How well do you know the voice of the customer? Without this bit of strategic insight, your company’s vision may fail to take root or a well-intended product may turn out to be irrelevant or difficult to sell.

You can greatly improve your chances of succeeding in today’s overcrowded marketplace if you focus your efforts on addressing the business issues that face your customers. Consequently, it is more important than ever that you know the voice of the customer and that you use this knowledge to create competitive solutions that deliver real business value. A well-run customer advisory board (CAB) can be a highly effective tool to gain feedback on strategic priorities and company direction while solidifying relationships with top customers. This same approach works equally well when addressing partners and suppliers (PAB), not just customers.

Do you know the voice of your customer?

A CAB is a business-level focus group – a sounding board for your CEO and executive team to test ideas and preview business plans. This representative group of customers (ideally 8 – 12) meets once or twice a year to discuss trends and drivers affecting their business and offer advice on your company’s direction. These facilitated meetings are a great way to validate that your company vision and product direction is in sync with your customers’ evolving needs and business plans.

Getting the best results from your CAB

The CAB is an important part of any business plan and is an excellent source of qualitative market research. Properly run CABs are different from every other type of customer event. Here are a few tips on how to make yours successful.

1) Invite only your most “strategic” customers to participate

An advisory board is made up of your most “strategic” customers – but the word “strategic” can be open to interpretation. Most often, companies think about inviting a representative from those customers who provide them with the most revenue. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if we broaden the scope of the word “strategic” you might find some hidden gems. For example, include smaller customers who are growing faster than average, or customers who are doing something unique with your products. Mix it up a bit. You’ll learn a lot from the customers sharing stories with each other. But be selective. Attendance to your CAB is not an entitlement to be handed out by a sales rep.

2) Don’t treat the CAB as a sales event

Often times, sales management will want to treat the CAB as a sales event. Do not let this happen. There are other formats and events for sales reps to be directly involved with their customers, demo products, and negotiate deals. The CAB is a business-level focus group designed to discuss and debate strategies. In this forum, they provide honest and direct insight and feedback on industry trends, business drivers, customer issues, and market opportunities. It is not a “customer appreciation event”. Treating the CAB as a thinly veiled sales event to a captive audience will be viewed as an unwelcome use of their time. They will not return to the next CAB meeting.

3) Set the right agenda

“Death by PowerPoint” is not allowed! The agenda should not be one long product update session. So, begin with the end in mind: what vital information do you want to learn during the CAB meeting? What do your customers want to learn from you and from each other? Interview your customers ahead of time to have them help you shape your agenda. And think about how you plan to use the information you collect. The CAB agenda is focused around the questions you want to ask. Be focused. Many times, companies try to force too much information into the CAB agenda. The best CAB sessions are made up of 80% facilitated discussion between the customers, with the executive team politely listening. Remember, you’re there to listen.

4) Invest in a facilitator

Customers often complain that CAB sessions hosted by a company executive are highly biased. They overtly drive the customers to a seemingly apparent conclusion. Using a facilitator can help create an unbiased atmosphere and a safe environment for customers to voice their views and experiences. But don’t confuse the role of facilitator with the role of CAB sponsor or subject-matter expert. A good facilitator is your partner. While they are not content experts like you, they should be familiar with your industry and your customers. More than just ensuring the meeting starts and stops on time, they guide the conversation so that every customer is able to speak and that no one customer dominates the discussion. Let them guide the discussion so you can sit back and listen.

5) Be prepared to act on the information you collect

Although the CAB is an input and feedback session, not a decision-making body, customers will be eager to know what actions you will take based on the discussion. It is therefore imperative those executives set an agenda that is sincere and that they are willing to entertain multiple points of view. The basic research rule applies: Don’t research something that you’re not willing to change. And be prepared to update CAB members on your progress at the next meeting.

Planning your CAB

Whoever understands the customer best wins! For that, you need to know the voice of the customer.

It’s never too early to start planning. It takes 12 weeks to plan a world-class CAB meeting. There are many details to consider starting with defining your objective and selecting the right customers who can provide you with the business outcome you want. Finesse is required to position the CAB correctly so the senior executives you want to invite understand how and why this meeting is different from all the other types of engagement. And this needs to happen before you start building an agenda. Invest in a facilitator who can guide you through every step.

For more information . . .

With a specialty in CABs, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with more than 17 years of CAB experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 100 world-class CAB meetings. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s CAB practice. Contact Mike