Throughout 2020-2021, I coached B2B companies on how to transition their in-person Customer Advisory Board and Partner Advisory Board programs into a useful, productive virtual model.  I facilitated 46 virtual CAB meetings, and I learned a lot about how to make these work. Whether you are conducting virtual CAB meetings or transitioning back to in-person meetings, these best practices will continue to define the best, world-class CAB meetings. Here are 10 tips to make your advisory board program successful.

1) Think programmatically 

In-person CAB meetings will eventually return, but not until later this year when COVID condition allow. Until then, virtual engagement is your best option. Thinking about your CAB as a program will help you integrate a variety of touchpoint throughout the year.

A series of 60 or 90 minute virtual calls, spread over several weeks or months are in. Your core objectives are the same as they were in pre-COVID: What is it you want to learn? And, what are you prepared to do with the information you collect? This is true for every single meeting, virtual or not. Thinking programmatically gives you the added benefit of engaging with your Advisory Board more often than just once a year. Your Board(s) help guide you through good times and challenging times like these. In 2019, these companies may have had just one touch-point with their advisory board members. In 2020-21, my clients enjoyed 4 – 12 meaningful touch-points. Programmatic thinking changes the possibilities of how to harness this resource. As in-person CAB meetings resume, thinking programmatically will continue to serve you and your CAB members well.

2) Separate the lecturing from the discussing

I’ve interviewed many executives in 2020-21 who told me they are on video calls between 4 – 7 hours each day! They are suffering from “Zoom overload.” It is not unusual for executives to multi-task during these calls, especially when these meetings are lectures or they are poorly managed. To hold their undivided attention, you need to have your Advisory Board members actively engaged from the get-go. So, separate the information and product updates (i.e. those agenda elements that are heavily presentations or lectures) from the discussion modules. Example: prerecord your product or roadmap updates in a podcast format and share that with your members before the call. Instruct them to listen to this (or peruse the slide deck or read the report) prior to the call. That way, when you open the call you can jump straight into discussion. You’ll want to leverage this best practice when in-person meetings resume, too.

3) Plan Advisory Board programs per geography

If you are running an international or global business, you will benefit from separating your Advisory Board group by geography. In the past, you’d be forced to limit attendees in a global in-person Advisory Board meeting. In going virtual, you can reach more participants in each region. More importantly, you can fine-tune agendas to dive deeper into understanding geopolitical and economic realities that impact your business. Your core agenda and objective stays the same. You just conduct multiple CAB calls or PAB calls. By the end of the program you will truly feel much more global.

4) Interview all Advisory Board members prior to the first meeting

This has always been a standard business practice, but it is much more important now. The world has changed so dramatically and so fast that executives have told me that how they used to do things no longer works. Their supply chains, operational practices, and business priorities have been severely impacted by the pandemic — some positively (at least for now), others tragically. So, before you sit down for the first meeting, you really need to know how they are doing personally and professionally. These interviews are really the first major touch-point in your Advisory Board program (see Tip #1).

Read: How to interview your CXO customers

5) Show them that you are listening

Within 48 hours of each CAB meeting (virtual or in person) send an executive summary of what was discussed, your top takeaways, and any immediate action items. While some of your customers may never read these reports, they will know that you sent one. It’s a sign that you were listening. And it’s a sign that you care enough to have documented the discussion so you can take to heart the wisdom and advice they have shared. It is very encouraging to have an Advisory Board member proactively share with your CEO how impressed they are with your program. Also, sending these reports out quickly helps you maintain momentum with your group.

“As an organization, you don’t only ask, but you also listen!” — CAB member: Group Head of Business Intelligence & Analytics sharing with a CEO after the CAB series.

6) Keep the group small

If you’ve ever been on a video call with more than 10 people, you know how hard it can be to be heard. It’s also too tempting to zone out and multitask. This is the exact opposite of what we want. The magic of video calls is that you can host as many calls you like. Breaking up the larger group into segments or sub-teams can work to everyone’s advantage. Example: you have a global CAB team of 30 members. You might think about creating 3 sub-teams: one or North America, one for Europe, and a third team representing your most advanced customers. Splitting a large group in this way allows for multiple lines of meaningful discussion. Members will appreciate the intimacy and ability to participate. And you’ll be able to cover more ground and have better, more insightful conversations. (For in-person CAB meetings, 12 customers will continue to be the sweet spot. Having more than 12 customers changes the dynamics. Success caters to human psychology. Smaller groups invite more intimate, meaningful discussion and sharing.)

7) Maintain your balance

What is your objective? And, how many Advisory Board calls (or in-person meetings) can you effectively manage? Your answers to these questions will help you scope your program so you can balance how many meetings you can manage, and how often you can run them. This program is not hard to run; but it requires time and attention. There are no expectations. I have one client who is running a program centered on two CAB calls. I have another who is running a robust global program with a webinars, podcasts, and 6 virtual calls. It is better to be successful with a manageable program than to over-promise and fail to deliver an effective engagement.

8) Keep it simple

You don’t need to impress anyone with fancy gimmicks, gifts, or incentives. Your customers and partners are busy people (as are you). They don’t have time to participate in anything that doesn’t help them drive their business. That should be your focus. Executives attend these meetings when they are well-organized, focused, and digestible (short, and easy to engage in). That’s why the 60 or 90 minute time allotment works for virtual CAB meetings. The best gift you can offer is your time and willingness to listen. They have a lot to tell you.

9) Plan for 2023 now

Unfortunately, the pandemic and the implications on business travel and social distancing will continue well into 2022. All we know for certain is that flexibility will also be important in 2023. If you have not engaged your CAB or PAB in the past two years, doing so now should be a priority. Your competitors are likely having these strategic virtual conversations. You are at a disadvantage if your aren’t. Waiting for things to get back to “normal” where you can meet face-to-face in a 5-star hotel for a day is not your best option. The good news is that the virtual CAB and PAB model works when best practices are followed. The model will continue to be refined as people get more comfortable with this format. Eventually, face-to-face meetings will be come back. But waiting it out is risky for your business.

10) Don’t go it alone

Take advantage of a skilled facilitator who can help you plan your entire advisory board program (virtual, in-person, or perhaps a combo of each type of meeting) and set the pace for your team. I work as an extension of the CEO’s staff to connect the dots between what we learn at Advisory Board meetings and a company’s vision/strategy/planning priorities.

“Our CAB has been a truly valuable and substantive resource for us in 2020-21.” — CAB Host: VP Products

Read: Why frequent touchpoints with top customers (and partners) is more vital now than ever before

Visit: The CAB Resource Center

For more information . . .

With a specialty in CABs, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with 20 years of Advisory Board leadership experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 200 world-class CAB and PAB meetings in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia Pacific. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s CAB practice. Contact Mike