Last week I wrapped up my final Customer Advisory Board meetings for the year. I had wonderful opportunities to work with some great clients on forming and facilitating their CABs, in addition to providing CAB critiques to a variety of enterprise and start-up companies. December offers a time of reflection and relaxation to recharge my batteries. For me, this meant getting caught up on one of my guilty pleasure TV shows: the Great British Baking Show.  That’s when I discovered that this show is a perfect metaphor when it comes to judging the success of CAB programs.

Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry are the Great British Baking Show judges.

In this show, twelve amateur bakers compete in a 10-week series of bake-offs. They are judged by two renowned baking experts, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. In judging the contestant’s efforts, there are 3 common criticisms that keep surfacing. These same criticisms can also be applied to many CABs.

Style over substance

Chocolate Torte with Ganache and piped Rosettes

Here is a delicious looking chocolate torte with ganache and piped rosettes. Too bad this one is made out of cardboard.

The issue: CAB managers are not often the same people who are responsible for the content. Sometimes, organizational politics and competing priorities hinder alignment between these team players. When that happens, the CAB manager focuses more energy on what he/she can control — namely, the logistics. When CAB managers spend more time (and skill) debating locations and negotiating with hotels than they do on driving internal preparations that include defining the CAB strategy, objectives, and ensuring alignment on the agenda and content, the result will be a very poor CAB experience for you and your customers.

Keep in mind that a 5-star property is appropriate, but you don’t need to go overboard on the glitz. Your customers are busy people. So, it is unnecessary to feel that you need to include an A-list celebrity guest speaker as part of the agenda. And, you really don’t need to offer them rooms that cost more than $500/night. You don’t need to invite spouses or offer spa treatments. It is not your job to be a travel guide and offer a vacation package. (Remember the 3 reasons why your CXO customers will want to attend your CAB meeting.) Your CAB is a strategy-level business meeting where the agenda is the most important thing they care about. The agenda must be relevant, timely, and action oriented. No amount of glitz will make up for a poorly defined and random-feeling CAB meeting.

When this happens, Paul Hollywood would say that your CAB has more style than substance. You need a balance, but at the end of the day, the cake has to taste good.

The fix: Partner with a seasoned facilitator who is skilled in navigating internal politics and can guide you through all steps of the preparation process. When organizational politics create hurdles, do not hesitate to ask your CAB facilitator to assist. An experienced, senior facilitator will be able to offer insight, guidance, and maturity to help your leadership team become aligned. This is included as a standard component of all of my CAB engagements.   

Under proven

Unproven bread

When your yeast fails to activate, your bread will be dense. In British baking terms, it will be “under proven.”

The issue: The most egregious error in forming a CAB program is that lack of a clear strategy. It is very important to understand that the CAB is a very valuable piece of (qualitative) market research. Thus, it needs to be integrated with other forms of market research your company may be conducting (i.e. customer surveys, Net Promoter scores, focus groups). Together, all of these efforts form your “voice of the customer” perspective. Thus, the strategy for where your CAB fits must be well understood by everyone from your CEO to your first line managers.

In baking terms, the word “proven” means to “let rise”. It has to do with the yeast you use in your cake or pastry. Once you knead these ingredients together, you let the mixture sit for a period of time in hopes that it will rise. The same can be said regarding the importance of your strategy. It needs time to grow and set.

Here’s a simple example: during a typical CAB kickoff meeting, many of your colleagues may feel that they already know what the agenda should be. They’ll say they already have slides. I can tell you with complete confidence, having conducted well over 100 CAB meetings over the past 16 years, that this first draft agenda will be wrong. But you won’t know that right way. Knowing comes later after the team has had time to think about the agenda. After they have had time to consider what questions they really want to ask. And, it comes after they have internalized what actions they will be willing to take after they digest the output of the CAB.

When agenda topics are ill formed, when your company executives debate the merits of a topic at the meeting, and in front of the customers, (instead of in a private setting behind closed doors), it’s a sign that the CAB agenda has not been fully vetted. Mary Berry would say that the “yeast” in your CAB prep did not rise. Your strategy was “under proven.”

The fix: You and your team need time to reflect on your strategy before you lock in your agenda. This can typically take several weeks or a couple of months. Again, look to your facilitator to help you guide the process. Your CAB is too important to run the risk that the strategy behind your meeting is under proven. Follow this methodology for CAB prep.

Under baked

Undercooked cakes

When cakes are not cooked long enough, the middle will be raw. The execution of a perfectly good recipe will be a disaster.

The issue: A CAB meeting that yields no definitive guidance is wasted time.  This happens when the meeting is poorly facilitated. Not only is your facilitator responsible for ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. He or she is the key to establishing a comfortable environment for open, candid, and constructive conversation.

Your facilitator, while not a content expert, must be able to engage customers with key questions. They must exhibit the attitude of an “investigative journalist”, curious to understand why your customers think the way that they do. They must also be able to balance the desire to hear equally from every customer, while allowing your executives to engage in appropriate follow-up questions. This approach ensures that your customers will be the focus of the day, not your products. You want your customers to do 80% of the talking. Your team does 80% of the listening. That is the only way your team will learn from the CAB experience.

These are only the basics. A great, seasoned CAB facilitator will do more than this. They will ensure that at the end of every discussion module, and at the end of day, the topics are summarized with key takeaways and a prioritized list of those topics and action items that are worthy of further discussion. You need a facilitator who is comfortable, friendly, and capable of engaging your  customers with style and finesse to reach a conclusion at the end of each discussion module. This type of high energy engagement from your facilitator will ensure that your CAB is fully baked.

When CAB meetings do not include a clear output at the end of the day, Paul Hollywood would tell you that your CAB was not well baked. It was undercooked, raw, and a real mess.

The fix: For best results use a professional CAB facilitator. But, if you decide to facilitate a CAB yourself, consider hiring a CAB expert to coach your leaders on improving their facilitation skills. You’ll need to be aware that you bring an implied bias that will likely hinder your customers. When you facilitate a meeting yourself, you speak from a position of authority. Customers will unconsciously adjust their behavior. Either way, it still makes sense to work with a professional who will guide you to your best outcome.  Read 9 Characteristics of a great CAB facilitator.

Putting it all together

For anyone who has every tried to bake a cake, we know how difficult it can be. On the one hand, there is a recipe. So, how hard could it possibly be? Indeed!

Preparing and executing your CAB program is very similar to baking a cake. Not only do you need the right ingredients. You need the skill and experience to know how to bake it successfully. My experience comes from more than 30 years in the B2B hi-tech kitchen, working predominately with CXOs throughout my career.  This is only a bit of the perspectives and insights I offer in my CAB Resource Center. I am available to help you find answers to your questions as you build your own business case for your CAB. I’m happy to help. My door is always open to you.

Mike Gospe leads KickStart Alliance’s CAB practice.