Building a business case to support your Customer Advisory Board (CAB) initiative is no small task. One of the biggest mistakes is when executives interpret the CAB to be merely a “marketing event”. When this assumption is made, companies dramatically limit the value and ROI that can be achieved. You need a business case to properly set expectations. These 3 initial tips will guide you in setting expectations effectively.

1. Design the CAB around your customers, not you.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but world-class CABs are not about you. They are about your customers, their businesses, and the challenges they face. If you can help them overcome their challenges (those that are relevant to your business offerings), then you will strengthen your relationship with them. When everything eventually gets commoditized, the only remaining differentiator is the relationship you have with your customers. Is yours better than your competitors’? Your CAB can be a big feather in your cap if you structure it correctly to benefit your customers.

So, to begin, it is helpful to actually talk to a few customers — but not just any customer. Ideally, you want to gather some perspective from a trusted customer who you think would be an ideal CAB member. Think of them as your CAB advocates. These are knowledgeable people with a solid reputation within their company. Request a short interview to test your vision for the value a CAB could bring them and you.

Example: A technology company envisioned setting up a CAB to focus on the financial services market, but the CAB Sponsor (a VP of Sales, in this case), was not sure how to focus it. She spoke with several customer VPs and asked them why and how a CAB might be helpful. One responded:

You have a chance to gather some market insight and learn where we’re making strategic investments. These investments are driven by our responses to 4 mega trends. If you can help us decipher these trends, you will not only help us understand our options, you’ll learn where you might be able to assist us.

Another customer responded:

Everything hinges off of a keen understanding of how our businesses will be influenced by trends and drivers we recognize today and those we don’t understand. What should we be thinking about for our 3-5 year plans?

Why this tip works: When you form a recommendation that begins with the words, “I think we should . . . ” you’ve made the CAB personal. You’ve created an emotional argument.  This is easy for your peers to ignore or argue against. However, when you frame your business case around the customer and the value they are looking for, you’ve built a stronger foundation. Get a couple of these customer perspectives to align, and now you have a framework for your business case. This is powerful stuff.

2. Align your team early and often.

Your CAB will crash if you design it in a vacuum. Aligning with your internal stakeholders is critical. Here are the critical stakeholder roles you will need in your company:

  • CAB Sponsor — a member of the CEOs staff who is tasked with the CAB. This is often the CMO or VP of Marketing. However, it may also be a VP of  products, strategy, customer success, or even sales depending on who has the passion, skill set, and time to sponsor the CAB as a cross-functional initiative. (Remember, it is not a “marketing event”! CABs have more to do with market research and branding than they do with any tradeshow or user group meeting.) The CAB Sponsor is the ultimate arbiter and decision maker.
  • CAB Manager — usually a director who is responsible for doing the leg work behind the scenes.
  • Logistics Manager — usually an event coordinator or an operations manager.
  • Stakeholders — CEO, VP of products, VP of sales, VP of customer success, perhaps others.

The key to success with alignment is how well you navigate internal politics. I have found these 4 tips to achieving alignment work wonders:

  1. Formal internal interaction: Do “PR” (public relations) to promote your CAB internally. Both the CAB Sponsor and CAB Manager need to become visible cheerleaders.
  2. Customer contact: Document each and every customer conversation. Capturing verbatim perspectives can be powerful ammunition to support your business case.
  3.  Informal interaction: Don’t go it alone; rally a core team to help you interpret the information you’ve collected.
  4. Ask for advice from your facilitator for navigating internal politics: Learn from those of us who held leadership positions prior to guiding CABs. We can guide you every step of the way.

Why this tip works: There is no one who will be a better champion for your CAB than you. While you cannot control the priorities of others, you can control your own. Successful alignment requires your personal commitment to communicate.

3. Document your business case formally.

Hastily thrown together CAB meetings produce lackluster results and can annoy customers to the point where they won’t return. CABs require an investment in time, patience, and budget to get the objectives, agendas, and membership mix just right. To do that, you need to document your business case beyond any hallway conversations or random emails.

I recommend you build a short business case deck with the following outline:

  1. CAB Objective(s): why a CAB initiative makes sense for us now (if it’s new), or why we need to re-envision our CAB for the future (if it has become stagnant or you have change in leadership)
  2. Risks & rewards: identify the rewards you will achieve; identify the risks if we delay or fail in your CAB efforts
  3. Customer sentiment: Initial customer perspective (from the interviews conducted in tip #1)
  4. Definitions: What is a CAB, exactly? And, define the business outcomes you expect to achieve
  5. Linkages to other voice-of-the-market activities: show where the CAB fits in the VOC model
  6. Roles & responsibilities: identify the internal team
  7. Requirements for success: indicate the resources that will be required for success (timing, budget)
  8. Ask for their agreement: be explicit, “Do we have the green light to proceed?”

Why this tip works: Documenting your business case formally makes it real. It will also make it easy to grow and continue. When a CAB plan is undocumented, it becomes tribal lore. And when that person leaves the company, the CAB dies. Document it. Share it. Champion it.

A few videos:

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

Why host a Customer Advisory Board?

What came first, the CAB or the executive relationship?

Why will your customers want to attend your CAB?

Is your CAB a sales meeting?

What is your sales teams’ role in your CAB

Mike Gospe leads KickStart Alliance’s CAB practice.

Mike Gospe is a professional CAB facilitator for B2B companies with more than 30 years of B2B tech leadership experience. Since 2002, his market leadership and CAB best practices have helped large and small enterprises 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.