Customer Advisory Board (CAB) programs have become commonplace, but they are not all alike. Sadly, many are mediocre. They fail to fully harness the wisdom and market opportunities a CAB can provide because they are not properly designed, facilitated, nor integrated with the company’s annual planning process. The most effective CAB programs all define themselves with these three critical traits.
1) Driven from the top
Their CAB program is driven from the top and treated as a corporate asset, not a marketing event, and definitely not a sales meeting. The CEO is actively involved in sponsoring the CAB. More than that, the CEO embraces the CAB as a key component in their annual planning process. In other words, the discussion topics of the CAB agenda are chosen to further explore, validate, or challenge assumptions and predictions related to industry trends, shifting customer priorities, and market growth opportunities.
The CAB represents a very important and unique form of market research. This is the one place and one time where the CEO and his/her leadership team meet with a dozen key decision makers from the most strategic customers to talk about the future.
And because the CEO is highly supportive of the CAB, involvement from his team in planning and executing a world-class CAB program is guaranteed. The CAB is designated a top priority, and team leaders are held accountable for ensuring it delivers value (not entertainment) to CAB members and the executive staff.
What it looks like:
Here, the CEO attends the CAB kick off meeting and final walk-thru. The CAB executive sponsor and core team will do the heavy lifting to prep for the CAB. The CEO attends the entire meeting. The CEO never parachutes in to just say “hi, have a great meeting” and leave. That’s being disingenuous.
2) They know how to listen
A CMO recently shared with me some feedback a customer had provided about their prior CAB meeting:
I thought you wanted my insights. Instead, you lectured us on your product roadmap for the entire time.
It’s ironic but very true: your CAB is not about you. It’s about your customers, their priorities and challenges, and what you can do to help them achieve their business goals. Put your customers, not your product, in the center of your CAB discussions.
The best-run CAB programs follow the 80/20 rule where 80% of the agenda is allocated to the customers talking and responding to your carefully formulated questions. That means 80% of the time, your team is listening.
There are no presentations in a CAB agenda. There are only discussion modules.
Listening is a difficult skill to master. It’s hard to sit still when a customer says something you disagree with or don’t understand. It is human nature to become defensive and get into an argument. Instead, savvy company executives know how to exercise their curiosity. They know how to seek to understand more about what is behind the customer’s response.
What it looks like:
A week before the CAB meeting, the company shares the agenda, background reading, and key questions to be explored. They provide a short homework assignment to prep CAB members. CAB members really do appreciate this because they want their time to be well-spent — meaning that they are providing you with the best insight to help you help them.
This approach allows the company to jump into meaningful discussions (not presentations) quickly.
In a typical 75-minute discussion, the facilitator introduces the topic leader who then takes 5-6 minutes to frame the conversation and introduce the “trigger question” (the question that starts the discussion). The facilitator navigates a balanced discussion for an hour, ensuring all customers are heard. The facilitator also balances the discussion so company executives can ask follow-up questions. In the final 5 minutes, the facilitator turns the discussion back over to the discussion leader to summarize his/her takeaways. This is how you follow the 80/20 rule.
3) They ask the right questions
Because their CAB is treated as a strategic asset, not a marketing event (or a sales meeting), the agenda is built around two critical questions:
- What do you want to learn?
- What are you prepared to do with the information you collect?
These questions are critical to answer when designing a CAB program. Many companies, unfortunately, do not get serious about the CAB agenda until days before the meeting. This leads to a haphazard agenda with random presentations (and no substantial, meaningful conversation), and results in lots of missed opportunities. (CAB members can tell you are not adequately prepared.)
By seriously embracing these questions early in the planning process (3-6 months prior), the leaders of the most effective CAB programs make the opportunity to map out all of the questions they’d like to ask. But not all questions are appropriate for a CAB.
Success requires knowing what questions to ask this particular set of customers, in the right way, and at the right time.
They actually build a grid to align questions properly. Questions about real-time issues or daily operations are best left for customer support teams. Questions about prioritizing features and benefits are appropriate for product focus groups or user conferences. And, questions about trends, drivers, and priorities facing your customers’ future investment plans and the problems they expect to need to solve in 2-3 years — these are ideal questions for your CAB.
These world-class CAB programs are actually integrated with a variety of voice-of-the-customer tactics. In doing so, the team knows how to comfortably design the right questions. They know how to use the right tool for the right job.
They know how to work with the facilitator to get the answers they need — and to achieve the business outcome they want.
What it looks like:
The CAB planning process begins 3-6 months before the CAB meeting. While drafting a CAB agenda is easily sketched in the kick-off meeting, it will morph over time. I encourage this. As the team really starts thinking about what they want to learn and how this information will help validate (or challenge) assumptions and priorities, they need the flexibility to change their mind.
The CAB is a program, not an isolated meeting. And it is integrated with other customer & market research tools and opportunities.
These companies also invite the facilitator to interview CAB members on their priorities and initial response to key questions. Their answers, help the team trash, re-frame, or double-down on questions and the final agenda. They give the CAB program room (and time) to breathe. This is how they ensure the right questions are being asked.
Resources to harness the full potential of your CAB program
How many of these traits are associated with your CAB?
As we kick of 2024, here are some new/updated assets to help you and your CAB team:
1) CAB “show and tell” presentation/discussion. I’m often asked to share how companies are using their CAB to identify and sustain their competitive advantage. Contact me if you’d like me to share this with your team. I provide this pro-bono.
2) Private CAB Masterclass. Take advantage of my CAB masterclass for your CAB team. Click here for the details.
3) Free 30 minute consultation. Just looking for some quick answers? Contact me for a private consultation.