Your Customer Advisory board 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 is a great question that causes sleepless nights for many executive sponsors and CAB managers. The fact is your business is evolving. As you grow, your needs change. And so, too, will the context and agendas of your future CAB meetings. This means that you will need a different mix of customers from time to time.  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 no 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.

Initiate a CAB Alumni program

3) Launch a “CAB Alumni” program. If you want to go the extra mile, you might consider forming a CAB Alumni program. This provides a way to maintain a direct relationship and communication mode open to past CAB members. This program may include a permission-only LinkedIn page or a small extranet site for your CAB member to receive information about your company and continue to share information with each other. Communication tends to be passive, via newsletters or an occasional webinar. In addition, you may want to provide them with special passes to any user groups or events. 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 and letting them know how special 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.

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