If you are thinking of your upcoming Customer Advisory Board (CAB) meeting as an “event”, you are missing the full potential of what your CAB represents. The best, most effective CABs programs are purposely managed as strategic assets. You CAB should not be a single meeting run by an event manager like a tradeshow. It is owned by a senior member of the leadership team; and the program must be viewed as a cross-functional company initiative.

What makes some CAB programs better than others?

Here’s a very simple framework. But don’t be fooled. There is a lot of effort behind this table. The first step to recognizing the full potential of your CAB program is to consider the “before”, “during”, and “after” opportunities with every CAB meeting.

CABs: good, best, better

Understanding the differences

It is unfortunate, but many companies view their CAB as a singular “event” – meaning that the attention to detail is missing. The agenda comes together a few days before the meeting. Slides are tuned in the early hours before the start of the meeting. This is not the way to run a CAB program.

The seriousness and attention applied to every CAB meeting, virtual or in-person, should be of the same caliber as preparing for a Board of Director’s meeting. A meeting with your CAB should be considered as one of your most important meetings of the year because this is the one place and one time where your most strategic customers are meeting with your CEO and leadership team to talk about the future.

Before the meeting

1) While it seems obvious that an agenda should be distributed ahead of the meeting, this doesn’t always happen. This leaves the attendees unprepared. And, you’ll have to dedicate time on the agenda to share the context before you can jump into discussion. The time you have with CAB members is short; you need to make the most of it in discussions, not lectures or presentations. The better prepared you and your CAB members, the more enlightening the conversation!

2) The most effective agendas are centered on two key questions:

    • What do you want to learn?
    • What are you prepared to do with the information you collect?

It takes time to consider the implications of these questions. They are not as simple as they first appear. When proper time is not given to vet the discussion topics, executive teams scramble with “what can we talk about?” versus “what are we interested in learning?”

To fill the agenda, some companies will fall back on guest speakers. But listening to a guest speaker on a topic CAB members may or may not care about is a passive activity. It is not nearly as effective and meaningful as listening to customers explain how their business is evolving and exploring how you may be able to help them. The agendas found in the best CAB meetings are centered on the customer, not the vendor.  

3) It is a good idea to interview CAB members prior to the meeting to preview the agenda topics. You can also ask them what they would like to talk about.

4) The companies who run the best CAB meetings go one step further by providing CAB members with background information on the discussion modules, including key questions that will be explored. Background material, provided either as an article or a prerecorded video from the CEO or other executives, is well-received by CAB members. CAB members want to be prepared so they can participate fully.

During the meeting

1) Follow the 80/20 rule where 80% of your time is dedicated to listening to customers answer your strategic questions. To be frank, listening is a skill many executives need to improve.

2) Don’t fill your agenda with product updates. There are better forums for deliver that information.

3) Remember that you are under NO OBLIGATION to agree with anything the CAB members may ask of you. Your only obligation is to listen and ask good follow-up questions so you understand why they are giving you this feedback. CAB members know that you have many sources of market data to sift through when making investment, operational, or priority decisions. They just want to be heard. But, you’ll need to update CAB members at the next meeting on any decisions you made since the last meeting. You’ll need to close the loop.

After the meeting

1) Within 24 hours of adjourning the meeting, send a “thank you” email. I’m always surprised when this simple step is missed. It’s a not-so-common courtesy.

2) More importantly, CAB members want to know they have been heard. You should write an executive summary, following the Chatham House rules of etiquette, and send to CAB members within 30 days. Chatham House rules dictate you must not indicate who said what; your summary should reflect general themes along with any specific action items you agreed to during the meeting. (CAB members are sharing information in private.)

3) But in order to fully harness the power of your CAB, you’ll need to share what you have learned within your company. I recommend that your designated notetaker write a full report for internal use only (Chatham House rules do not apply here). Share the insights gathered with marketing, product, engineering, sales, etc. Some companies host an all-hands meeting where the executive team shares what they learned. Other companies form an internal team to begin applying the feedback. Be ready to take action immediately.

4) The companies who are the absolute best at embracing the CAB program connect their CAB with the company’s annual planning process AND the account review meetings run by the sales team at the end of the year. They leverage the relationship with CAB members to discover new potential revenue streams within these accounts.

The bottom line

Your CAB program is a strategic asset. If you use it wisely — interviewing CAB members as a source of qualitative market research, connecting your CAB with your annual planning process, and then following up with CAB members individually to ensure you are staying relevant with their needs and expectations — it is likely you will grow revenue with each of them.

What to read next:

* Mapping the right questions to your Customer Advisory Board

* How to link your CAB to your executive planning offsite

* How to use your CAB to drive innovation

Mike Gospe is an advisory board strategist and professional facilitator for B2B companies. Since 2002, his marketing leadership and CAB best practices have helped large and small enterprise companies deliver more than 200 successful CAB engagements. His CAB Resource Center – a website dedicated to CAB best practices – has become a trusted resource since its launch in 2017.