A customer advisory board 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. I mean, what’s not to like about getting free advice from paying customers? Or help validating ideas? Or suggestions about new product opportunities?  But the truth is, despite the benefits they can provide, customer advisory boards can be tricky to get up and running. Obviously, starting an effective customer advisory board or product advisory council takes more than cramming a few VIPs into a hotel conference room for a couple days and jotting down the insightful nuggets they offer up, but what does it actually take to be successful?

Let’s dig into what it takes to create a customer advisory board that helps you, helps your product, and helps the customers who join.

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

A customer advisory board, also called a product advisory counsel, is a hand-picked collection of customers who gather regularly to lend their insights to the product development process for a particular company or product. CAB meetings are arranged and facilitated by the company, who typically also covers any expenses incurred to attend.

While assembled, customer advisory board members are encouraged to provide open and honest feedback on the product, articulate their desires for enhancements and improvements, and discuss how the product is being used within their organization. As this is a group forum versus a one-on-one customer interview, there is also a dialog between the various members about the product, its usage, and relevant industry trends.

Customer advisory board members may also be tapped to serve as alpha or beta testers of products, as well as being asked to offer feedback on potential changes or additions to the product. Thanks to the depth and strength of the relationship, both the product company and their clients are able to speak freely about the product in a no-pressure, no-sales situation.

Benefits of Customer Advisory Boards

Customer advisory boards have the potential to be incredibly valuable for an organization. You get the undivided attention of key customers and get to pick their brain on a regular basis. And, they’re unleashed from having to pull their punches, as they don’t have to wonder if you’re secretly trying to upsell them on something.

Getting the unvarnished truth from customers

If managed well and the participants buy into the premise, they’re going to be straight shooters during your sessions. Feedback will no longer be filtered through the sales team (who only care about getting more business) or customer support (who will inevitably emphasize the problems, since that’s why they’re being contacted).

Board members should lay it all out there, warts and all. You’ll get some eye-opening looks into how your product is really being used (versus how you think/wish it was). They’ll point out its shortcomings and vent their frustrations. They’ll also praise its benefits and reveal unexpected positives.

Understanding what makes customers tick

No matter how great our personas may be and how many customer surveys we conduct, there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth. The more intimate and open setting of a customer advisory board can provide a fresh look at customers’ true motivations.

And by including multiple customers, you’ll see where there’s overlap between companies and industries and where sharp contrasts lie. Their rationale for both purchasing and continuing to use the product will be revealed, providing a better sense of what’s really important to actual paying customers.

Having a sounding board for ideas

While getting internal stakeholders to agree that a new idea is worth pursuing, there’s nothing as validating as getting actual customers to chime in. Before investing a lot of time and energy in researching, specifying, building, releasing, and marketing a new product or feature, you can run it by a customer advisory board and see if it’s got legs.

If they agree it’s worthwhile to invest in developing the idea, they can also provide some valuable pointers on which direction to take it in and potential obstacles to avoid. This insider’s perspective can smooth the entire process and give the team confidence that they’re building the right thing.

While a customer advisory board shouldn’t replace focus groups, they’re a valuable piece of the Voice of the Customer puzzle.

Perfecting the sales pitch

Although the company must have had some success already to have enough customers to fill out a customer advisory board, there’s always room for improvement in the sales process. These interactions will help you tighten up existing messaging and uncover additional angles to pursue based on what’s being shared.

Members can also help out with the “overcoming obstacles” portion of the sales process. How do you win over the decision makers? What turns a trial into a purchase? What onboarding gaps should be filled? There’s a treasure trove of insight that can be gleaned from a customer advisory council.

Building a community of fervent fans

Chances are, most of the CAB membership will already be rooting your company and product to succeed. But, by participating in honing the strategy and direction of the product, they will now be more invested than ever in the product’s future.

They can become a go-to for references, case studies, and testimonials that add credibility and recommend the product to their peers and partners.

How to Start a Customer Advisory Board

Now that you know what a customer advisory board is and some of the great things they have to offer, it’s time to get down to business. While creating a council of trusted product advisors isn’t particularly difficult, the tone and expectations set at the outset will have long-ranging consequences on its efficacy and value to both your company and the customers who participate.

Define Customer Advisory Board Objectives

There’s a lot of different directions a customer advisory board could go in. So, it’s a best practice to ensure everyone agrees upon the purpose and scope of the endeavor before you begin. You’ll have a limited amount of time with the members of your CAB, so you want to be sure it’s as efficient and productive as possible. Having predefined guard rails in place can help with this.

Here are some potential objectives around which to focus your advisory board:

  • Understanding market trends—What are members seeing and experiencing in the market? How do these impact what they need from the product? Hearing from peers about their experiences is a valuable bonus for members.
  • Validating product direction—Are the upcoming features and areas of emphasis aligned with what customers actually need and care about? This ensures customers are getting things they actually want and that your company isn’t investing in initiatives that don’t provide real value to customers.
  • Unpacking the needs of specific verticals—Not all customers are created equal, so one objective could be understanding what companies of different sizes or in various industries really need from the product.
  • Identifying new opportunities—Are there new products or capabilities that could be developed? Are there new customer segments to pursue? The board can help shape go-forward strategy for growth and expansion.

Another tactic some customer advisory boards pursue is forming an official customer advisory charter. This charter lays out exactly what the purpose of the organization is, who can be included, what are the expectations of membership, and specifics about the logistics of how the board operates.

For example, the customer advisory board for Oracle’s Business Intelligence tools has a charter defining the board’s mission, scope, and objectives as well as how long members can serve and what the benefits are for members.

How to Recruit a Customer Advisory Board

Once you’ve set objectives for your advisory council, you can consider who can best help contribute to those objectives as a member of the board. A customer advisory board is an invitation-only affair. Participants shall be chosen for what they bring to the table. You want variety, you want honesty, and you want expertise.

Just like a cocktail hour or dinner party, you want the perfect mix of individuals to addent, and you want to foster chemistry that creates the right mood. Of course, in this case you want to encourage folks to openly talk shop and pontificate on the future of your industry instead of gossiping about celebrities or arguing about sports.

What’s the ideal customer advisory board size?

“The more the merrier” doesn’t apply to customer advisory boards. If they’re too big then each participant won’t get enough airtime to make it worth their while, plus the conversation could easily fracture into multiple spinouts.

On the other hand, if it’s too small, it might not feel like a proper forum, not to mention the fact that only having a few opinions might not properly represent the market as a whole. One dozen participants is a solid target that brings in enough diversity without becoming unwieldy.

Who gets the invite?

Membership should be representative of the customer base (or the ideal customer base if you’re still getting started). Members should hail from companies working in your target industries with as much variety as possible (company size, geography, etc.).

One rule of thumb is that the 80-20 rule should apply: You want people from the 20% of your customers that make up 80% of your revenue. Depending on your actual customer base and revenue model, that may not be possible, but it’s definitely a good idea to include your largest customers.

Another factor to consider is which individuals from each company should be invited. You definitely want outspoken, opinionated people (otherwise, what’s the point), but you should also consider their role and their level of actual interaction with the product. An executive may make the purchase decision, but are they the ones actually using it on a daily basis?

Some companies form customer advisory boards with two separate tracks: one for executives and one for practitioners. The former can talk about industry trends while the latter can get into the nuts and bolts of usage.

Another thing to consider is how static you want your membership to be. Some boards specifically rotate members every 12-18 months to give airtime to new voices and fresh perspectives.

Making the ask

While some customers may be eager to serve on a customer advisory board, others may take a little more convincing. What’s in it for them?

Here are a few benefits of CAB membership worth mentioning to possible members:

  • A forum to voice concerns, make recommendations and influence the direction of a product they rely on.
  • A chance to network with peers, build connections, and discuss topical issues.
  • Sharing of best practices and additional uses for the product.
  • Early access to new features and functionality.
  • Access to your company’s executives.

All that plus some free meals along with the potential for some swanky accommodations in attractive locations and interesting extracurricular activities (if you’ve got the budget for it).

Don’t oversell it too much. Make sure they understand what kind of commitment you’re looking for. Set expectations early on:

  • Frequency and length of meetings
  • Additional conference calls or surveys
  • Required travel
  • Duration of service on the board

They should know what they’re getting into, and you should hold up your end of the deal and follow through on those expectations.

How to Conduct an Effective Customer Advisory Meeting

Customer advisory board meetings don’t just happen, they take a lot of preparation. The participants are stepping away from their regular demanding jobs to give you a day or two of their lives multiple times per year. You don’t want to take that sacrifice for granted or squander their commitment with a poorly planned affair.

Setting an agenda for your customer advisory meeting

The 80/20 rule once again applies here, but in this scenario it means your company should only do about 20% of the talking and spend the rest of the time listening. Some companies will actually hire a professional facilitator to handle the moderation of the event, further ensuring that you won’t do all the talking and there won’t be any awkward pauses.

Kick things off with an overview of the day and then provide a brief update on your company and the product. This is the only time PowerPoint is permitted to make an appearance, and even then only if you’ve got some really compelling charts to show off.

It’s also a good idea to make room for a round of formal introductions so everyone knows who’s who. If the crowd seems hip to it you can work in an icebreaker as well, but nothing too time consuming.

Once those formalities are taken care of, it’s time to spark some conversations. You want things to be free-flowing and naturalistic, but you’ll likely need to prompt the dialogue with some specific topics.

Potential subjects to discuss include:

  • Industry trends
  • Product usage
  • Feature ideas
  • Roadmaps
  • User research

Don’t be afraid to ask your members beforehand what they’d like to see on the agenda. They’ll probably have some good ideas that will invigorate the other attendees.

Sometimes companies will invite a guest speaker to address the customer advisory board. They could be an industry expert or analyst who’s there to share their perspective or recent research. This is both an added-value bonus for attendees and a potential conversation starter.

Another tactic for encouraging collaboration is to give members small group exercises where they can work together on something. Just provide clear instructions and timelines so it doesn’t take up too much of the agenda.

Assigning homework

One way to optimize the time you have with participants is to ask them to a little homework in advance. Your advisory board prep-work could entail having members complete a survey or answer some questions about how they’re using the product or what they’re experiencing in their respective industries.

With this data in hand, you won’t have to ask these questions and you can use the results as a conversation starter. For example, “75% of you don’t use the import capabilities of the product. Why not? And for the 25% who do, what benefits are you seeing from that feature?”

From there you can sit back and let them discuss amongst themselves, only intervening to ask for clarifications or keep the conversation flowing.

Building in time for socializing and networking

Humans are social creatures, so expecting everyone to show up at 8am and start talking business isn’t realistic. Give attendees ample opportunities to chat.

Many meetings feature a dinner or reception the evening before so everyone can get to know each other and get the pleasantries out of the way. You can also offer some pre-meeting breakfast time when people can chat a bit and warm things up.

Don’t try and force any conversations during this time, although feel free to mingle and make small talk to build your report with your customers.

That’s a wrap

Throughout the meeting you should have been taking notes. Recapping what was discussed, mentioning the takeaways and action items, and noting what subjects might be worthy candidates for discussion next time around puts a nice button on things.

If you know when and where the next session will occur, now’s a great time to share that so people get it into their calendars while they’re still buzzing over the success of this event.

What to do after a Customer Advisory Board Meeting

When everyone’s off to the airport, it’s time for the internal team to huddle up for a post-mortem. Everyone should discuss things while it’s still fresh to make sure all the juicy insights and nuggets of wisdom were captured.

Action items should be assigned internal owners to make sure follow-up happens sooner rather than later. The meeting itself can be reviewed by those there to identify what could be improved. And each participant can be evaluated to see whether they’re a good match going forward.

For attendees, they’ll want to see regular updates about the topics that were discussed. More than anything else, they want evidence that you were listening and took their suggestions to heart. Did the roadmap change? Was strategy adjusted? Did you invest in a new area? It’s critical that you close the loop with your CAB.

A follow-up satisfaction survey is also a nice way to get feedback on what they thought of the experience. Use the results to make the next meeting even better.

The TL;DR: Best Practices for Starting a CAB

Customer Advisory Boards enable product teams to unlock the insights of their key customers and broaden the pool of great minds contributing to the success of the product. But all those benefits require some serious effort.

Companies must be committed to preparing for and arranging the meetings, conducting them professionally, following up afterward, and following through on the overall customer advisory program. But, that work should pay off in deeper insight into the customer base, validation of product plans and strategy, and stronger relationships.