Launching your Customer Advisory Board program this year? Here are the three first steps that will guide your success.

1. Define a clear, focused objective for your CAB program and your inaugural CAB meeting.

Most first-time CAB managers and executive sponsors make the mistake of making their first step that of deciding who to invite. This is wrong because it is out of order. It is human nature to worry about hosting a  party where no one shows up. So, people want to minimize this concern. Here’s what happens: instead of aligning your invitation list with your objective, you invite customers you already know and are comfortable with. This usually results in first line managers and directors being invited to your CAB.

The problem here is that while you have a relationship with these customers, these individuals are not C-suite executive decision makers. Remember, that the CAB is first and foremost a strategy-level focus group. The agenda of world-class CAB meetings is on the future and how your customers’ businesses are growing (or not) or evolving. The purpose of the CAB program is to provide you with unprecedented insight into your customers’ growth plans in order to discover how you can help them achieve their goals. That’s how you become sticky. And, this type of strategy-level dialog, if you manage it correctly, will differentiate you from your competitors. You just can’t get that kind of information from first line, director-level customers.

But the problem is actually worse than this. It’s worse because once you have established an expectation with these directors as CAB members, it is very hard to then up-level your CAB to become more strategic later. While there are effective and gentile ways to “uninvite” customers to future CAB meetings, it can be awkward. It’s best to avoid this problem by focusing first on your objective. Only then will you know the right people to invite who will help you get the answers and insights you seek.

More information: How do I invite executives we don’t yet have a relationship with?

2. Align your leadership team

Once you clarify the objective for your CAB program, as well as the first meeting, you want to be sure your executive team is aligned. It can be a nightmare if the alignment happens at the dry run meeting 24 hours before your actual CAB meeting! That’s a good three months too late. Your executive sponsor (usually a CMO, chief product officer, or chief strategy officer) owns this task. If you don’t have any of these, then you have the task . . . and the opportunity. This is a leadership moment. It is very important to get your executive staff together to review and confirm the goals of your CAB program, discuss their expectations, and agree on roles and responsibilities for both the preparation of the CAB as well as their conduct in the actual meeting. A key element of the alignment discussion is to agree upon what you want to learn AND what the organization is prepared to do with the information they gather. If this task is not formalized, you run the risk of having an “interesting meeting” that results in no action. This will create problems for you when you hold your next CAB meeting. Customers want to know their opinions and guidance provided value to you and that you took some sort of action. You’ll need to report on this, briefly, at each successive CAB meeting.

More information: Alignment starts by integrating your CAB program with your own business strategy to drive innovation.

3. Set realistic expectations

CAB meetings are not just thrown together. They take time to build — typically a minimum of 3 months. There are several key reasons: 1) the C-suite customers you want to invite have busy schedules; you need to give them as much advanced notice as possible; and 2) your executive team needs time to brainstorm, create, and then revise and polish your CAB strategy, agenda, and content. Keep in mind that “death by Powerpoint” is not acceptable. You want your customers to do 80% of the talking. That means, you and your leadership team do 80% of the listening. It is easy to throw random slides together and call it a day. It is much harder to be focused in your discussion topics. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that all of my “discussion leaders” limit themselves to only 3 slides to set the framework for their discussion. If a discussion leader has a 75 minute block of time, I advise them to take no more than 10 minutes to set to stage for the discussion. That leaves us with 60 minutes for an interactive conversation. That conversation will be guided by your facilitator using pre-defined questions that map to your specific objective for the discussion module and to the CAB’s overall objectives.  (See, we’ve come back to the objective!)

More information: How to make your CAB program world-class

Putting it all together

When preparing your CAB initiative, program, and every meeting, there is a lot to consider. My team and I all come from the corporate world. As a past company leader I know what you are responsible for. We can relate and empathize precisely because we’ve been in your shoes. Based on my practical experience, and with guidance from my many clients over the years, I’ve honed this methodology. And I offer it to you.

This is only a bit of the perspectives and insights I offer in my CAB Resource Center. I am available to help you find answers to your questions as you build your own business case for your CAB. I’m happy to help. My door is always open to you. Also, visit us at KickStart Alliance.

Mike Gospe leads KickStart Alliance’s CAB practice.

Mike Gospe is a professional CAB facilitator for B2B companies and has more than 30 years of B2B tech leadership experience. Since 2002, his market leadership and CAB best practices have helped large enterprises and small businesses deliver more than 100 successful CAB engagements, To learn more about his tools, “how to” books, and custom engagements, please visit his CAB Resource Center or contact Mike.