Most B2B executives acknowledge the importance of engaging with customers. After all, there is much to gain by asking your best customers their feedback to your products and services, their suggestions for additional, unfulfilled needs, their perspectives on their industry changes, and how you might benefit.
But while B2B customers are often eager to implement a customer engagement initiative, through our experience in over 300 successful customer advisory board (CAB) consulting engagements, we have learned that some companies are more ready than others when it comes to really getting started. And there is downside risk here – companies that do a marginal (or worse) job in establishing or managing their CAB program can do more harm than good.
For those who don’t know, customer advisory boards are exclusive panels consisting of executives, decision makers and influencers within your best, often largest accounts. This panel meets a few times a year to address mutual challenges, share potential solutions and discuss how industry trends are impacting operations. This is not a forum for providing sales pitches or product demos, but instead an opportunity for the host company to gather honest feedback, guidance and advice. And there must be just as much (if not more) benefits for the CAB members themselves to participate.
5 Ways to Know You’re Ready to Implement a Customer Advisory Board
- You Know What You Want to Learn: Many companies who initiate CAB programs have a specific business challenge they want to address. They may be expanding their product line into new directions, entering new markets, or looking for additional companies to partner with or even acquire. Those companies who have a specific outcome in mind for their CAB program – and consensus on this from their executive management team – stand the best chance of running a successful initiative, and achieving optimal value from it. Those who are vague on their reasons behind starting a program are prone to be disappointed with the results – and underwhelm their participating members.
- You’re Prepared for (Brutal) Honesty: We sometimes see companies that are embarrassed to “open the kimono” to address what they know – and don’t know – in front of their customers. CABs present the ideal opportunity to learn from myriad firms and industries and uncover previously unknown insight and opportunities. But this takes honesty in knowing (or willing to learn) what you don’t know, and asking for advice from these trusted advisors who have your best interests at heart. Companies who believe they need to convey having all the answers and being on top of everything in front of their customers do not make the best CAB host candidates.
- Your Management Team is Committed to Supporting: CAB programs are company-wide initiatives that will touch a range of departments: sales, support, service, product development, marketing, and perhaps others (depending on your business). As such, your entire executive management team should be committed to not only supporting a CAB program, but also willing to participate, pledge resources and attend the meetings themselves. Companies should not “dip their toe” in the CAB waters or test it as a “marketing experiment” – they need to jump in with full commitment, or not do a CAB program at all.
- You’re Committed to Taking Action: CABs will almost certainly uncover a range of insightful market intelligence and helpful strategic guidance from your best customers. This is information that must not go “in one ear and out the other;” companies must be prepared to collect, evaluate, prioritize and commit to member-provided guidance and action items. Just as importantly, host companies should communicate back to members what it has heard, the actions it will take based on this input, and a timeline of when actions will be completed. CAB members who see this will achieve the most satisfaction from their participation in the program. Those companies who do not take action on suggested input will see its members lose interest.
- You’ve Established the Time, Resources and Budget to Do It Right: Well-run CAB programs need time to initiate and plan, such as establishing the CAB charter, recruiting members and creating a member-driven meeting agenda. These stages cannot be rushed; we recommend a full six months to conduct the proper steps before ever holding a meeting. The best CABs continue to develop and add value over time; in fact, some of our clients have been running a CAB for 10 years. We recommend at least a 2-year commitment. The proper personnel must also be in place; the executive sponsor, steering committee and hands-on CAB management team. This is not an assignment to be thrown in the lap of a junior, inexperienced marketing person with the hope that she can learn as she goes and drive things single-handedly. Finally, a proper budget must be established to present a professional program in front of your best customers, including quality meeting materials, hotel meeting space, and tasteful meals and social events. Skimping, cutting corners or rushing things will only create an inferior program.
Starting a customer advisory program takes an honest self-assessment and commitment in order to be successful, achieve the desired results and, most importantly, delight your customers. Companies who believe they are ready should take the proper steps to establish and manage a world-class CAB program.
Aligning Your Customer Advisory Board Management Team
You’ve determined that your company is ready and committed to establish a robust customer advisory board (CAB) program (also known as customer advisory council or client advisory panel)—Congratulations! The next step is to create and align your CAB management team.
After all, a robust CAB program is a company-wide effort that requires executive commitment and oversight, and entails participation from myriad department representatives. Companies who, on the other hand, merely assign CAB management to a sole, perhaps junior marketing person, expecting her to “figure it out” on her own will only be disappointed with the results – and risk alienating their best customers.
Here are the key roles needed to create a successful CAB program:
- Executive sponsor: This person is a member of the executive management committee who will hold overall responsibility for the success of your customer advisory board program. This executive should be empowered to procure the necessary resources and budget, the participation of other departments, report the program’s status to the CEO and executive team, and discuss overcoming any roadblocks. This executive will also serve as the external “face” of the program to customer members, and be expected to attend and lead all meetings.
- Steering committee: The CAB steering committee consists of functional leads from myriad departments (e.g. sales, product management, marketing, customer service, etc.) who are often primary meeting content owners and are, more importantly, tasked with driving forward resulting member recommendations. The steering committee should meet regularly (perhaps monthly) to ensure tasks are on-track for upcoming meetings, oversee meeting agenda and content creation, and execute deliverables.
- Subject matter experts: These are typically representatives from steering committee departments who will be responsible for creating and potentially presenting content at the CAB meetings. Specific product managers or sales engineers are usual experts who might have the in-depth knowledge needed to address certain product features, questions or use cases. Other subject matter experts might include those focused on particular business verticals or other executives with expertise on a particular topic (e.g. information security or fraud) of interest to CAB members. These experts may also have additional insight into how a company might best implement recommended actions from the board.
- Program manager: This is the day-to-day operations manager of the CAB program, who establishes and manages regular CAB meetings, ensures tasks are completed on time, and oversees all meeting logistics. The program manager also reports progress, status and any issues to the CAB steering committee and executive sponsor, and sends all communication to CAB members and serves as their primary contact.
- Program specialists: CAB specialists are those who provide their unique skills in support of the overall program. Such specialists can include your events manager, who is tasked with procuring hotel meeting locations and participant room reservations, event travel, food and beverages, meeting materials, and social event A graphic designer can create and print all meeting materials and signage to ensure a successful meeting. Finally, a meeting scribe should be assigned to capture important meeting discussions, member ideas and desires, and potential outcomes and action items the host company can initiate. This person should be tasked with creating a report from the meeting, summarizing the above.
- Meeting facilitator: A trained, skilled and experienced meeting facilitator will ensure your meeting goes smoothly, all members are heard and clarify and summarize ideas that potentially impact on the host company. In addition, the facilitator ensures the meeting stays on track and on time, and can address any last-minute issues that can arise from the host company or customers themselves, such as unexpected attendees or requests, or any problem participants. As such a role requires tact, professionalism and objectivity, we recommend that companies hire third party experts to facilitate their CAB meetings over well-meaning but inexperienced internal people, who will likely be unable to course correct high-level host company executives.
- Third-party CAB consultant: As customer advisory boards are important, customer-facing initiatives, they are not the program to manage by trial and error or learn as you go. Mistakes made here can have long-term negative effects on your customers, and your very business itself. As such, many companies hire outside consultants who are skilled and experienced with managing robust, successful CAB programs for Fortune 500 companies (e.g. Amazon Web Services, HP, Verizon, Intel, Xerox, etc.) to run their own CAB program. The investment is a solid one to ensure CAB program success, and, most importantly, the very best experience for your treasured, best clients. Such outside consultants can also serve as skilled meeting facilitators and meeting scribes.
Robust CAB programs require the effort of a well-coordinated team; each with specific roles and responsibilities and management oversight. When the team is place and dedicated to a prosperous program, your board will be on its way to success – and your customers delighted with their participation.
Recruiting for Your Customer Advisory Board
Once you’ve created a customer advisory board program charter and aligned your internal team, you’ll soon turn your attention to recruiting customer members.
Recruiting is a topic that is often challenging for companies of all sizes, and many trip up here, are unable to drum up support for their program, or, offend some internal folks or even customers in the process. Yet after having completed over 200 successful advisory council program engagements, we’ve learned what it takes to not only successfully recruit customers to advisory council programs, but also how to get them eager to participate and even build a waiting list.
Here are five proven tips for recruiting customers to your client advisory council program:
- Put members first: Among the top reasons companies fail to attract customers to their engagement program is that their initiative is just too self-focused. Client advisory councils (CACs) are definitely not the forum for canned company presentations, sales pitches or product demos. Instead, client advisory councils must be established to address real shared strategic challenges faced by all the members, with the inherent value of the gathering provided to customers first, and the host company second. For example, if your company offers IT security software, your CAC should include updates on the latest security breaches, share best practices for companies to protect themselves and review myriad tools and technologies available to help do so – and this must be communicated as part of the recruiting process.
- Target ideal candidates: Your client advisory council charter should drive the right members of your program. Not only the shared business challenge your initiative is addressing, but the desired level of professional as well: CIOs? Security executives? Product managers? Once these criteria are determined and agreed to, a list of nominations can be assembled that targets the best companies (not necessarily merely your largest accounts), ideal levels or job titles (which can vary from different companies), and the best people themselves. In addition to matching job levels to your strategic program, you’ll want to identify professionals who are capable speakers (e.g. who speak at events or write blogs) and are open to sharing their ideas and challenges. Avoid potential members who are shy, secretive or not simply exposed to higher level corporate strategies.
- Call for nominations: Once you’ve nailed down your ideal member selection criteria, you can put out a call for advisory council nominations, which are often submitted by sales folks, account managers, service teams or anyone who has direct relationships with your customers. You’ll want to assemble a list of at least 40 nominations to consider, and then determine the initial 20 or so “A-list” candidates to invite to your advisory council program. If identified properly and the program benefits communicated clearly, you’ll likely receive a high number of acceptances, perhaps 16 or 17, with a goal to get a dozen of them regularly attending your in-person meetings.
- Get personal: When it comes to communicating the value of your client advisory council to your target members, we recommend taking an “old school” approach: hand deliver or FedEx a glossy, printed charter and formal invitation letter – signed by the CAC executive sponsor – to your target member. If an in-person meeting is not possible, a direct phone call from the relationship manager should be made after the target has received the invitation materials to discuss the council program and answer any questions. We do not recommend CAC invitations come via email from a marketing / events person – such a method communicates lower value and will almost certainly receive more declines.
- Recruit on an on-going basis: Just because your CAC program is launched and underway doesn’t mean membership is closed forever. Quite the contrary, companies should continually be on the lookout for new CAC candidates, as members can change jobs or companies, get acquired or get too overwhelmed in their role to continue serving, and replacements may be needed. In addition, CAC membership should be established for a certain amount of time (2 years is ideal), after which, new blood can be rotated into the program to provide fresh ideas and perspectives. As such, companies should build a waiting list of candidates who are eager to join the program at the earliest opportunity.
Recruiting for a successful client advisory council program requires a coordinated effort of your customer-facing teams, and their time, attention and commitment to do it well. When done properly, however, the effort will result not only in a high amount of program acceptances, but also an initiative that is set up for long-term success in the years to come.
Preparing for Your Customer Advisory Board Meeting
Once you’ve created a customer advisory board program charter, aligned your internal team, and successfully recruited your members, it’s time to prepare for your first (or next) virtual or face-to-face meeting.
Companies usually initiate this process by creating an agenda they think will be of interest to members – and repurpose existing product feature presentations, demos and sales pitches that will, hopefully, get customers excited about the host companies’ forthcoming releases. But STOP! Having interacted with thousands of C-level executive advisory members over the years, we know this thinking is a sure-fire way to create a one-sided, boring meeting – and dissatisfied members who will want to quit your program.
As such, here are 5 must-do steps to prepare for your next customer advisory council (CAC) meeting:
- Engage internal stakeholders and external experts: Determine what’s going on in the field that is impacting your customers by talking to those in your company closest to them. This could include account management, customer support or any specific industry experts. For example, if your firm markets IT security software, what are the latest major security breaches? What are the latest news stories, penalties, or court case rulings? What are emerging best practices to address such challenges – including your products or otherwise? Such investigation need not be just internal; outside consultants, analysts or other authorities can provide wider insight into the market landscape and your customers’ challenges. Summarize all this data to establish a theme for your meeting, and create a discussion guide that you can review with your CAC members in advance.
- Interview members: Remember, customer advisory programs are not (just) about you and your company; it’s about gathering client executives to discuss their most pressing business challenges and priorities. What are these exactly? Ask them! Before each meeting, CAC managers should engage with each member to learn (or verify) their priorities and challenges, what’s changed since the last meeting, and what topics they want to learn about and address with their fellow CAC members. Ideally, this discussion should take place via phone or, at minimum, via electronic survey for follow-up meetings or discussed in previous engagements. Create a summary report of this collected data, which will help drive the meeting agenda. Only by engaging with members will you truly know what’s on their minds, and what they want to talk about at the meeting.
- Create a stimulating agenda: Using the information gathered in customer interviews or surveys, create an agenda that specifically addresses top member concerns. Put their most desired topics near the front of the agenda, explain why you’re discussing a particular subject and what questions you want to try to answer in each session. And don’t plan to PowerPoint your customers to death; create engaging facilitation plans that might include group breakouts, workshops, prioritization, voting, or other games that are designed to uncover group brainstorming ideas and determine creative possible solutions. (To do these well, such activities usually require trained, experienced meeting facilitators.)
- Plan social activities: Customer Advisory Council in-person meetings should not be about trapping attendees in a meeting room for hours on end. Significant breaks and meal times should be carved into the agenda that not only allow additional discussion, but also opportunities for members to check messages or email. (Never reduce break times; your members need them to stay sharp and focused.) Host a welcome reception the night before the meeting starts to get everyone comfortable with each other. Finally, create a fun social activity, ideally one that utilizes a unique local location, such as a museum, winery, sports or technology facility or, at minimum, a nice restaurant. No need to go overboard; anything that enables informal communication will facilitate deepening personal relationships.
- Prepare and rehearse: Don’t assume that all session owners and presenters will create engaging content on their own; guide them with CAC background, instructions, desired content and a meeting template. Hold review meetings with each session owner to not only preview content, but ensure it best serves the meeting agenda and goals, and the members’ interests as well. Hold a final review a week before the meeting, and an on-site rehearsal to review all content and all facilitation plans to ensure everything is ready and all host company participants know their roles. Or, think of it this way: if you don’t conduct preparation meetings, reviews and rehearsals, how would you feel seeing the wrong or out-of-date content in front of your cherished clients live for the first time?
Customer Advisory Council meetings require the proper research, planning, and preparation in order to be successful. Skipping or watering down such steps will likely create a less polished experience (or worse) for your customers. Show you care enough about their experience to invest the time to do your CAC meeting well (or if not, perhaps not at all).
Customer Advisory Board Meeting Must-Haves
Once your company has initiated a customer advisory council (also known as a client advisory panel or customer advisory board), created a program charter, aligned your internal team, successfully recruited members, and prepared for your first face-to-face meeting (or an inaugural virtual meeting in today’s 100% virtual world), you’re ready to hold the meeting itself.
While now is the time to shine in front of your customers, it’s also crucial that your meeting agenda contains the necessary elements to ensure optimal success. While meeting content will inevitably vary based on meeting goals and member-requested topics, here are eight meeting “must haves” based on our experience gathered over the last decade working with Fortune 500 and emerging companies through more than 200 successful customer engagements:
- Prep meeting: The host company should hold an internal-only (i.e. no customers) prep meeting on-site the day before the formal in-person CAC meeting begins or virtually within a few days of a virtual meeting. This meeting offers the final opportunity to review session content, facilitation plans, participation guidelines and customer account status before being in front of the members. This meeting is important for ensuring host-company participants are clear on their roles, minimizes surprises, and for in-person meetings, it ensures everyone arrives on-time at the meeting location.
- Social Networking for Virtual Advisory Board Meetings: Just because your advisory board meetings are being held virtually for the foreseeable future, don’t discount social networking. Just like at in-person meetings, setting aside some time for CAB members to interact and engage virtually not in a structured discussion session is key. Here are some ideas for social neworking that have worked well: virtual lunch, virtual wine tasting or mixology class, virtual cooking class. Along with the social networking, consider providing a gift like a snack box, lunch voucher, or other branded items. On a recent Ignite webinar, an attendee shared a great gift idea, a “virtual enablement pack” consisting of a ring light, webcam, and desktop microphone.
- Opening session: The formal meeting should start with a welcome from the CAC executive sponsor, who should also review the meeting objectives, preview the agenda and activities and provide the status of actions taken from previous engagements. The opening session should also include the participation guidelines and ground rules by the meeting facilitator, so members are clear on how to contribute their ideas.
- Introductions: Before diving into any content, introductions should be made by everyone present, including CAC members, host company executives and third-party consultants. This ensures everyone knows everyone’s roles and gets people speaking from the start.
- Strategic Update: The host company can start with a review of its top strategic initiatives, recent acquisitions, partnerships, new products or other corporate developments. Be up front about bottlenecks, tradeoffs, or ‘fork-in-the-road’ decisions on which you would like member opinions. Being honest about your challenges will encourage the members to do the same with theirs.
- Group Exercises: Use breakout sessions (in-person or virtually). Get members collaborating, brainstorming and conducting group activities or games in which they are engaging with each other on shared industry challenges and potential solutions. Be clear on the question at hand, desired inputs and outputs and how much time they have to complete the exercise.
- Closing Sessions: At the conclusion of each day, a summary by the facilitator and executive sponsor should encapsulate the day’s discussions, conclusions, key takeaways and potential action items. At the conclusion of the meeting, the CAC program’s next steps and upcoming engagements should be previewed, so members will know what’s coming up.
- Meeting Debrief: Before any host-company participants leave the meeting (in-person or virtual), an internal-only post-mortem should be held while the meeting is fresh in their minds. This debrief can include general meeting feedback, potential urgent follow-ups and improvements for upcoming engagements.
We recommend these elements be included as part of customer advisory board meetings. By doing so, you’ll ensure your meeting delivers maximum impact, the desired outcomes and, most importantly, pleases your attending customer members.
What to Do AFTER Your Customer Advisory Board Meeting
Once your company has hosted your initial meeting, you might be thinking that your customer engagement is all done. Unfortunately, with your first customer advisory board meeting now under your belt, there’s much more to be done – arguably the most crucial part of your entire program.
After all, your advisory board members will want to know that you have heard and captured their important input, guidance and suggestions, and that you and your company are moving right away to implement some changes.
Here are the top 4 things you should do following your customer advisory council meeting:
1. Thank the members: An email from your program executive sponsor thanking members for taking time from their busy schedules to attend your advisory board meeting lends a nice touch and closure to the meeting. You’ll also want to provide any promised items from the meeting, and send the content (e.g. PowerPoint presentations) that were shared in the meeting so members can communicate this information with their team members. Lastly, you will want to remind them of the next steps in their participation process, including that a meeting report will be sent to them shortly.
2. Create a meeting report: The meeting report should be a summary of the most important ideas, challenges and suggestions for improvements unearthed during your recent meeting. It should also include a record of all the meeting participants, the results of member surveys about the meeting, discussion takeaways and potential next steps. We recommend the format be in PowerPoint for easy communication and to share the meeting visuals and photographs taken. The meeting report can be shared internally with those from your company that were not able to attend the meeting, and anyone (sales, marketing, customer support, etc.) that can benefit from the information. In addition, the report should be sent to the CAC members as well, so they see that you have captured their input and are moving on making suggested improvements. The meeting report should not take months to create and approve by your stakeholders; ideally it should be completed and shared within a few weeks of your meeting.
3. Prioritize potential actions: As your meeting no doubt raised a litany of potential actions your team and company can take, you will want to summarize these and gather all stakeholders to review and prioritize these, and commit to making them happen. To do so, this will also involve assigning a leader to drive the change and estimate a date that it will be completed. It’s OK if the date ends up slipping a bit due to unforeseen circumstances; members will be satisfied – or impressed – enough to see your company making inroads on their suggestions. And don’t feel like you have to jump at all member input and ideas provided; there will be some that are just too expensive or resource consuming to make the list. In fact, it’s OK to tell members why you can’t move on a particular suggestion, as being business executives themselves, will no doubt understand. Finally, you may have to prioritize the top 5-10 items you can add to your already full to-do list. Lastly, communicate these action items to members in the meeting report or in future engagements and provide updates on their progress so members can see their suggestions taking shape within your company. Members will lose interest in your CAC if they don’t see any impact from their ideas improving your company and their experience with it.
4. Plan for the next engagement: Let the members know a rough timeline of when the next engagement will be with them. This could be the dates for the next face-to-face meeting or interim conference call, which we recommend take place between in-person meetings. In these calls, you can address strategic follow-up topics that were uncovered in the recent meeting, as well as provide updates on the progress of your planned action items or any other meeting outcomes or deliverables.
While meetings are always a crucial element of any CAC program, the follow-up and ongoing engagement and communication is just as important to ensure you don’t lose the momentum gained by your engagements, and members can see you are taking action on the suggestions they have provided.
Watch our webinar with guest speaker Forcepoint about how they were able to successfully recruit Fortune 500 CISOs to their customer advisory board and keep them engaged throughout the year. And learn how the Forcepoint Executive Advisory Board has impacted its strategic decisions.
Ignite Advisory Group is the leading global authority on Customer Advisory Boards. Ignite’s proven methodology for managing and evolving Customer Advisory Boards includes a 4-stage process, encompassing 48 deliverables and measured by 20 metrics to deliver a clear ROI. To learn more about how your company can benefit from Ignite’s CAB methodology and process, contact us today.