Having managed hundreds of customer advisory board (CAB) meetings and engagements over the last decade, Ignite Advisory Group realizes that the vast majority of programs go extremely well, deliver outstanding results, and leave host companies – and more importantly, the CAB members themselves – very pleased with the value of their overall participation and their time investment.
And while proactive preparation, communication and internal reviews mitigate most potential problems, unplanned problems still can arise. Those unplanned problems often spark an invitation for Ignite to audit and evaluate current customer advisory board programs and recommend improvements.
Here’s a thumbnail of a few scenarios we’ve seen when things have gone wrong, and the guidance we provided to fix them.
Scenario 1: Rogue executives at your customer advisory board meeting
Unfortunately, executives will sometimes go off point, and lead the meeting off track from the start. For example, we witnessed one executive start a meeting by simply giving his company’s standard investor relations presentation, until being interrupted by attendees who urged him instead to engage with them on guidance the executive was actually seeking from the gathering. Another C-level executive took his introductory comments as an opportunity to talk ad-nauseam about his yoga class, with his attending direct reports powerless to stop him (until we did).
- What to do
- First off, a high-ranking executive sponsor needs to be behind the CAB program from the start; one who has real influence over his superiors to ensure they add to (not detract from) the program.
- Importantly, executives – and all program participants for that matter – should know the CAB mission and objectives, and understand that the meeting is to gather real member input to corporate strategies and roadmaps; not merely to talk at members.
- In addition, proactive review of meeting content and presentations should eliminate any surprises.
- Finally, an experienced meeting facilitator (ideally a third party who does not report to company executives) knows when and how to tactfully steer the discussion away from someone going on too long, and put the meeting back on track.
Scenario 2: Customer advisory board meeting crashers
Surprises at CAB meetings can test even the most seasoned CAB professionals, and none more so that involve people from your company or worse, your superiors. At one meeting, we experienced a number of host-company employees show up un-planned at the meeting, including sales reps whose customers were members of the board, new employees told to attend for edification purposes, as well as product development executives who “assumed” they should be a part of the meeting.
- What to do
- Again, a strong CAB executive sponsor and proactive communication about meeting participants should eliminate any on-site surprises.
- We recommend the number of host company attendees never exceed half the amount of customer attendees.
- Executive management should review and approve the host company attendees, and the executive sponsor should ask any unexpected guests to leave if necessary.
Scenario 3: Demanding CAB members
While most CAB members are accommodating and professional, you may still get the occasional “prima donna” who demands special attention. For one meeting, a CAB member, who was a huge customer of the host company, insisted on bringing five additional colleagues from her company to the meeting – and demanded a seat near the window for each.
- What to do
- Setting meeting expectations ahead of time with CAB members can help eliminate on-site surprises – the invitation is non-transferable and for one member only.
- An objective third-party facilitator can not only take the heat off the host company when sticky situations arise, but can create a win-win compromise that works for everyone. In this instance, we negotiated that the company have a couple (not all five) of its employees attend, and provided the best seats available that still best served the meeting.
Scenario 4: Wild social activities
The best CAB social activities should enable deeper communication and relationship building. Activities that are too “over the top,” physically demanding or cater to the interests of a minority of the members are not recommended. One company held its CAB social event at a gun range, offering a selection of high-powered weapons laid out on a table for members to shoot at will – with no instruction provided or safety precautions taken – not to mention a full, open bar nearby. (Fortunately, there were no injuries)
- What to do
- CAB social activities are subjective and can vary depending on the host company corporate culture.
- CAB managers should target interesting activities that encourage interaction, ideally at a location unique to the meeting city. (My colleague Judy Davis has some great advice on this topic.)
- A quiet dinner can suffice for deepening relationships.
- In any case, social activities should be approved by the executive sponsor.
Good planning, proactive communication and a strong, supportive executive sponsor should be enough to mitigate most CAB surprises. In the event something goes awry, your best guide should be the customer advisory board charter, what best serves the overall program, and, most importantly, what’s best for the CAB members themselves.