A Customer Advisory Board should never be thought of as a “single meeting.” There is much more at stake. Your CAB must be treated with respect as a strategic asset to your company. It represents the one place where a dozen of your most trusted customers interact with your leadership team to discuss strategic topics both you and they care about. How do you build a world-class CAB program? Follow my proven 5-step methodology. (This methodology is discussed at length in my book, The Flipchart Guide to Customer Advisory Boards, Volume 2.)

Step 1: Setting clear objectives

Most first time CAB managers make the mistake of focusing on the invitation list as the first step. The worry is that if you can’t get enough people around the table the CAB program will fail. Don’t start with your invitation list. That is actually step 3. Instead, focus on the objective. What is it that you want to achieve with your overall CAB program? And, what do you want to learn from this first (or next) meeting? The objective is the foundation on which everything else rests. After 16 years and more than 100 successful CAB meetings, I can tell you with complete assurance, that if you set your objectives correctly, and if you position the CAB in alignment with those objectives, you will not have any trouble filling the seats around the table.

In general, there are typically four primary objectives:

  1. To explore trends, drivers, and priorities shaping your customers’ businesses
  2. To validate your company’s value proposition and strategic direction are relevant to your customers
  3. To review, assess, challenge, or brainstorm your company vision, value proposition, or product direction
  4. To collaborate on shared business issues

If this is your inaugural CAB meeting, you will want to stick with a combination of objectives 1 and 2. If your CAB program is more experienced, you will likely lean towards objectives 3 and 4. Of course, your specific objectives will be unique and appropriate for your business. Nevertheless, you should document these objectives to ensure clarity and alignment across your leadership team.

Step 2: Determining a theme and your “big question”

Now, what is it your really want to learn from your customers? What’s your “big question”? You must be selfish when setting the agenda. If you don’t learn anything that will help you validate, challenge, or guide your strategy, then you’ve missed a huge opportunity. Keep in mind that the CAB is a venue for strategy-level conversation. Providing a parade of product updates is not allowed. You will also not debate product features here. There are better forums for that type of dialog. Instead, what you really want to know is this: “For us to (continue to) be a leader in our industry AND be relevant 3 years from now, what do we need to do?” Of course, we cannot ask customers this question directly. Instead, we need to think of CAB-friendly questions that they can actually answer. Those questions tend to be more about them than about you.

Not sure where to start? Go back to your annual business planning process. Where are you placing bets on your future? For every question you are asking your executive staff, I believe there is a “CAB corollary” question — that is, a question worthy and appropriate for customer input. For example, you want to know if you should continue a horizontal go-to-market strategy or prioritize on a few key verticals. For the CAB, ask them how and where they think their own businesses will grow. Through their stories, you will discover clues to which customers (and by extension which industries) seem ripe for further expansion. And which ones you might want to pull back from. (Read: How to link your CAB to your executive planning offsite.)

As far as themes for your CAB meeting go, “Innovation” is a hot choice. There are many flavors of  innovation you can explore. Other themes I’ve seen lately include: “shared accountability”, “collaboration – across the ecosystem or supply chain”, “technology tradeoffs — especially around the cloud”, and “priorities for driving workflow efficiencies”. You can be as creative as you like.

Step 3: Inviting customers

One of the most common traps I see marketers fall into is that they invite the wrong customers to answer their questions. This is because they settled on the invitation list based on who was easy to get, rather than who is the right person. Usually, this is because it is easier to invite people with whom you already have a relationship. However, they should be inviting the C-suite representative who is ultimately responsible for the key topic areas they want to explore. But how do you invite senior executives you don’t yet know? For this answer, see my video: Customer Advisory Boards and executive relationships.

I recommend building two invitation lists: a Tier 1 list containing your top 12 customer invitees and a Tier 2 list containing another dozen of people should your Tier 1 members not all be interested or available. The ideal CAB size contains 12 customers. You want people who are all peers and share similar responsibilities. Managing the invitation process carefully is crucial. I’ve written about some common mistakes here.

Some common questions I’m asked about the invitation process include:

  • Q: Can we invite some obvious competitors? A: Yes, but you must be very careful in setting proper expectations about the objective and purpose of your CAB. As long as the CAB is future-focused about issues they all care about, and on how you can help them achieve or accelerate their own success, you should be safe. Of course, there may be situation where you absolutely do not want certain competitors in the room with each other. Bottom line: the world is a small place. Chances are quite good that your CAB members may already know each other (personally, or by reputation). I once hosted a CAB made up of VPs from financial institutions: Chase, Wells Fargo, Discover, Visa, etc. You would think we couldn’t get any of these people in the same room. Instead, these folks already knew each other and greeted each other like old friends.
  • Q: Why will customers want to attend my CAB? Check out my video answer.

Step 4: Crafting the agenda

I have one holy rule for every CAB meeting: Thou shalt not commit death by Powerpoint. The agenda is made up of “discussion modules” not presentations. The most effective agendas, and where you can differentiate your CAB from those offered by your competitors, is one where your follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time the customers are talking and responding to your questions. You are doing 80% of the listening. The hardest part of adhering to this agenda is in leaving your ego at the door. Listening, not talking, is your primary duty.

Setting up your first CAB meeting? Here’s a perfect agenda model to follow.

Building an effective agenda can be tricky. It is easy to throw 50 slides together to fill an hour timeslot. It is harder to plan an hour discussion where you have only 5 minutes to state the hypothesis you want to test with your customers. This is one reason why I strongly suggest it takes 3 months to plan for a world-class CAB meeting. I collaborate with my clients so I can understand their business and then give them ideas, structures, and time to chew on agenda topics, key questions, and learning points. It is not unusual for a company to quickly sketch an agenda and think they are done. But after a couple of weeks they realize that they actually have other questions they would rather ask. Building the agenda that works for you is an organic, evolutionary process. Allow it to take time. You’ll need to socialize topics internally. And if you can take time for your facilitator to interview your customers as part of the agenda prep process, so much the better.

Step 5: Building your content

The content you will need may include more than slides. You may want to consider if any prep work is needed for the customers to review prior to the meeting. Some of my clients put together a pre-reading packet. Some go further to produce a short survey for the CAB members to use with their own teams so they can represent their larger departments more effectively. And lastly, you’ll want to put together a Welcome Kit that contains a letter from your CEO, the agenda, biographies of all attendees, and other tidbits.

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.

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 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.