On a bumpy car ride in the hot desert sun on his way to observe and make recommended improvements to a client's customer advisory board (CAB) program, our founder, Eyal Danon, knew he was in trouble.
The faces of the executive CAB members in the truck with him also expressed concern when they finally reached the destination of their meeting "social activity": a remote gun range. There, the participants were led to tables filled with a wide selection of high-powered weapons for them to shoot at targets at will—with no instruction provided or safety precautions taken. Of course, a full, open bar was at the ready nearby should participants get thirsty amid the "fun."
A high-ranking executive member of the board turned to Eyal and accurately summarized the scene for himself and rest of the participants: "I think I'm in Hell."
Customer Advisory Board Basics
For the uninitiated, here's a brief description of customer advisory boards (also known as a customer advisory councils): CABs are forums for reviewing industry trends, addressing mutual challenges or opportunities, and offering unvarnished insights and guidance.
For host companies, these boards are ideal for validating corporate strategies, gathering input on solution development, and deepening relationships with key customers. For participating customers, there is just as much (if not more) to be gained in turn, such as the ability to influence their vendors' product road maps, acquire best-practices from peers, and help solve shared business challenges.
When done right, CABs can provide an abundance of valuable insight to the host organization, as well as a proven return on investment. In fact, companies that have active and successful CABs have a 9% increase in new business among advisory members after a year of participation compared with non-advisory board customers, studies show.
On the other hand, poorly run, poorly funded, or poorly resourced programs can do more harm to your brand than good. Mistakes made in front of your best customers can have a backfire effect: You can lose support, confidence in your business, and revenue.
How to Avoid CAB Problems
Here are six tips for ensuring your customer advisory board program doesn't backfire on you and your company.
1. Allow enough planning time
Sometimes companies decide to initiate a CAB program, and they expect the initial meeting to take place within a month or two of their decision. But establishing a solid CAB program and preparing for the initial face-to-face meeting requires taking the proper steps.
Those steps include designing the CAB and creating a charter, defining membership criteria and recruitment, developing the agenda and meeting materials, preparing for the face-to-face meeting, and much more.
Properly completing these steps should take at least six months. Accelerating these processes may force companies to skip crucial steps, creating a rushed feeling and an inferior overall program.
2. Engage members for meeting content
Often, companies will create a CAB meeting agenda that they think will interest members, without actually asking their members or soliciting input from other key internal stakeholders. We instead advocate this process, which has consistently proven to work:
- Engage internal subject-matter experts to create a discussion guide of potential top-of-mind topics.
- That discussion guide is then reviewed by CAB members through individual interviews, typically conducted over the phone.
- Next, an executive summary report of these interviews is created to drive the meeting agenda and content, and ensure the meeting is member-driven.
- Session leaders should also rely on this input when creating their meeting content, which should be designed to address member—not company—concerns and desires.
3. Ensure your program is interactive
Too many companies treat CAB meetings as opportunities to present already-finalized corporate presentations, or—worse—treat them as product demo or sales opportunities.
One of the primary reasons CABs fail is that host companies put their company agenda before the desires of the CAB members. After all, successful advisory programs are not one-way, vendor-to-participant conversations. Members are there to be engaged, to provide real input to the company, and to learn from each other.
We recommend an 80/20 approach: Members talk 80% of the time, host companies talk only 20%.
4. Bring in an expert facilitator
We've seen many companies rely on inexperienced internal folks to facilitate CAB meetings. Those people mean well, but they often simply don't manage the meeting effectively: They allow the conversation to be vendor-focused, they can't control internal executive demands or actions, and they disappoint CAB members. (Would you want to interrupt your CEO when he's speaking in front of customers? Talk about a potentially career-limiting decision!)
Experienced, third-party CAB facilitation ensures the meeting will be conducted properly for maximum member engagement and overall meeting success. In addition, expert facilitators can introduce innovative games that make gathering insight more productive and stimulating for everyone involved.
5. Hold a fun (and safe) social event
To further develop interaction, CABs should offer a fun social activity away from the meeting hotel at a location unique to the meeting city.
The best activities enable deeper communication and relationship-building. Activities that are too "over the top" or physically demanding, or those that cater to the interests of a minority of the members, are not recommended (that includes gun ranges!).
And although CAB social activities are subjective and can vary depending on the host company's corporate culture, a quiet dinner in a private room can suffice for hosting stimulating discussions.
6. Turn meeting insights into action
CAB members provide an abundance of valuable input and guidance to the host company. It's critical that their feedback be accurately captured and translated into material action items. In turn, those actions should be communicated back to the members; they also need to see proof of progress on those action items delivered in subsequent meetings.
Members will be disappointed if they don't recognize that their valuable input and time invested leads to real action by—or changes within—host companies.
* * *
Getting the fundamentals right will ensure your CAB program is on the path to success.
Remember, the goal is not to convince customers that your company is amazing; instead it's to get into their minds to derive insights and offer them reciprocal value for their participation.
Make participating customers your brain trust so that you can understand how best to serve them—and, by extension, how to serve your larger customer base.
Done correctly and run well, a customer advisory council can provide your organization with material guidance that can put your company on a better, more targeted and profitable track for years to come. But companies need to invest the time, resources, and budget to manage a customer advisory program the right way—else they should not establish one at all.