Running Customer Advisory Boards
This article contains some tips and strategies for running effective CABs.
A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is a representative group of customers that meets periodically to offer advice on the product and company direction. These meetings are a great way to validate that your product direction is in sync with your customers' technology and business plans. Key customers can look at your plans and provide valuable feedback about your strategy. This article contains some tips and strategies for running effective CABs.
Customer councils are usually held twice a year, although some companies run them more frequently. Some companies have two separate advisory groups that attend alternate meetings.
Ideally the customer council meetings should be held either at your company facility or at a nearby hotel so that as many employees can attend as is appropriate. Some customer councils meet in field offices for maximum regional participation. An annual user group meeting is an ideal forum for holding smaller advisory councils since the customers are already there.
Three or four vendor employees, led by product management, facilitate the meeting. Development leads and product architects are also involved; they'll be amazed at how real people perceive the products. Sales people usually want to be on-hand if their customers are invited. A short visit by the company president or General Manager is a great way to kick off the meeting.
Be careful of making commitments in a customer advisory meeting. This is an input session, not a decision-making body. And you probably don't want to continue to hold additional meetings if you haven't delivered on the designs revealed in past meetings. The basic research rule applies: Don't research something that you're not willing to change.
Invite six to eight customer representatives. Many will want to send two people, often a technology advisor as well as a business representative of the customer.
Customers should be selected to participate in the CAB based on their ability to represent a specific market segment. We should avoid the loud-but-big customer--the ones usually suggested by sales people. However, large customers are always important to your company and may be invited purely for improving customer relations with them.
Ideally, each customer should be a bellwether for the industry they represent. Avoid inviting competing customers within the same segment so that competitors are not in the same council meeting. Competitors may be leery of discussing their challenges in front of one another.
Invitations should go out well in advance, a couple months if possible, to allow customers to schedule the meeting appropriately.
Good advisory customers will pay their own expenses to come to your corporate office. They know that steering the product future will result in a better solution for them in the long run. You don't have to motivate them with expensive gifts either; the better product is all the incentive they need. However, a standard giveaway, such as a company logo-ed pen or golf shirt, is appreciated. You should plan on supplying meals for your customers during their stay and have one event or dinner with the group.
Customers are surprisingly eager to attend customer councils. If they use your product often, they want to be taken seriously and they want their product suggestions to be heard. Having regular customer council meetings is a great way to:
Validate ideas for new products and features
Find major flaws in your current product design
Discover how customers are actually using your product
Determine the killer features of your current product
Uncover additional competitive information. After all, your customers evaluated your product next to someone else's.
Learn about future technologies your customers are evaluating and how this will impact your product's future
Listen for differences between what you hear from potential buyers on a sales call and what you hear in this meeting of customers. Remember that you are dealing with customers, not prospects. They have already bought and are indoctrinated into your way of thinking. They will be telling you about product usage, information critical to development but often not relevant to sales or marketing communications.
- Introductions of company personnel and customers. It is important that everyone is introduced. Ask that the customers not only introduce themselves, but tell a little bit about how they are using your product.
- Presentations of each advisor's strategic technology plan. Ask each to present three or four slides about where their company is headed strategically, perhaps as it relates to your product, including planned shifts in technology, projected changes in employee headcount, and any new business initiatives that may have an effect.
- Discussion of current challenges. Before you start talking about your strategy, take the time to listen! What challenges are your customers facing when dealing with your product and company? A Force Field Analysis is a good technique to get people talking about both the positive and negative aspects of your products and services.
- Overview of product line. You will sometimes be surprised that many of your customers don't know your current product line. Give a brief overview of the features and benefits of your current products. Customers may learn that you have existing solutions to their problems.
- Roadmap of product plans. The objective is to get your customers? feedback on the product plans. Ideally you want give as much information as possible and include a demonstration of a prototype if feasible, to maximize the feedback you will get. Discuss how this new capability will affect their future business plans and the impact on their employees.
- Open Discussion. A good facilitator can make an open discussion very productive; without a facilitator, this often turns into a complaining session. Have a list of items for discussion, such as features ideas, new products suggestions, new technologies that your customers are using in conjunction with your products. Don't forget to ask about professional services, phone support, and web-based support. Ask how your customers get information on new products.
- Breakout sessions. It is sometimes easier to get feedback in smaller groups. There may be certain discussion areas that are more interesting to some than others. By using more focused sessions you can get more detailed feedback.
- Review. Review the main points from the day. Ask what they liked and disliked about the session. Solicit suggestions for improvement.
A customer advisory session is a great method of getting real customers to validate your ideas before the company is totally committed. You can test assumptions. You will learn what they truly value in your product.
Using a customer council is one way of listening to the market and keeping your product focused on solving real problems.
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