Last month I wrote a blog post on my reflections of having worked on Customer Advisory Boards for the past 15 years. Today, I want to look ahead. Here’s what I believe CAB programs will look like 3 years from now.

Beginning in 2002, the spark that ignited the CAB initiative was a deep desire to understand customers better. What was called for was a new type of dialog — one that actually put the customer in the role of providing advice. With that in mind, the typical CAB agenda followed a structure that opened the door for a new type of engagement. This whole approach enabled executives to gain more qualitative insight into their most strategic customers. And this has been hugely beneficial. But it is not enough to ensure success.

Advances in technology (not the least of which is social media) and the ever-evolving expectations of customers everywhere are driving the next tipping point. So much so, that I believe CAB programs 3 years from now will look much different.

The CAB drumbeat

In the future, the CAB will not be planned for one meeting at a time. The CAB planning horizon will be ongoing. All the time.  An entire year of CAB interaction will be planned at the same time annual plans and budgets are set. And adjustments will be made after each interaction, in real time. Instead of hosting just one face-to-face meeting per year, a calendar of quarterly interaction will be defined. (Some companies are dedicated to this approach already, but most are not.) It will remain standard to have (at least) one face-to-face meeting per year. But during the off-quarters, a 90-minute virtual conference call will be moderated.

These virtual calls will not be random or ad hoc. They will be carefully planned and scripted to tie directly into the agenda of the face-to-face meeting. While the host company will sponsor these calls, it will become standard to invite a customer to be the primary speaker. In this way, the group learns more about each other and the trends and drivers shaping their industry. At no time will the agenda be bland project or product updates. Instead, the focus will remain on the future, with explorations of visions for future success to the group’s mutual benefit.

In addition, the face-to-face meetings will follow more creative and interactive agendas. In fact, CAB meetings will look more like collaborative working sessions. Complex topics will take center stage where the business outcome of the meeting benefits the future of all participants. Example topics could be:

  • Brainstorming ways to encourage proactive partnership relationships between patients and healthcare providers. (Relevant for a healthcare services CAB.)
  • Problem solving business issues and technology implications associated with the advancement of G5 technology on global positioning systems. (Relevant for a test & measurement solutions CAB.)
  • Dissecting investment strategies associated with the next generation of supply chain systems. (Relevant for a distribution/logistics network CAB.)

The point here is that these are not simple, straight-forward topics for an hour discussion. These are complex half-day (or longer) discussions. When groups of customers have an opportunity to turn their CAB into a forward-thinking business strategy, new ideas that will reshape the industry landscape will emerge.

Tighter linkage between CABs and BODs

It is routine for Board of Directors (BOD) meetings to happen several times per year. To prepare, many company leaders and key staff members dedicate near full time to conduct research and prep for the BOD meeting. This same dedication to prep and follow-up will be applied to the CAB.

CABs today are mainly treated as a project run by the marketing department. This is not necessarily bad. However, for the CAB to become truly effective, the output must be embraced by the entire company. Today many companies struggle in truly understanding the implications of what they learn from their CAB. In the near future, companies will directly and explicitly tie their CAB to their Board of Directors prep meetings. In fact, the learnings from the CAB meetings will become a key ingredient in preparing BOD presentations.

More so, company leaders will realize that for every future investment decision they need to make, there is a “CAB corollary question” that could be asked. Gaining insight from the CAB on these important issues will become the norm. It will not be the only consideration, but it will become an important guidepost. And BODs will be eager to know how CABs are helping the executive team make better decisions.

Evolving the host-customer relationship

Regardless of what industry you are in, I’m willing to bet it is (or will soon become) commoditized. When what you deliver becomes a commodity, the only remaining true differentiator is HOW you do what you do. (Case in point: consider Rackspace. They deliver hosting services. That’s a commodity. But their commitment to “Fanatical Support” creates a differentiable experience for the customer. The “what” is a commodity; the “how” is their secret sauce.) Thus, the CAB will become an even more important tool in your arsenal of market research and branding. This means that the investment companies make to build relationships — across the marketing / sales / customer success spectrum — may become your largest investment area. This will challenge executives to rethink these relationships and the power of insight that their CAB members can provide them.

CAB membership will continue to be extended to the top strategic thinkers in your best companies. But, how you define “best” may change. Today it is customary to consider your best companies are being your largest customers. In the future, companies may shift that thinking to sprinkle in smaller companies who are doing really interesting things, or companies who are poised to grow the fastest. No matter who these customers are, if you are placing a bet at where your future growth will come from, investing in a CAB that includes them will be important.

Yet, investing in building relationships doesn’t scale well. Indeed, this is a tough question because the power of the CAB is that they remain small, intimate groups for strategic conversations. There will be a careful balancing act in embracing a CAB, vs. focus groups, vs a user group. I don’t have the magic answer. However, I do expect to see companies redefining their CAB to become a broader initiative that supports multiple programs segmented by business unit or audience type.

These are just a few of the changing dimensions I anticipate. To learn more, drop me an email or add a comment.

Mike Gospe runs KickStart Alliance’s Customer Advisory Board practice. Since 2002 he’s helped deliver more than 100 CAB meetings for some of today’s most innovative companies.