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Customer advisory board
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How to build a customer advisory board

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Why are customer advisory boards so valuable and what are the key considerations when building one? Learn how to create a charter, identify the objectives, choose the right attendees and send the perfect invites. 

27th Sep 2022
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The Voice of the Customer powers the most successful customer experience management programmes, and access to this rich resource comes in many forms. While much is written and discussed about surveys, text analytics, speech analytics and complaints, one source that tends to get less coverage is the customer advisory board. 

Perhaps because it is something of an old-fashioned concept that doesn't have the tech glamour of analytics or social media monitoring, the customer advisory board isn't discussed as much in customer experience circles as it perhaps should. Let's take a look at why these boards are providing valuable steer to many of the biggest brands in the world, and how your organisation can catch up if it has neglected to put one - or more! - in place. 

Customer advisory boards are groups of customers that are invited to meetings to provide feedback on the company and its product and/or services. As open forums designed to allow customers to speak candidly, they can provide valuable strategic steer for businesses, they can help to guide the company’s product roadmap and provide beta users for new products, they can provide greater understanding of the market and identify potential new markets - and they can also increase customer loyalty amongst participants. 

“No matter how great our personas may be and how many customer surveys we conduct, there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth, writes Heather McCloskey, VP of marketing at UserVoice, an organisation that has used customer advisory boards to great effect. “The more intimate and open setting of a customer advisory board can provide a fresh look at customers’ true motivations.”

So if you’re keen to capitalise on the potential benefits of a customer advisory board (CAB), what do you need to know and how can you set one up?

What are your objectives?

First of all, you need to define precisely what the objectives of the customer advisory board are going to be. 

“No one would disagree that getting customer input frequently is extremely valuable, but it is important to align internally on what the purpose of the customer advisory board is,” notes Puja Rajmani, head of core product marketing at Gainsight, another advocate of CABs. “It is possible that you have multiple goals. For us, we want to engage with our key customers on important strategic questions for the business, but we also want to be able to have an in-depth discussion on our product roadmap. To support that goal, consider hosting multiple CABs that are broken out along customer characteristics. That way you can target specific goals and hold the discussion that is most relevant to that group.”

McCloskey lists a few common objectives around which you could focus your advisory board:

  • Understanding market trends: What are members seeing and experiencing in the market? 

  • Validating product direction: Are the upcoming features and areas of emphasis aligned with what customers actually need and care about? 

  • Unpacking the needs of specific verticals: Not all customers are created equal, so one objective could be understanding what companies of different sizes or in various industries really need from the product.

  • Identifying new opportunities: Are there new products or services that could be developed? Are there new customer segments to pursue? 

What is a customer advisory board charter?

A recommended way to ensure organisational alignment on CABs is to create an official charter - something that will ensure clarity about their purpose for the business, but will also be a useful guide for potential members. 

As an example, here is Oracle’s BI Customer Advisory Board Charter from 2014, outlining both its objectives and vision:“The overall objectives for the BI Customer Advisory Board is strategic planning, long term performance and growth. As a result of these objectives Oracle will be working with the customer to help set our future product direction. Our vision for the Customer Advisory Board is to have customers share how they are using our products in the “real world” and where they are going and for Oracle to share with CAB members our current plans and future directions. This feedback will help build the next generation of the Oracle Business Intelligence Tools.”

In an Insight Partners blog post about customer advisory boards, authors Mike Gospe, Samma Hafeez and Shirley Lin, recommend: “The charter clearly explains the objectives and expectations associated with your CAB. Use an internal version of the charter to align the executive team. Draft a separate “customer-friendly” version you can share with all CAB members. “The first lesson we learned is that it’s important to define your CAB programme well…the programme should be exclusive and so elevating the quality of the discussion.”

Should you have one customer advisory board or multiple?

When it comes to populating the board, there are a few considerations to bear in mind. Firstly, you need to decide whether you want to build a single board that will provide a cross-section of your entire customer base, or whether you build a series of different boards that group similar customer profiles/groups together. 

There are pros and cons to each approach. It is easier to manage, populate and organise a single customer advisory board, for instance. However, if that group is particularly diverse it can mean that there are fewer commonalities, and little or no consensus. 

On the other hand, creating multiple boards divided into similar circumstances, profiles, etc can surface deeper discussions and potentially greater value for both participants and the organisation. But these conversations could become too niche in the context of the wider customer base, while organising and facilitating many different board meetings could become arduous. 

Whit Bouck, managing director of Insight Partners, is however an advocate of multiple advisory boards, something that she saw in action during her time at cloud collaboration giant Box. In a blog post, she reflects: “While one CAB is plenty to manage and delivers a ton of value, you may want to have several as you get bigger, each having its own purpose. By the end of my time at Box, we had about 10  advisory boards. I don’t suggest you have that many unless you have the people and energy to invest in them. In our case, they each served a unique purpose, gave us a unique set of insights, and were sponsored by a different executive within Box.”

While Whit oversaw the CIO Advisory Board, Box also sold to a lot of small companies that bought quite differently, so the organisation set up an SMB Advisory Board to address those questions/issues, ran by the head of SMB Sales.   

Box also set up a Product Advisory Board staffed by the users/administrators of its product to get better input into the new capabilities being developed, which was led by the company’s head of product. Elsewhere, because of concerns over the security of cloud solutions at that time, and customers (in particular CISOs) requesting guidance on data sharing in the cloud, Box also formed a Security Advisory Board led by its CISO. 

And finally, because it found itself selling into several specific industries, with integrations varying from sector to sector, the company also formed several separate Industry Advisory Boards led by industry specialists from its team who had formerly worked in those industries. 

Who should you invite onto a customer advisory board?

Once it is decided whether there will be a single board or multiple, there then needs to be work on ensuring that the right individuals are invited. This means getting a good mix that is a fair representation of your customer base. 

If you aren’t creating multiple boards, for example, you want to have a board that accurately represents a split between enterprise customers and small-to-medium sized brands; or affluent customers and regular customers; different age groups; and different spenders. 

Heather McCloskey advises: “One rule of thumb is that the 80-20 rule should apply: You want people from the 20% of your customers that make up 80% of your revenue. Depending on your actual customer base and revenue model, that may not be possible, but it’s definitely a good idea to include your largest customers.”

Try to get good representation from knowledgeable users and customer champions, but not so many that they are over-represented and will skew the discussions. It is also important to ensure that the customers you invite are engaged and enthusiastic, as filling boards with those who aren’t committed will limit their effectiveness. 

Bouck advises: “Focus on people who will be open-minded and who will be invested in you. Maybe most important, choose those who will give you honest feedback. Too often, I see companies form a CAB purely of high-profile individuals, thinking if they’re associated with the company, it will by default attract other customers. I would argue that your first priority should not be about what the public thinks about your advisory board…it should go back to the North star – the purpose of the CAB, which is to help you and your peers solve some hard problems. It’s fine to recruit a few high-profile individuals, but prioritise those who will give you the best insights.” 

How can you encourage customers to join an advisory board?

Of course, it may be the case that customers will need some convincing to participate. Therefore, it is important to reflect how prestigious it is to be asked to participate when sending the invitations. Ensure that the invites come from a senior executive or - even better - the CEO, which should ensure that the invitation is taken seriously. Detail the expectations and requirements of the advisory board, including things such as travel information. 

Many customers will inevitably be thinking: what’s in it for me? So McCloskey recommends that you detail the following benefits:

  • The advisory board is a forum to voice concerns, make recommendations and influence the direction of a product they rely on.

  • It is a chance to network with peers, build connections, and discuss topical issues.

  • Attendees will be sharing best practices and additional uses for the product.

  • Those on the board will have early access to new features and functionality.

  • Attendees will have access to the company’s executives.

To further sweeten the deal, you should also offer free meals and (good quality) accommodation. 

With your customer advisory board/s built, you now have to focus on ensuring that the board meetings are as effective as possible. This means understanding how frequently they should be held, where they should be held, and what should happen on the day. And this information will be shared in the next article: How to ensure your customer advisory board meetings are a success

 

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