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There was a time, not long ago, when companies could generate new business by simply listening to and following the advice of their investors and business advisers. To remain successful today, however, companies must collaborate directly with their most important stakeholders—paying customers.

In fact, by launching a "Customer Advisory Council" program, organizations can identify and leverage new business opportunities to better serve customers—before their competition does.

Listening to Customers

A customer advisory council is a representative group of customers who agree to share their buying and usage experiences as well as evaluate new sources of value. Unlike traditional focus group research, a company gathers ongoing feedback from this larger group of customers. And since these participants are ready to contribute, the company spends less time and money capturing customer input and valuable insight.

The first step toward creating a customer advisory council is to establish goals for the program. One company may elect to have program participants guide product planning. Another may use participants to fine-tune marketing messages to ensure that they resonate.

By defining the program goals at the onset, companies know what they are trying to learn and how they will measure the impact of their actions based on this insight.

After determining their customer advisory council program goals, companies identify the customers needed to provide the required insight. A company that decides to have participants share feedback on their products will recruit product users. Whereas a company that chooses to have customers react to their marketing messages will invite product buyers to join the program.

In addition to the customer's role, companies use other criteria to select program members. Companies that sell to businesses, for example, may choose their participants by company type, sales volume, employee size, purchasing history and revenue potential.

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Sherri Dorfman is the CEO of Stepping Stone Partners (www.stepping-stone.net).