What makes a customer advisory board (CAB) program truly world-class? While these signs are easy to recognize, they are often difficult to implement because “world-class” means something different to the host company and to your CAB members. It’s too easy to cut corners and lose sight of the business outcome you want to achieve. You’ll need to manage both sets of expectations. Here are a few guidelines to set you on the best course for you and your CAB members.

A CAB failure

A VP of marketing once told me his company had just completed their first CAB meeting. They were worried that the meeting would turn into a complaint session, so they invited only the friendliest of customers. They were worried that the group would not engage in conversation, so they filled every minute with lectures and product updates. In other words, they purposely controlled the agenda with product presentations instead of a meaningful dialog. And they were worried about sharing their “strategic directions” for fear of customers disagreeing with their assumptions, so they kept the conversation at a near meaningless generic level. As a result the VP said he learned absolutely nothing! Everyone enjoyed the open bar and socializing after hours; however, this meeting was a failure. In the words of the VP, “It could have been, and should have been, so much more.”

He’s right. If you are going to invest the time, money, and resources into a CAB program, it must be meaningful to both you and your customers.

What “world-class” means to the host company

  1. You learn something meaningful and important you did not already know. If you find one “aha!” moment during the day or day-and-a-half you spend with this group, you’ve achieved success. However, if all you captured was a “well, that was interesting” summary, then you missed the mark. You also need the second part . . . .
  2. The feedback you collect can be immediately applied to decisions you are about to make. During the meeting you shared a business hypothesis and tested a couple of possible investment options. Should you pursue path A or path B? Did your CAB members help you validate your assumptions? Did they question your reasoning? Did they brainstorm with you to help shape your priorities? If the answer is yes to any of these, then the meeting provided you with some important information that should be included (or at least referenced) in your business plan.
  3. Your CAB members tell you, “this was a good use of my time”. Executives enjoy Advisory Board meetings because they value exploring topics of strategic interest to them and to you. And, they enjoy comparing notes with their executive peers. When you allow that to happen, the group bonds. This goes far beyond sharing a lunch or dinner; this is about encouraging your customers to talk with each other and to collaborate with you on ways your company can help their businesses (and the industry) move forward. You should ask them this in your CAB evaluation form.  And, ask them to elaborate. You must be humble and leave your ego at the door. What you learn will greatly help you create stickiness and loyalty with your best customers.

What “world-class” means to your customers

  1. They learn from you and the group. Your customers want to learn from you as much as you want to learn from them. It’s a two-way street. However, that doesn’t mean they want to be lectured. They hate “death by PowerPoint.” They want and expect you to pose thoughtful questions. And, these questions should be provided before the face-to-face meeting starts. They want to be engaged early. So, give them a few questions in the weeks leading up to the meeting. Ask them to chat with their staff about the answers. That way, when they arrive at your meeting, they are armed with relevant and complete information. They love this type of interaction because it rarely happens with their other vendors.
  2. They know you are listening. I just completed an advisory board and the VP from a major brand tech company pulled me aside to tell me how great the meeting was. I asked him to explain why. He said, “I sit on a number of tech boards and yours is the best because I can tell the executives here are listening to what we are saying. They allow time in the agenda to pursue meaningful conversations. And I can tell they are listening because I see the progress between meetings.”
  3. They can’t wait to continue the dialog. World-class CABs are more than just isolated meetings; they are programs that continue the conversation throughout the year. Set up a LinkedIn page, or an intranet site where they can share information with each other in an easy, secure way. In between face-to-face meetings, set up a 1-hr webinar to update the group on your progress. And, don’t be afraid to give them some homework so they can be prepared to engage you. Here’s some tough love for you: It is not your job to know all the answers before every meeting. No. Instead, it’s your job to know the questions you want to ask and to know why you are asking those questions. In essence, you become the curator of the conversation, and your customers will greatly appreciate this.

For more information on CAB best practices and tips and tools, check out my CAB Resource Center blog.

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Mike Gospe leads KickStart Alliance’s CAB practice.

Mike Gospe is a CAB Strategy Advisor and a professional facilitator for B2B companies. He has more than 30 years of B2B tech leadership experience. Since 2002, his market leadership and CAB best practices have helped large enterprises and small companies design and deliver more than 100 successful CAB engagements. To learn more about his tools, “how to” books on CABs and marketing best practices, and custom engagements, please visit either KickStart Alliance, his CAB Resource Center or contact Mike.