Your Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is not an event. It’s a cross-functional initiative designed to drive innovation and outpace your competitors. As such, it must be treated as a strategic asset, not a tactical item to be checked off your to-do list. Here are 3 guiding principles for harnessing the power of your CAB to drive innovation.

1) Innovation requires integrating your CAB with your core business strategy  

John, the CEO of a $80M Internet application company, and his team were working very hard to grow and accelerate the business. Yet, while everyone was busy, the team members were not aligned with a common set of priorities. When asked individually about the strategic direction of the company, each person gave a different answer. In addition, team leaders did not agree on how to measure customer success. Intuitively, the team knew they had to realign their efforts and validate the company’s direction against the needs of their customers. But they didn’t know how to do this. Lack of alignment resulted in a lot of internal frustration. Innovation suffocated in this environment.

That’s when John decided to hold an executive offsite to capture a shared vision and establish guiding principles that would help align the corporate, product, and go-to-market strategies. In tandem, he launched a CAB initiative to be a sounding board for his team. They had never run a CAB before, and never engaged in any type of strategic conversation with their best customers. John believed that using a CAB as a strategic asset to guide decision making could be the key ingredient to aligning his organization and innovating in a common direction. He was right. The process of linking his CAB directly to his strategy meetings created a shared, firm foundation for decision making. The team developed a business case based, in part, of key learnings discovered in their CAB. This thought process stabilized the company.

Just as annual planning and managing your brand are ingrained into the DNA of your company, so too is the CAB initiative found in today’s most respected B2B companies. In fact, there is a direct link between the strategic topics discussed at a CEO’s annual planning leadership offsite and the CAB agenda. For example, for every future investment opportunity discussed at the CEO’s staff meetings there is a corollary topic or key question that can be asked of CAB members to either validate an industry trend, challenge the vision, explore anticipated customer priorities, or dig deeper into business assumptions.

More information: How to link your CAB to your executive planning meetings

2) Innovation requires focus on being relevant

When it comes to preparing a great agenda for your CAB, it is easy to take short-cuts. This is the slippery slope that will lead to an very ineffective CAB discussion. It is difficult to drive innovation if you pose the standard roadmap-based questions to your CAB members. Instead, your focus should be the one key question you are trying to answer:

“For us to build (or maintain) a leadership position in the market, AND for us to be relevant 3 years from now, what do you, our customers, think we should do?”

However, you MUST NOT ask this question in this way! Customers care about their business, not yours. So, you need to turn this question around. If you can focus the CAB agenda on your customers and how they are striving to maintain their leadership position and their relevance in the future, you will discover clues to answer your own central question.

This is what Stefan, a CEO of a $1B logistics company, did when he invited his CAB members (VPs of logistics at top retailers) to share how industry trends and drivers were reshaping their needs and expectations. Stefan discovered, to his dismay, that due to new regulations his customers would be spending less with him next year, even though they loved his company. Rather than react defensively by continuing to push his current product mix, Stefan decided to pursue a discussion on innovation. How did these customers feel about the market changes? What did they need to ensure their own personal and professional success? By the end of the CAB meeting, Stefan and his team had gathered some important insights that would reshape their product and services roadmap. One year later, the CAB members were investing the same or more with Stefan. There was no loss of revenue. This was because the key to innovation is on being relevant.

More information: Customer Advisory Board: What’s your BIG question?

3) Innovation requires commitment

What are you prepared to do with the information you learn from your CAB? Take a moment to think through the implications of this simple question. If all you do is say, “well, that was interesting” and just walk away, you’ve missed to entire point of investing in a CAB.

Now, let me be clear: the CAB is only one component of your broader Voice-of-the-Customer efforts your company is conducting. Any business decisions you make need to be balanced against other feedback and direction you are already receiving. And, CAB members know that just because they voice a perspective in your meeting that are are under no obligation to act on it. However, they do expect you to have listened and to have considered their input. That means that you need to report on progress you have made since the last meeting.

Janet, the SVP of sales and CAB executive sponsor of an enterprise B2B tech company took the CAB input to heart. While the product team innovated on product direction, she innovated on the customer engagement strategy. What she learned caused her to completely rethink their account review meetings with a focus on helping customers solve their problems (not push the standard product pitch). Her proactiveness paid off. She doubled the annual revenue from each of the CAB members because of strengthening these relationships and acting on the guidance provided by her best customers.

So, what are you prepared to do after the CAB meeting? In short, your leadership team must be willing to communicate and share what you learn with your broader teams. Allow this “outside in” perspective to challenge the status quo. Invite internal debates. And then be prepared to report back. Even if you decide to reject the CAB’s input, that’s okay. They just want to know why.

More information: The Future of Customer Advisory Boards

Random acts of innovation may occasionally succeed. However, if you want to hedge your bets and deliver a truly differentiating CAB experience to your customers and your team, use your CAB as a tool to spark innovation.

Mike Gospe leads KickStart Alliance’s CAB practice.

Mike Gospe is a professional CAB facilitator for B2B companies. 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.