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Taking the Fear Out of Customer Advisory Programs

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Karen shook her head and looked away while listening to Mike, her marketing vice-president, discuss the idea of a customer advisory council. A moment later she looked around the table at her peers in the marketing department and decided to voice her concern: "What are we going to do if our customers have ideas that we cannot pursue?"

Mike dropped his hand from his chin onto the conference table, leaned forward, and addressed his entire team: "Look, we need to put a customer advisory program in place because I see more risk in leaving our customers out of the planning process altogether. If we do not invest in the right products this year, we will fail to meet our marketing and sales goals."

As head of marketing, Mike obviously understands the benefits of having customers collaborating in the product planning process, but he realizes that his team needs to work through Karen's concerns and other issues that will surface along the way. Mike quickly sets up the next meeting with his team to address the customer advisory council program details.

Once back in his office, Mike sits at his computer and thinks about his department meeting. He knows that executives at his best customers will be recruited for this advisory program and that their time to participate in the two-day event is extremely valuable. He also has considered the time that his team will need to effectively plan, run, and follow up on this important event. With the proper planning, Mike can envision that this customer advisory council event will be wildly successful for his company and his customers'.

Striving to create a more customer-centric organization, Mike is looking to take a disciplined approach to developing the customer advisory program plan, with clearly defined processes, roles, and responsibilities and success measurements. Mike also wants this program to run throughout the year, with orchestrated activities that engage his customers on an ongoing basis.

Although this is the first time his team has been tasked with figuring out this important customer initiative, their concerns are common and can be addressed by a customer advisory expert.

Top Fears From First Timers

Fear # 1: What are we going to do if our customers have ideas that we cannot pursue?

Imagine what would happen if your management decided to act on all of the directions suggested by your best customers. Your company would lose not only focus but also momentum in the marketplace.

Some of your customers' ideas may be great but don't fit with your strategic direction or company priorities. Other ideas may need further exploration before they can be evaluated. Still others may require more resources to get off the ground than are available internally.

What is the best way to handle these ideas with this important audience?

To capture, evaluate, prioritize and respond to the dozens of ideas from its customer advisory council customers, one large software company created a procedure: "We benefit from our customer's ideas, but it is all about expectations. We made it clear to our customers when they joined our advisory program that we would seriously consider ideas that are aligned with our company strategy and would let them know which ideas we are going to further explore as well as implement," explains the customer intimacy manager.

"We continuously communicate our process on these selected initiatives and this encourages them to continue to contribute to our company success."

Fear # 2: What if our customers make negative comments about our company in front of other customers?

The discussion can quickly turn into a feeding frenzy as one customer after another speaks about negative experiences. Can your company benefit from hearing about these problem situations?

"The answer is absolutely yes," responds the marketing director at a midsize Internet services company. "We needed to hear from our customers about their impressions of working with our company across our different touch points (sales, customer services, support). We hired an outside moderator who has worked with our internal team throughout our planning process to determine the best questions to gain honest feedback and best way to respond to negative comments. During our council event, when asking our customers for feedback, our moderator asked each customer to put on our company hat and describe how they would improve the situation. Instead of having customers focused on the problem, we had them problem solving with us to enhance our business servicing and support for them."

Fear # 3: How do we keep our program going throughout the year?

What if your executive customer advisory board (CAB) members took two days out of their busy schedule to attend your previous CAB event. They contributed ideas on your company's product plan, gave feedback on your proposed partnerships, and evaluated your mockup marketing materials.

But other than the "thanks for coming" email, your customers have not heard from you for three months since the event. Now you send them an invitation for an upcoming CAB event, and they have not responded. Would you blame them for being less than interested in joining you again?

"Why should they invest their time if their last contributions were never really acknowledged," explains the CMO of a growing software firm. "I learned about the importance of creating a customer advisory council program plan at my last technology company. Unfortunately, some businesses view these councils as a series of events but they are shortsighted about the value of building relationships with the Council members. We have seen our members motivated to contribute because of an ongoing stream of communications, which keeps them connected and informed throughout the year. These communications are outlined in our customer advisory council program plan."

Planning for Program Success

A word of caution before setting out: It is essential to commit to an extensive program planning process, incorporating check points with your team at each step of the way. You want to ensure that you are all moving in a coordinated direction and are measuring success from the eyes of all stakeholders making the journey.

Although planning and running customer advisory programs may seem daunting at first, you can benefit by charting your company's direction and approach with an experienced guide as project leader to help define the best path to reach your company's customer advisory program goals.

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Sherri Dorfman is the CEO of Stepping Stone Partners (

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