Sometimes, Ignite is asked by our clients whether prospects can be included as members of their customer advisory boards (CABs).
We can appreciate the idea behind their thinking. After all, as CABs generate deeper customer relationships, what better way to push a key or important prospect to become a customer and into your “company family” by inviting them into your most exclusive, sacred inner circle? It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the suggestion to include prospects on your CAB often comes from your sales team. They may get excited by the notion of your other (presumably) happy customers convincing their prospects to purchase – and purchase big – as a result of their attendance at your next CAB meeting.
But hold on. You may be surprised to learn that Ignite generally advises against inviting prospects to become members of your customer advisory board. Here’s why:
1. Prospects don’t make good advisors:
Customer advisory boards include the word “customer” for a reason. After all, CABs are forums to secure honest, direct feedback from your best clients, who have deep experience with your products, services and market. Prospects simply don’t have the experience with your company to be effective advisors, as they have yet to make the investment in money, time and trial-and-error to provide any lessons learned, best practices nor any valuable input to your strategies or product roadmap. Without any skin in the-game, prospects have limited insight.
2. Prospects will be lost in product discussions:
As CABs will often dive into the “nitty gritty” details of your product or service in actual use, attending prospects without any experience have no frame of reference for participation. Worse, their lack of knowledge may lead them to ask questions that may bog down the meeting in providing background or training information that may turn off, bore and disengage your seasoned, experienced customers.
3. Their attendance could backfire:
CABs are forums to obtain honest and direct feedback from your best customers to your strategies and products. And while members tend to be your company’s biggest fans and supporters, they will inevitably provide constructive feedback that may be less than favorable. In an effort to suggest a positive change, they may give an example of a negative service experience or talk about the last time your servers went down. The particular issue could be a huge red flag to any prospect in attendance – and a potential deal-breaker.
4. CABs are not sales engagements:
Despite the enthusiasm of your sales team, CABs are not forums to funnel prospects through the sales pipeline. Incremental revenue may be an output of effective CAB programs from existing clients, but increased sales or closing clients should never be a central (or stated!) aspect of your CAB program. In fact, sales is somewhat at odds with the spirit of your CAB program, which is to seek advice on your strategies, products and programs, and deepen relationships with existing customers. Any member that picks up a sales atmosphere in your CAB may be turned off and even quit.
5. Manage references elsewhere:
CAB meetings should not be perceived as settings for providing live references. Companies that manage references best understand the importance of a separate, controlled and dedicated process that will lead to the desired results. Anyone suggesting using your CAB meeting to provide references should examine your existing reference engagement process and program. Of course, CAB members may themselves be some of your company’s best references, and CAB programs are outstanding for uncovering and generating reference-able customers to put in front of your prospects one-on-one. Just don’t sidetrack the CAB meeting itself.
In the course of managing hundreds of CAB meetings over the last decade, there have been instances where a few of Ignite’s clients have invited a limited number (1 or 2 maximum) of prospects to participate in a particular meeting. Sometimes, this has involved bringing in a different division prospect or international arm of an existing member customer. The results were positive, showing that there are sometimes valid exceptions to established rules.
As a CAB manager, you may be asked about – and perhaps even pressured – to include prospects as part of your customer engagement program. Yet doing so can not only have a negative effect on your prospects, but worse, a detrimental impact on your CAB program itself – and, in turn, your best, most supportive existing customers. The potential to dilute the value of CAB participation should be reason enough to recommend against inviting prospects to your next CAB meeting. Play it smart and keep the customer front and center in your customer advisory board.
That’s my recommendation. Comments or experience from other CAB managers are encouraged to expand the conversation.