How to organize a Customer Advisory Board

By Marissa Levin Levin_Marissa

One of the most insightful strategies for understanding and connecting with your customer is to form a Customer Advisory Board (CAB). No one knows your customers’ needs better than them, and by investing in this feedback mechanism, you’re telling them you’re committed to their success.

A CAB is quite different from a traditional advisory board, so I interviewed Bruce Peters, founder and CEO of CABHQ and WCEOHQ Forums, to learn how CEOs can select and leverage CABs to grow their businesses.

Q: What is a Customer Advisory Board?

Peters: A CAB is a strategic advisory board of customers. I use “strategic” to separate the format from “user groups,” “focus groups” or feel-good promotional groups. By “strategic,” I mean that real work occurs and that these groups are enduring and consistent. CABs work best in business-to-business environments, where there is significant value-add to the client relationship and mutual learning.

Q: Does a CAB replace, supplement or integrate with a traditional advisory board?

Peters: A CAB has a unique purpose and structure [that] should depend first on the objectives of the company. Many are not clear about what they want to accomplish. Only by having clarity around this can you decide on the right design and allocate appropriate resources.

Q: What makes a good CAB advisor?

Peters: Your CAB should reflect the diverse make-up of your client base. Create a client matrix of potential value to the company’s CAB objectives. Other than the diversity, there has to be a genuine willingness to share openly about experiences with the company, to help the company and to play well with others.

Q: How do you compensate a CAB?

Peters: A nice dinner and thank-you gifts seem appropriate in most cases. We don’t want to appear to be “buying” [a customer’s] voice. We don’t want to create a conflict of interest in any way between the company and the customer.

Q: What challenges does a CAB present for the organizing company?

Peters: They often fear that clients will ask them to do something [they]can’t. The sales organization often fears losing control of the client relationship. It’s important to address any fears or hesitation up front.

Q: What is the optimal size for a CAB?

Peters: I like 12. [They] can be as small as six or as large as 16.

Q: How do you make a CAB a valuable experience for members?

Peters: The key these days is to do real work and enhance real learning in the CAB. Most successful people have full plates — everyone must feel that they are there to make a real difference. Report back to the CAB what you heard, did and will be doing. This also involves the duty to say what you’re not going to do and why.

5 ways to create a successful CAB

In addition to Bruce Peters’ words of wisdom, there are five other strategies a business can apply to ensure a successful CAB experience.

  1. Find the right people. Recruiting the right customers is essential for soliciting the most important feedback regarding your customer experience. 
  2. Plan a productive meeting. A well-planned agenda will yield a productive conversation. 
  3. Capture takeaways. Make sure you have a plan in place to capture all customer feedback. Recording, videotaping and having a dedicated note taker can ensure this. 
  4. Implement a feedback loop. How will you validate what you heard and report back to your customers about their suggested changes and implementations? They will get frustrated if you bring them together without committing to following up and making changes. 
  5. Get executive sponsorship. Unlike a traditional advisory board, a CAB requires buy-in, engagement, and “sponsorship” from affected groups within your company. For example, if you are soliciting product input, the product development team must be engaged. CEO

Marissa Levin is chairman of strategic communications firm Information Experts, and CEO of Successful Culture, a consulting firm that helps CEOs build excellent cultures. She is the author of Built to @marissalevin

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