The following is Rebecca’s response to the question, “You’ve helped develop and run Customer Advisory Boards at multiple companies. What lessons have you learned about running them?”
For the past 20 years, I’ve worked with Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) at different companies. They can bring immeasurable value to both customers and the business when designed well.
Problems arise when companies don’t think programmatically about a CAB. You can’t just throw your top customers in a room and call it a Customer Advisory Board. To build a successful program, facilitators must consider each piece—planning, executing, and following up.
Whether you’re just getting started with creating a CAB or you already have one, here are some lessons I’ve learned that you may be able to apply:
1) Be clear about the goal of your CAB
The outcome of a successful CAB is a win for both the customer and business:
- Businesses benefit from gaining deep insights into how executives leverage and drive value from the product, and how they envision the future of their industry.
- Customers benefit because their feedback directly influences the product roadmap—they contribute to the direction of a solution which will serve their future needs.
One common issue occurs when a business regularly receives more value than the customers in the CAB. If companies don’t spend enough time thoughtfully planning and strategizing, or worse, spend too much time selling, members become disengaged. The purpose of a CAB is simple — gather feedback to improve the product and drive more value for the customer base. The goal of a Customer Advisory Board should align with that foundation.
Start by developing a clear charter, clearly outlining the goals of the CAB, the expectations of the attendees, and the value the customer will get from participating. Determine the length of commitment for the participants — is this a two-year responsibility, requiring a two-hour virtual meeting every quarter and a full day session every year?
2) Invite the right people
Once your overarching goals are set, it’s time to invite committed people with the right skills needed to advance to those goals. For a Customer Advisory Board to succeed, it’s crucial to be intentional about who’s involved.
From the customer base
It’s tricky to choose the right customers for an advisory board. I’ve had colleagues request to include customers for the wrong reasons — to make someone “feel special” or even to help win a deal with a prospective customer. Both miss the point.
Invite a customer:
- Who has strategic vision.
- Who is bought in and fired up about the product’s success.
- Who is willing to listen to suggestions that will impact their business.
- Who wants to engage in a long-term conversation.
- Who is committed to putting in the time and effort required.
- Who has an actual stake in the success or failure of your solution.
Choose the right number of customers to join. You need a good amount of voices, but not so many that the conversation is diluted. The exact number is debatable, but 10 customer participants is a good estimate. The room should feel intimate, engaging, and involving for those who are having the conversations and owning the follow-up.
The CAB is also an advisory board. It is not a User Group or Special Interest Group. Attendees should be executives with a long-term strategic view of what is happening in their company and industry.
From the company
Internally, the people best equipped to help with an advisory board are those who can deliver insights to customers with a clear vision of the product, best practices, and industry trends. Good fits have a high-level view of the company strategically and are able to offer guidance to stakeholders about the solution. Focus on representation from executive leadership and product management, including sales only where they would provide input based on strategic customer relationships.
Only a small handful of people from your company should attend. I would recommend no more than 1 person for every 2 customers in attendance. They should be adept at listening to feedback, gathering information, and driving a conversation. As with customer attendees, internal participants should commit to long-term engagement and drive next steps.
3) Craft a strategic agenda
Once you develop a charter and select a winning list of attendees, you can create an agenda and decide what conversations will take place. Determine the overarching structure — the date of the first meeting, continued meeting cadence, main problems to solve, questions to ask, and the delegation of responsibility for various follow-up actions.
Before the kickoff meeting, make sure to prepare everyone involved. Share the advisory board’s mission, agenda, attendees, and format. Give participants the main topics or questions that will be discussed in the first meeting. Doing this ahead of time gives members a chance to reflect on the topics so they can come to the meeting with thoughtful responses. Ask stakeholders what they want to discuss, in addition to the talking points your team developed.
4) Facilitate the time wisely
During the discussion, it's important to create space for the advisory board to converse naturally, give feedback, and expand on each other’s ideas. At the same time, a good facilitator knows when to pivot back to the main topics. A well-organized meeting with a timeline helps to stay on track and get the most from each session.
Networking is an important benefit customers derive from participating in a CAB. Traditionally, companies have rewarded participants with a dinner or an in-person activity. Over the past year, the shift to virtual CABs has been more successful than some would have anticipated. The reduced amount of time or travel required guarantees better participation from all attendees. As the host company, you should consider ways to facilitate some informal conversation in addition to the more organized topics.
5) Close the loop: show advisory board members how their feedback is being implemented
No one joins a Customer Advisory Board so their ideas can be tossed into the void. A company needs to deliver and act on the feedback they receive. Above all, customers want to know their voices are heard by people who can actually make decisions. Seriously consider their suggestions to improve the solutions, work with them to understand their requests, and update them on your plans.
The best Customer Advisory Boards are built thoughtfully, deployed strategically, and focus on customer-centricity. Engagement happens when people are given a platform to share their thoughts, a community that listens, and a way to represent their needs in a solution that matters to them.
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