to gain strategic insight through Customer Advisory Boards
How well do you know the business issues driving your customer's
decision process? Without this bit of strategic insight, your company's
vision may fail to take root or a well-intended product may turn
out to be irrelevant or difficult to sell.
You can greatly improve your chances of succeeding in today's marketplace
if you focus your efforts on addressing the business issues that
face your key customers. Consequently, it is more important than
ever that you know "the voice of your customer" and that
you use this knowledge to create competitive solutions that deliver
real business value. A well-run Customer Advisory Board (CAB) can
be a highly effective tool to gain feedback on strategic priorities
and company direction while solidifying relationships with top customers.
(This same approach works equally well when addressing partners
and suppliers, not just customers.)
What is a Customer Advisory Board?
A CAB is a business-level focus group - a sounding board for your
CEO and executive team to test ideas and preview business plans
with leaders from your most strategic customers. This representative
group of customers (ideally 8 - 12) meets two to three times during
the year to offer advice on your products and company direction.
These facilitated meetings are a great way to validate that your
company vision and product direction is in sync with your customers'
technology and business plans.
Getting the best results from your CAB
The CAB is an important part of any marketing plan and should be
considered a must-have event for any business. Properly run CABs
are different from every other type of customer event. Here are
a few tips on how to make yours successful.
1) Invite only your most strategic customers to participate
An advisory board is made up of your best customers - representatives
of the 20% who provide you with 80% of your revenue. By having a
board comprised of the "20%" you not only find out how
to get more customers like them but also how to keep them coming
back. The main reason many boards fail is because they are made
up of all types of customers, not just the 20% who make up the core
of the business. In this improper case, the feedback is random and
difficult to rationalize. Also, avoid inviting competing customers
within the same market segment, as competitors will be leery of
discussing their challenges in front of one another.
2) Don't treat the CAB as a sales event
Often times, sales management will want to treat the CAB as an
extended sales event. Do not let this happen. There are other formats
and events for sales reps to be directly involved with their customers,
demo products, and negotiate deals. The CAB is a business-level
focus group designed to discuss, debate, and provide honest and
direct insight and feedback on industry trends, business drivers,
customer issues, and market opportunities that face your company.
Treating the CAB as a thinly veiled sales event to a captive audience
will be viewed as an unwelcome use of their time. They will likely
not return to the next CAB meeting.
3) Set the right agenda
Begin with the end in mind: what vital information do you want
to receive during the CAB? Be focused. Many times, companies try
to force too much information into the CAB meeting, turning it into
a five or six hour lecture from product managers with little time
for discussions with customers. Instead, the best CAB sessions are
made up of 80% facilitated discussion between the customers, with
the executive team politely listening.
4) Invest in a facilitator
Customers often complain that CAB sessions hosted by a company
executive are highly biased as they overtly drive the customers
to a seemingly apparent conclusion. Using a facilitator can help
create an unbiased atmosphere and a safe environment for customers
to voice their views and experiences.
5) Be prepared to act on the information you collect
Although the CAB is an input and feedback session, not a decision-making
body, customers will be eager to know what actions you will take
based on the discussion. It is therefore imperative those executives
set an agenda that is sincere and that they are willing to entertain
counter points of view.
The basic research rule applies: Don't research something that you're
not willing to change.
Planning your CAB
It's never too early to start planning. Once you've set the strategy
for using CABs as part of your overall marketing strategy, use your
CEO and executive team to make the initial invitation to your best
customers. Aim high, with expectations of getting senior decision
makers to participate.
CABs are an important element of your overall business and marketing
plan, providing invaluable insight into your customers and what
makes them tick. And, actually asking them for this information
builds loyalty and commitment from the board members. You now have
a team of dedicated customers dealing with you regularly, keeping
an eye on your business, and helping you keep an eye on your competitors.
Mike Gospe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a professional facilitator specializing in Customer Advisory
Boards. Mike has been leading KickStart Alliance's CAB
practice for more than a decade, and he has written a number
of articles on CAB best practices which you can find on his blog: