpose of your Customer Advisory Board, but it will also serve as a resource to share with potential members. Take for example the mission statement in Oracle’s BI Customer Advisory Board Charter which not only lists the organization’s objectives, but also its vision for the board:
“The overall objectives for the BI Customer Advisory Board is strategic planning, long term performance and growth. As a result of these objectives Oracle will be working with the customer to help set our future product direction. Our vision for the Customer Advisory Board is to have customers share how they are using our products in the “real world” and where they are going and for Oracle to share with CAB members our current plans and future directions. This feedback, will help build the next generation of the Oracle Business Intelligence Tools.”
Remember: No Sales Pitches on the Agenda
Equally important to outlining your objectives is getting executives, stakeholders, and your sales team to understand that while Customer Advisory Board meetings may lead to sales, they are not sales calls, nor are they intended to be. Cisco has implemented an 80:20 listen to present ratio for this purpose, according to Chris Koch in his account of how Cisco runs a typical 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.”
You could consider implementing a similar rule for your own board, or you could just ensure that your agenda for each meeting or call is formatted in a “listen-first” manner. In some cases, this type of structure may not even be necessary; if you’ve communicated clearly enough about the objectives of your customer advisory board and have gained an organization-wide understanding of what those are, reminding folks not to pitch may not be necessary at all.
Recruiting a Customer Advisory Board
Once you’ve outlined the objectives of your board and gotten buy in internally, it’s time for the trickiest part of starting a CAB: recruiting the right parties to be on your board. One important thing to have in mind before you get to this stage is how membership will benefit your customers. You’ll ask customers — and if your customers are other businesses hopefully you’ll ask fairly high-level people at those companies — to sacrifice their time to participate in your Customer Advisory Board. They are going to most likely expect something in return (aside from having all of their travel covered if your board meets in person, so you better include THAT in your budget ask).
Beyond the potential of free airfare, lodging, and nice meals, you should be prepared to sweeten the pot with something of real value to your client. Here’s a few benefits that you could offer Customer Advisory Board members:
- Potential influence on the development of product functionalities to meet their needs and the needs of their industry
- Advanced knowledge of future plans and developments in progress (some organizations’ CAB members are like product “insiders”)
- Previews, test drives, and/or early access to new features and functionalities
- Special inclusion or representation of their specific application or use case in the QA process
- “Networking” through other members of the board as well as sharing & learning from them
The last bullet is probably the biggest win for most members. They don’t often get a chance to discuss operational issues with their peers in such an open and collaborative environment and as much as you’d like to think you’re the most knowledgeable person in the room when it comes to using your product, your power users will always know more.
“Board members are more interested in learning from one another than they are in learning from you. And they’re happy and delighted to engage in co-creating your strategy so that it meets their goals.” writes Charlie Born in Customer Empowered Advisory Boards on Chief Outsiders’ blog.
If your CAB meetings are run well enough, customers they can also view them as opportunities to free themselves from the daily grind to step back and think about the big picture.
“[Customer Advisory Board meetings] get you out of the office and away from the day-to-day issues so you can focus on big strategic questions. You also hear about specific solutions to problems that the whole industry is facing,” explains Kamal Bherwani of Inversora Agroindustrial Global in a recent article on CABs, adding later that the meetings make for some unique networking opportunities, “your fellow board members are senior executives you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”
Don’t forget to remind your customers about all the specific benefits your CAB comes with; even if you don’t have the budget to fly customers out and wine and dine them during these meetings, there’s plenty of other perks you can offer them.
Customer Advisory Board Membership isn’t a Lifetime Commitment (or a Privilege)
You want to make it clear to all potential participants that they aren’t signing up for something permanent; any customer is free to quit at any time. It’s also a good idea to make it clear to your customers that there will be some manner of planned board member refresh periodically. You can be really formal about it and actually set up terms, or you can be a little more dynamic and see how things go. You could also give customers some say in the matter as well; when you ask them to join you could offer to let them set their own term parameters (one year, two years, etc.).
On that same note, it’s wise not to put any permanent seats on the board. If you have an influential customer (likely with a large account) they may start to think it is their right to be there and have their opinions not only heard, but acted upon quickly. While these types of customers may make excellent initial members, they can start to stifle the conversation by circling back to their own unaddressed pet peeves or quash ideas that were discussed a year or two ago that new members may want to cover (and may bring some new perspective to). Note: I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to take care of these influential customers and listen to their input, but that CAB meetings may not be the best place to have these conversations.
Advisory Boards Aren’t Just for Happy Clients
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.
Mike Gospe of Kickstart Alliance writes that only inviting friendly customers to be on your board is not your best bet as CABs are most effective when they represent both happy and unhappy customers, “you need to invite those individuals from those specific companies who can best answer your questions and provide meaningful input you will find relevant and helpful. Nowhere in this directive does it say you need only invite friendly customers. Fact of the matter is you can learn a lot more from customer leaders who have a different perspective or who are not afraid to challenge you and your team.”
In fact, some folks would even go further with Gospe’s advice and say that it’s a requirement to have an unhappy camper in the group since they will spark conversations that content customers might not think to begin. Kevin Levi of Ignite Advisory group says finding the right customers rather than the happiest customers customers should be part of the CAB recruiting process:
“It is imperative you have a sound strategy for bringing the best customers onto your board. By “best” I don’t necessarily mean the customers that spend the most with you or that have brought you the most referrals. What I am talking about is which customer(s) can offer you the specific insight you are looking for in terms of your product and business direction moving forward.”
It makes sense, right? Happy customers are a great source of input; but by including unhappy customers on your board you’ll have opportunities to collect insight into why they’re unhappy (perhaps there’s a pain point that hasn’t been addressed?) and find ways to improve your product based on that insight.
Diversity is the Key to an Effective Customer Advisory Board
In addition to including both happy and unhappy customers on your board, you want to be sure that you are including a cross-section of your entire customer base. This should not only be by industry, but also by customer size and type (i.e. public vs. private), and probably by use case as well. Furthermore, if you’re B2B, the folks at Pragmatic Marketing advise against inviting competing customers to participate within the same CAB sessions or segments, because two competing companies may not be fully comfortable talking about the challenges they face in front of one another.
There’s plenty of debate about the ideal size of a Customer Advisory Board, and that size will likely vary based on how large your company is, how big your userbase is and other factors like the assortment of use cases and industries you serve. One thing to remember is that if you have a CAB of 10-15 senior executives, you’ll undoubtedly have some no-shows and scheduling conflicts whenever you hold a meeting so that board of 10 or 15 will likely end up with 8-12 actual participants. Consider these conflicts while you’re deciding how large your board will be.
As you are selecting companies, you should also keep in mind who from each company you can actually get to participate. The CEO of your top customer isn’t going to want to attend a meeting with a bunch of department managers or systems administrators, so gauge what your typical participant will be and try to create a group that will feel like they can relate to each other at some level.
Recruiting CAB Members is NOT a Product Manager’s Job
While you should definitely be involved in identifying the ideal profiles and makeup of the board, you should not necessarily be the one extending the invitation. In many cases, you’ll want highly-influential senior members of your company that already have strong relationships or gravitas with your target members, and you want top-down pressure to make it happen.
“This is not a place where grassroots support alone will drive success. The CEO, business unit head or most senior leader driving the effort must clearly establish the priority of the Advisory Board for the business and put his or her weight and commitment behind both the internal communications and the invitation to clients. Once the connection is made and the clients agree, having the formal invitation come from this leader is critical in setting the tone.” – Roanne Neuwirth, Farland Group
Finally, you should also set clear expectations both internally and with recruited members that this recruiting process will take some time. Many people don’t understand that getting a CAB together isn’t something that happens overnight, but it can take months to get one up and running with the right members. The worst thing you can do is tell people they will be on a board and then not actually have a meeting as it can hurt your credibility and can jeopardize the larger relationship between customers and your company.
Organizing CAB Meetings: The Importance of Face Time
It can be really tempting to use conference calls or web conferencing solutions as a way to get your Customer Advisory Board off the ground without spending a lot of money on travel or inconveniencing your participants. Unfortunately, this is usually a recipe for a very unfulfilling experience for all parties involved.
Think about how often you start multi-tasking or daydreaming when you’re attending a virtual meeting or how it can be a struggle to get in your two cents when someone is dominating the call. Now imagine that you’re on a call with a bunch of strangers where you’re expected to talk about how your company does things and the problems you’re having…sounds not so great, right?
“Hold in-person CAB meetings to allow members to build on one another’s thoughts and work on solutions together. This peer exchange will also create an emotional commitment, strengthening relationships and improving retention.” suggests Karen Penney of Geehan Group.
Also worth noting: once you’ve gotten your members to build a rapport, you’ll want to meet frequently enough that the relationships don’t wither away, says Josh Patrick of Stage 2 Planning Partners in an article on TheStreet:
“The more the members of your advisory board meet, the better they know each other. The better your advisory board knows each other, the more comfortable they become. Their conversation — specifically, opinions about your business — becomes more honest. Have your board meet at least twice per year. You’ll find that board members look forward to the meeting: Customers love making their suppliers of goods and services better.”
That being said, you can stash the brochures for Hawaiian resorts and Caribbean cruises away for your own vacation. There are two ideal places to create these in-person opportunities: near your headquarters so enough of your own staff can participate easily, or at an industry event where many of your customers will already be in attendance.
Do you have a customer advisory board? I’d love to hear how you got it started and any challenges you encountered along the way.