Congratulations! Your Customer Advisory Board program is a success. It’s been running for a while and you’ve built some solid customer relationships. But what do you do when these great customers can no longer provide you the directional guidance you now need? What is the protocol for changing the mix of your CAB invitees?
This article was originally published in 2017. Updated: March 17, 2022
This is a great question that causes sleepless nights for many executive sponsors and Customer Advisory Board (CAB) managers. The fact is your business is evolving, and the pandemic changed the rules of the CAB game. As you grow and business conditions change, your CAB’s objectives, context, agendas, and engagement model will also need to change. Your CAB in 2022 will not look like it did in 2019. This means that you will likely need a different mix of customers. So, how do you retire one set of CAB members so you can make room for new ones?
Answer: With integrity, diplomacy, and respect.
Set clear expectations when inviting customers
It may be a little late for this piece of advice: when you first invite customers, be very clear on the engagement commitment. Typically, the CAB invitation should include wording that specifies a “tour of duty” lasting between 12 – 18 months. You should also set the expectation that they participate in 1-2 face-to-face meetings and perhaps some off-line conversations in between. Sadly, this expectation is often left out of the invitation, thereby implying that “once a CAB member, always a CAB member.” You can avoid this by being clear up front.
30% of your CAB members will automatically cycle
This may not be as big a problem as you think because 30% of attendees from your last CAB meeting won’t be able to attend the next meeting because of scheduling conflicts or they have taken a new role. Remember that the CAB is an invitation-only event with a very limited number of seats. That means, “first come, first served.” This usually affords you some flexibility in adding new members into the mix when any Tier 1 participant is unable to attend. So, you have an obvious opportunity to add new members in each meeting.
Retiring CAB members
This is the biggie. Sometimes there is a need to clean house. Let’s say your business takes on a new strategy and you no longer want to focus on your “traditional” customers. Inviting them to attend a future CAB meeting would not be appropriate because their business, and their bias, is no longer in an area you care about. When this happens, it’s time to re-invent your CAB program. Let’s call it “CAB 2.0” — a complete refresh of objectives and all (or most) attendees. For this situation, I recommend the following actions:
1) Be appreciative. When retiring CAB members remember that these customers have dedicated their time and energy to your program. So, when changing the landscape you should graciously acknowledge their contribution. Take the time to thank each customer individually. Which leads us to recommendation #2 . . .
2) Communicate 1:1. Do not send a “Dear John” letter. And don’t delegate this responsibility. Remember that the CAB has always been an exclusive, intimate group. Each member deserves a personal phone call from your executive sponsor explaining the CAB’s evolution. Most customers will understand and not take any offense. You are making a business decision here. It’s not personal, and your customers will respect that.
3) Be proactive by meeting with retiring CAB members before inviting new ones. One of my clients ignored this advice and suffered embarrassment. They wanted to swap out a lower-level participant with a C-suite candidate from the same company. Rather than explaining the situation with the current member first and asking for his help, they went straight to his boss. The boss did not take the invitation well. His reply: “Why are you asking me? Did (John) do something wrong?” Awkward conversations continued. In the end, no one from that company attended. It was a black eye that could have easily been avoided.
Your best option may be to . . .
Initiate a CAB Alumni program
4) Launch a “CAB Alumni” program. A CAB Alumni program provides a way for everyone to save face. By following rules of etiquette you will maintain these valuable relationships with past CAB members while you expand the universe to include fresh CAB members.
An Alumni program can be as simple or as complex as you wish. Keeping it simple is always a good way to start. Here are some ideas:
- Invite all current and retired CAB members to join a permission-only LinkedIn page or a small gated website where they can receive information about your company and continue to share information with each other.
- Distribute a CAB member-only newsletter, perhaps twice a year, to share business updates, opportunities, and (marketing and sales) offers available only to CAB members.
- Invite CAB alumni to an occasional webinar or provide them with special passes to any user groups or events.
- If you are conducting account reviews with select customers, offer something unique and valuable during these reviews. Perhaps they receive a discount on annual maintenance contracts. Or, perhaps you preview new products and services with them first, before a general market release.
The details are up to you. The CAB Alumni program, if properly maintained, can grow to include dozens of customers. And, it provides you with a small, but highly relevant, list of contact names for future elite or “one of a kind” marketing and sales promotions and activities. It’s a small investment that provides an easy way to honor these important customers. You will differentiate yourself from your competitors by continuing to let your customers know how special and important they are to you.
While changing the customer mix of your CAB requires some finesse, it can be done with respect and yield great rewards for you and your team. Stay focused on what is most important to you. It’s your program, and you always control the invitation list. As long as you do so with integrity, diplomacy, and respect.
What to read next: Is your Customer Advisory Board world-class?
For more information . . .
Each CAB Alumni program is unique. Want to learn more? Contact Mike Gospe for more CAB Alumni program best practices. Mike is a professional facilitator with more than 20 years of CAB experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 250 world-class CAB meetings around the world. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s CAB practice.
Check out more of his best practices articles and videos on his CAB Resource Center.