Part 2: Mapping the Interactive CAB Journey

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the evolution of the Customer Advisory Board program.

The coronavirus and our response to it has put Customer Advisory Board (CAB) meetings on hold. We’re experiencing a foundational shift in the way corporations conduct business in light of the pandemic. Christine Crandell, in her article, Post-COVID-19 Mega Trends, offers a glimpse into the future with six trends that are determining how business will be conducted in the new world. Four of her six trends have everything to do with rethinking customer relationships and CAB programs.

  1. Time will become the basis of competition.
  2. Authentic human connections will redefine commerce.
  3. Companies will organize around the customer.
  4. Vigilant organizations will rise, driven by purpose.
  5. Business models will shift from optimization and efficiency to agility and speed.
  6. Global supply chains will restructure around proximity and demand.

Trends 1, 2 and 3 were referenced in Part 1: It’s time to re-engineer an interactive CAB journey. Trend 4 is relevant here because in order to be “driven by purpose”, vendors must truly understand their customers’ needs and expectations. Christine offers us the following:

Vigilant organizations, as defined by George Day (author of See Sooner, Act Faster, emeritus fellow of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania), are long-term oriented companies with a learning culture. They invest in strategies driven by outside-in perspectives, in-depth customer insights, continuous external trend analysis, and sense-making. Within the organization, data is transparent and fluid to empower all worker’s actions and decisions.

As a company and product leader, you are constantly challenged to gather, process, and share customer and market insights This is especially important as it relates to your evolving value proposition. How much time do you spend exploring the future with your customers? What stories are you hearing? Are you sharing these stories with your Board of Directors? Your CAB is an excellent source of this type of information — but only if you structure your CAB program accordingly.

What if, instead of sprinting to execute a single full-day CAB meeting each year, you engaged with your customers on an interactive journey with many small touch points along the way? Over time, you would learn a lot about them, their customers, and how their business is evolving. What would this type of interaction look like? How could you harness what you learn and share it broadly in your company?

This is the next generation model of your CAB program.

Orchestrating a virtual CAB program

Transitioning from a physical CAB program to a virtual one isn’t as simple as cut-and-pasting an 8-hour in-person agenda into an all-day virtual meeting. That would be painful and no one would attend. In fact, the world is suffering from “Zoom overload” now. Many executives tell me they are on Zoom (or another video conferencing tool) at least six hours each day!

So what’s the answer? Do you need to invest in a virtual engagement platform? No. In fact, I recommend a practical and pragmatic approach. Inventory the tools you already have. I’ve captured a few of these in the side bar.

Innovation comes when you discover how to strategically orchestrate these engagement tools so that they encourage timely collaboration and meaningful conversations that benefit you and your customers.

CAB Engagement Tools in Your Arsenal

  • Member interviews (1:1)
  • Webinars (1:many)
  • Podcasts
  • Virtual roundtables (small groups, moderated)
  • Interactive video conferences (moderated)
  • Curated text and chat (e.g., private Slack channel or forum)
  • Offline and real-time surveys and polling
  • Virtual whiteboarding interactions
  • Shared mind-mapping exercises
  • Facilitated, regional, small-group, face-to-face meetings (when travel restrictions are lifted)
  • Facilitated annual CAB meetings (if/when appropriate)

Consider this new generic model being adopted by several of KickStart Alliance’s clients (see cover graphic).

  • The traditional annual CAB meeting has been remodeled into a multi-faceted, virtual engagement. The model includes an updated charter statement explaining the goals, benefits and expectations of this new model.
  • A subset of eight CAB members is chosen for the pilot, thereby limiting variables dealing with the global customer community.
  • Member interviews are underway as of this writing, which is standard protocol for any CAB.
  • Because webinar attention span is waning, the CEO is offering a 15-minute podcast message for CAB members only.
  • Rather than hosting a full-day CAB meeting, the agenda’s discussion modules will unfold through several 50-minute virtual roundtables (VRT) between June and August. Each will center on a single question pertinent to a carefully planned discussion topic. Prior to each VRT, the host company will distribute background information and other preparation materials. Each VRT will be moderated to ensure smooth operation and balanced interaction.
  • On Sept. 15 (the day of the originally scheduled in-person CAB meeting), there will be a final, moderated video conference that summarizes the learnings from the prior 6 months and concludes with next steps.

I believe that those companies that successfully emerge from “The Great Pause” (a phrase noted by Albert Bates and other bloggers) will be the ones who pivoted with a sense of vigilance. They will have supercharged their ability to be empathetic towards their customers and the problems they are trying to solve. To do this, they will re-imagine their CAB programs from being big production in-person CAB meetings to becoming a stream of touch points that expand over time through offline interactions and carefully moderated virtual roundtables.

Making this transition will not be easy. Operation models and expectations on behalf of the vendor and their CAB members will need to change. However, building a framework suitable for integrated virtual and in-person collaboration will result in strengthened relationships that will define the next decade.

Benefits of a Virtual CAB Model

But, why do this now? Isn’t it easier just to wait until times get better?

The high cost of going dark: The simple answer is, no. If you already have a CAB program, your customers are waiting to hear from you. They want more than your canned COVID-19 response; they want faith in you. Going dark plants seeds of uncertainty. This is not about knowing all the answers. You have an opportunity to provide leadership in how your company is navigating the future. Three questions you should ask your CAB members now:

1) How has COVID-19 affected your business today?

2) What can we do to help you?

3) How is COVID-19 impacting your ability to plan for your future?

Listening when times are tough can be much more powerful than listening when life is good. A virtual program allows you to do this via a cadence of pulse checks that are easier for your customers to participate in, regardless of where they’re located.

Dollars and cents: The CAB program is a commitment to an ongoing, strategic-level dialog. Traditionally, this came with the moderate to high expense of hosting an in-person meeting and transporting a dozen customers to a 5-star hotel for a day and a half. Moving to a virtual program using the tools you already have reduces your financial and time-investment costs substantially. CAB members will also find it easier to participate in a few 1-hour VRTs throughout the year rather taking two or three days out of their busy schedule for an in-person meeting. But maintaining a healthy interactive CAB program requires vigilance and stamina that is not unlike planning and maintaining the cadence of a relevant and timely editorial calendar.


For more information . . .

With a specialty in CABs, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with more than 18 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.  Check out more of his best practices articles and videos on his CAB Resource Center. Contact Mike