The past two years have seen Customer Advisory Boards evolve dramatically. What was traditionally thought of as an in-person meeting has been completely altered because of COVID concerns. And yet, CAB programs have blossomed everywhere. Advances in virtual-meeting technologies and a new approach to programmatic engagement have allowed companies to interact in more ways than ever before. This has resulted in strengthened relationships, deeper insights in understanding new customer priorities, and potential discoveries of new revenue streams.
1. Virtual CAB meetings are here to stay
In 2020-2021, I have personally helped companies in US and Europe architect and facilitate 46 virtual CAB (and Partner Advisory Board) meetings. I have learned how to make these virtual meetings sing – and I well-understand the traps that can kill a program. The bottom line: virtual CAB meetings are now a proven tool. Even as in-person meetings are now being planned for 2022 (COVID-19 conditions allowing), CAB programs will include a virtual component.
There is a bucket of value and a set of expectations associated with every CAB engagement. However, the value looks different if the experience is delivered in-person versus virtually. Success is found in setting proper expectations on the engagement – both internally and with your CAB members.
- They are set up as a series consisting of 2 – 4 virtual meetings scheduled during the year
- Each virtual meetings lasts 60-90 minutes in length
- Each virtual meeting has one (and only one) discussion topic
- Materials (either a pre-meeting video, slides, or a short whitepaper) and a “trigger” question is shared with CAB members before the meeting so they can prepare. (The “trigger” question is the question your facilitator uses to initiate the interactive discussion.)
These characteristics allow your company (the CAB host) to make the most out of the limited time you have with your CAB members.
2. Your CAB is a program, not an event!
When talking about your CAB internally and with CAB members, strip the word “event” from your vocabulary. The word “event” connotes a “one-off” (happens only once) experience associated with conferences, guest speakers, and marketing launch. This is the exact opposite of what your CAB should be.
In fact, the word “event” cheapens the strategic value associated with a CAB. You CAB is more akin to a strategy-level market research initiative than it does to an industry conference or marketing event.
Successful CAB programs (as well as Partner Advisory Board programs) are programmatic. A program includes multiple touch-points that take place throughout the year. In 2020 and 2021, a typical CAB program included these elements:
- Facilitator interviewing CAB members at the beginning of the year
- A series of 2-4 virtual meetings
- CEO meeting with new CAB members one-on-one for a 20-minute welcome call
- At least one sub-CAB call (where 2-3 CAB members meet with the host company executive to have a side-bar discussion)
- Participation in an online survey to further explore a topic raised in a virtual CAB meeting
- CAB insights shared with the sales team to help drive agendas for 1:1 account review meetings with CAB members
- A CAB member appreciation gift given at the conclusion of the series
As we prep for 2022, some companies are planning an in-person meeting in Q2. Add this to the above list. Maybe you’ll only host one virtual CAB call, in that case.
Unfortunately, it looks like the pandemic is not done with us yet. Some companies are being pragmatic: hoping for the best for an in-person CAB meeting, but also having a “plan B” for converting the program to virtual if needed. It’s best to leave all your options open.
3. “Substance over style” is your key to success
How do you measure the success of your CAB program? Hint: it’s not mapped to the size of the shrimp you serve at dinner. (Yes, I had an executive tell me this once as a metaphor to what a successful CAB looked like to him.) It’s not in offering a “spouses weekend” or high-end travel packages or tickets to top sporting event. Those are all nice, and they are wonderful as customer-appreciation perks. But, success is not defined by how much you spend on CAB members.
The measure of a successful CAB program is found in the valuable conversations that unfold in the meetings AND between the meetings.
What did you learn that you did not already know?
How did this information help you discover or strengthen your competitive advantage?
How and why did these insights help you refine your business model, value proposition, roadmap, go-to-market plans, etc.?
CAB members return to CAB meetings because the dialog is valuable to them and to you.
This begs the question: Why will customers want to attend your CAB?
There are three reasons. These reasons are always the same, regardless of the industry. This is because CAB success is rooted in human behavior.
- Customers want to talk with their peers about strategic issues they care about.
This is always the #1 perk. There are actually very few opportunities for customers to do this. Sure, they can attend a Gartner conference or a tradeshow. But that interaction and experience is completely different than what a well-designed CAB program can offer. In conferences and tradeshows, the bulk of their time is listening. They are consumers of information. We want CAB members to talk and offer guidance and advice to you. They have opinions and information they desperately want their vendors to know. This cannot be achieved while listening passively in an audience. And conferences and tradeshows are designed for large groups; your CAB program is exclusive and personal.
- CAB members want to know what your CEO and leadership team are really thinking.
They want to know what your value proposition is and how it is evolving. They want to help you shape it so it helps them. CAB members want to hear from you the things that are not shared in a press release or your canned pitch.
- They come because you are actually, sincerely interested in listening to what they have to share.
Company executives who think they know all the answers are a turn-off. CAB members are hungry for organic (but strategically, thoughtfully, structured) conversations about the future. And they want to influence your thinking. Your CAB members have already invested in you. You don’t need to sell them on anything. Just listen.
In conclusion: hosting your in-person meeting at a 5-star location is table stakes. But: always, always, always, it’s substance over style.
For more information . . .
With a specialty in Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) and Partner Advisory Boards (PAB), Mike Gospe is an advisory board strategist & professional facilitator with more than 20 years of CAB & PAB experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 200 world-class CAB in-person and virtual meetings. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s CAB practice.