This article was originally posted in January, 2022. It has been updated in October, 2023 to apply to today’s CAB environment.
I designed and facilitated my first Customer Advisory Board (CAB) meeting in April of 2002. Since then, I’ve dedicated my career to helping CEOs and executive teams learn how to use CABs to strengthen relationships with their best customers. My central motto:
Whoever understands the customer best wins!
Prior to March, 2020, all CAB (and Partner Advisory Board) meetings were conducted in person. COVID changed the rules. Between March, 2020, and December, 2022, I learned how to make virtual CAB meetings work. In 2023, in-person meetings came back. As we plan for the future, CAB programs are now integrating best practices found in both in-person and virtual engagements.
Here are 10 updated tips to make your advisory board program successful.
1) Think programmatically
Your CAB is not a sales meeting, nor should it be treated as a marketing event. If you do, you cheapen the experience and value of this strategic asset. To harness the full power of your CAB, you must treat it as a program that integrates with both your annual planning process and your annual account reviews with your best customers. This is how you establish and maintain your market leadership position. And, you may discover a new revenue stream along the way.
This begins by asking yourself two seemingly easy, but actually very hard, questions:
1) What do you want to learn?
2) What do you plan to do with the information you collect?
What you want to learn will require more than just a single touch-point with CAB members. So, build a CAB program that offers multiple touch-points throughout the year. For example:
* Interview CAB members prior to the meeting so you can get a sense of where they stand on the topics you want to explore. This information will allow you to dig deeper and faster on these topics during the meeting.
* Some companies host a 90-minute virtual meeting and a separate full-day in-person meeting during the year. You might use the 90-minute virtual meeting to update CAB members on what you did with the information you gathered last year; and you can preview the agenda topics for the in-person meeting.
* Conduct an online survey with CAB members and their teams/users to gather useful info on use cases, experiences, planning priorities. This information may give you some “day in the life” data points that are worthy of upleveling for CAB discussion.
* Ask your CAB members to nominate a representative to attend a product focus group. This is the easiest way to ensure the seats around the table of your product focus group are filled.
* Consider hosting a “CAB member appreciation” meet-up at a conference or tradeshow sometime during the year. Here, there is no formal agenda other than for your team to say “thank you” and “we’ve been paying attention.”
At the end of the year, you’ll reflect on all of these touch-points and use this information to enrich your own annual planning process. Did the CAB help you validate or challenge your own market assumptions? How do their priorities and experiences influence your product roadmap and customer-enablement strategies?
And finally, while the CAB is not a sales meeting, it is appropriate for your account teams to follow-up with CAB members, one on one, at the end of the year for a strategy-level conversation. For example: “At the CAB meeting, you mentioned these challenges . . . Let’s explore how we can help you.”
2) Separate the lecturing from the discussing
Whether you are hosting a virtual or in-person meeting, the time you have with CAB members is limited. To make the most out of every engagement, separate the company and product updates (i.e. those agenda elements that are heavily presentations or lectures) from the discussion modules.
CXO-level customers attend CAB meetings because they want and expect to be part of an interactive discussion. They highly value talking about topics that are of strategic importance to them and their peers. So, don’t waste time on the preambles.
A great technique: Prerecord your product or roadmap updates in a podcast format and share that with your members before the meeting. Instruct them to listen to this (or peruse the slide deck or read the report) prior to the meeting. That way, you can jump straight into discussion.
Read: The Perfect CAB Agenda
3) Plan Advisory Board programs per geography
If you are running an international or global business, you will benefit from separating your Advisory Board by geography.
Trying to build a single global CAB meeting with representatives from North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific is filled with risk. Not only must you navigate cultural and language issues, the geopolitical and economic stresses and priorities are different.
While in-person meetings are usually preferred, you can use a series of 90-minute virtual CAB meetings to your advantage: no travel woes, no added expense, easier to get participation from far away countries. The key to success is in designing a small series of virtual CAB meetings where a single topic is explored in each session. Why limit to 90 minutes? I’ve learned through trial and error that the attention span of most executives is 90 minutes for a Zoom call. Go longer and they’ll multitask and tune out.
More importantly, you can fine-tune agendas to dive deeper into understanding geopolitical and economic realities that impact your business in that region.
Your core agenda and objective stays the same. You just conduct multiple virtual CAB calls or PAB calls. By the end of the program you will truly feel much more global.
4) Interview all Advisory Board members prior to the first meeting
This has always been a standard business practice, but it is much more important now. The world has changed so dramatically and so fast that executives have told me that how they used to do things no longer works. Their supply chains, operational practices, and business priorities have been severely impacted for a variety of reasons — some positively (at least for now), others tragically. So, before you sit down for the next CAB meeting, you really need to know how they are doing personally and professionally. These interviews are really the first major touch-point in your Advisory Board program (see Tip #1). The more empathy you exhibit with your best customers, the more you will learn from them.
5) Show them that you are listening
Within 48 hours of each CAB meeting (virtual or in person) send an executive summary of what was discussed, your top takeaways, and any immediate action items. While some of your customers may never read these reports, they will know that you sent one. It’s a sign that you were listening. And it’s a sign that you care enough to have documented the discussion so you can take to heart the wisdom and advice they have shared. It is very encouraging to have an Advisory Board member proactively share with your CEO how impressed they are with your program. Also, sending out these reports quickly helps you maintain momentum with your group.
“As an organization, you don’t only ask, but you also listen!” — CAB member: Group Head of Business Intelligence & Analytics sharing with a CEO after the CAB series.
6) Keep the group small
Twelve customers is the magic sweet-spot for in-person CAB meetings. For every two customers, there should be one of you. Plus, you’ll need a facilitator. This puts your maximum group size for an in-person meeting under 20. Why is this the ideal number? Because human interaction and behaviors change when the group becomes larger. People can hide. It can be more difficult to facilitate a productive, interactive session.
For virtual meetings, the magic number of attendees is smaller. If you’ve ever been on a video call with more than 10 people, you know how hard it can be to be heard. It’s also too tempting to zone out and multitask. This is the exact opposite of what we want. The magic of video calls is that you can host as many calls you like. Breaking up the larger group into segments or sub-teams can work to everyone’s advantage.
Example: you have a global CAB team of 30 members. You might think about creating 3 sub-teams: one for North America, one for Europe, and a third team representing your most advanced customers. Splitting a large group in this way allows for multiple lines of meaningful discussion. Members will appreciate the intimacy and ability to participate. And you’ll be able to cover more ground and have better, more insightful conversations.
7) Maintain your balance
What is your objective? And, how many Advisory Board meetings (in-person or virtual) can you effectively manage? Your answers to these questions will help you scope your program so you can balance how many meetings you can manage, and how often you can run them.
This program is not hard to run; but it requires time and attention.
There is no one-size-fits-all model. I have one client who is running a program centered on two virtual CAB calls. I have another who is running a robust global program with one 90-minute virtual call, one full-day in-person meeting, and two half-day in-person focus groups.
Design the program that fits what you need and what you can manage. It is better to be successful with a manageable program than to over-promise and fail to deliver an effective engagement.
8) Keep it simple
You don’t need to impress anyone with fancy gimmicks, gifts, or incentives. Your customers and partners are busy people (as are you). They don’t have time to participate in anything that doesn’t help them drive their business. That should be your focus.
Executives attend CAB meetings when they are well-organized, focused, and the discussions are highly relevant.
Unfortunately, some companies spend more time thinking about “style” (gimmick) more than the “substance” (agenda). They debate at length the merits of hosting two customer dinners, taking them to a ballgame, or planning spa days for spouses. The agenda only comes together at the 11th hour. Regardless of the frills, if the conversation is bland or poorly structured, they won’t return. Your CAB program will die.
To ensure you deliver a best-in-class experience, focus on the objective and business outcome. You and your CAB members will not be disappointed. The best gift you can offer is your time and willingness to listen. They have a lot to tell you.
9) Plan for your next CAB meeting now
Unfortunately, ramifications from the pandemic and global economic conditions will continue. All we know for certain is that flexibility will be important in your future CAB program.
If you have not engaged your CAB or PAB in the past two years, doing so now should be a priority. Your competitors are having these strategic conversations. You are at a disadvantage if your aren’t.
Waiting for things to get back to “normal” is not your best option. The good news is that there are ways to engage with CAB members that don’t require a big investment.
Whether you decide to engage via in-person or virtual, it will take three-to-six months to plan your program. It’s never too early to start thinking about it.
10) Don’t go it alone
Take advantage of a skilled facilitator who can help you plan your entire advisory board program (virtual, in-person, or perhaps a combo of each type of meeting) and set the pace for your team. I work as an extension of the CEO’s staff to connect the dots between what we learn at Advisory Board meetings and a company’s vision/strategy/planning priorities.
Visit: The CAB Resource Center