Customer advisory boards (also known as CABs) can be a powerful tool for unlocking the potential of your relationships with customers. While CABs can be an effective way to engage customers in a meaningful dialogue about your company’s products and services, gain valuable insights into customer needs, and develop strategies for improving customer experience, that doesn’t happen automatically.
The very idea of a customer advisory board – actual customers providing wisdom and feedback to literally advise your brand for the future – sounds like a win. But to do this well, it requires thoughtful goal-setting, careful management both for the customers involved and your organization, and dedicated resources for the long-term.
So here are some ideas for how to structure and manage your CAB, and a few best practices to set up for success.
Defining YOUR Customer Advisory Board
The generic definition for a customer advisory board is a group of customers who are invited to provide thoughtful feedback and insights into a company’s products, services, and strategies. These customers are typically selected based on their level of expertise, their knowledge of the company’s offerings, and their experience with its products and services. The goal of a customer advisory board is to provide an outside yet informed perspective on the company’s products, services, and strategies.
These are different than a simple focus group or even general customer feedback program. These boards typically meet on a certain cadence throughout a determined timeline, very often for a year or more. CAB participants are also sometimes asked to review prototypes, or they can receive early access to services in exchange for their honest feedback.
Your organization may realize some unexpected benefits by involving customers this way. It’s not just valuable input on product and service design. These invested and engaged customers can help organizations identify trends in the industry, and highlight hidden needs the market has yet to identify at large. Working closely with customers this way can lead to some less tangible but important results. Simply put, CABs can build relationships with customers, leading to more trust and open-mindedness on both sides.
Feedback alone is never enough, however. It’s what smart leaders DO with the feedback. That’s where the power of a CAB really lies.
Leaders can make more informed decisions about product and service offerings, and help drive the innovation and development of new products and services. That’s why the CAB facilitator, typically a customer experience leader, needs to work closely with product leaders from the very beginning.
How to Structure a Customer Advisory Board
Creating a customer advisory board can be an important piece of your customer experience strategy.
To ensure that your CAB is effective, it’s important to structure it in a way that is tailored to the needs of your company and your customers.
1. Articulate your purpose and define your goal.
It’s important to create a purpose statement, as well as outline the objectives of the board.
While the purpose might be singularly focused on gaining ongoing, meaningful feedback from customers who are invested in your brand, the goals might be a bit more complex. Your product team may want input on the product roadmap. Your customer success team may ask for feedback on what events and resources would be well-received. The list goes on. Determine if you need one CAB or a few, based on customer segments, product usage, and potential customer industries. Just like most things, it’s good to start small and learn with one group before adding too many!
2. Select the right members.
Additionally, it’s important to select members who have a vested interest in the success of your company and its products and services. Depending on your industry, this might look different based on what data you have about your customers. For example, a software company may easily look up which customers use their products in specific ways, within specific use cases, or more. This type of segmentation can be more challenging in industries that have less of a digital footprint or those that sell individual products. It’s a good idea to determine what characteristics you’re looking for, like recent engagement or a certain threshold of purchases per year, before creating your list of customers to invite.
Some organizations use incentives like company swag, travel to specific CAB events, or more. Some wait to use these rewards as recognition and gratitude to those who contribute. And some do both. There are pros and cons anytime incentives are used. Check with the rules within your industry, as some regulated and other industries have strict rules about these, and decide what sort of incentives and rewards you want to promise (or not) up front.
Most likely, not every customer will say yes to your invitation to the Board. And some will join and then not be able to commit as planned. So be sure to invite many more people than you need for the board. And ensure the invitation language is not just because of your needs (we want your feedback) but with what they’ll gain, too. For example, many customers enjoy being with peers who they can learn from, as well as staying ahead on trends in their industry. In B2C situations, they often want to be the ones “in the know” who can share things with friends and family before others. Spell out those benefits in your invitations.
3. Set expectations clearly.
It’s important to define roles and responsibilities for each member of the CAB. This will ensure that everyone understands their role in the organization and their expected contributions.
And don’t forget to outline specific logistics, such as frequency of meetings, topics for discussion, and timelines for delivering feedback. These expectations should be clearly communicated to all members of the CAB.
And of course, establishing ground rules and clearly communicating about them will help set up for long-term success. These rules should include guidelines for behavior, expectations for participation, and ways to ensure that the CAB remains focused on its purpose.
Best Practices for Customer Advisory Board Events
Once you’ve established your customer advisory board, it’s important to ensure that its meetings are effective and productive.
The most recent examples I know of typically follow a quarterly cadence. These often vary between virtual and in-person CAB events. Some brands found virtual CABs highly effective, and have continued with almost-all virtual meetings. Others have invested in special, in-person events as part of their overall CAB strategy. It’s up to your organization how you host the meetings. Wherever it’s set, however, it’s important to be prepared and lead efficiently.
Set the agenda.
Before each meeting, please have an agenda! It’s sometimes tempting to “see where it goes” or “just listen” and not provide enough guidance.
Your agenda should include the topics that will be discussed, the timeline for the meeting, and any materials that need to be prepared in advance. Your board members will be grateful if you respect their time, and they leave feeling productive and appreciated.
Do your best to create an atmosphere where all members of the CAB feel comfortable participating. Believe it or not, some will be nervous or feel intimidated being “behind the scenes” with a brand they like. Communicate clear guidance on the best ways for members to contribute ideas. Reiterate your desire for open dialogue.
Focus on solutions.
Ask for constructive feedback and lead by example. Restate complaints as questions looking for answers. For example, if a customer says the lines are too long, ask the questions: what can we do for customers WHEN the lines are too long? Are there ways we can reduce the wait time? This will encourage active brainstorming and lead to ideas that can be acted on – which is exactly the goal!
Communicate quickly after meetings with next steps, what was heard, and the progress being made. Recognize everyone’s time and contributions. This is a great time to send a survey (or leverage a pre- and post-meeting survey) about how they feel about their involvement. And a personal follow-up call from an executive or leader to say thank you never hurts!
Identify key performance indicators (KPIs).
It’s important to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the performance of the CAB. These KPIs should be tailored to the goals of the CAB and should be closely monitored over time.
- Set measurable goals. It’s important to set measurable goals for the CAB that are specific, attainable, and achievable. These goals should be realistic and should be tailored to the mission of the CAB.
- Establish timelines. It’s important to establish timelines for achieving the CAB’s goals. These timelines should be realistic and should be communicated to all members of the CAB.
- Review progress regularly. It’s important to review progress regularly to ensure that the CAB is on track to achieve its goals. This can be done by conducting regular meetings and tracking progress over time.
Customer advisory boards that are run successfully usually involve a little fun. It feels good to get honest feedback and have problem-solving sessions with smart customers!
But fun is not the metric your CEO will ask about.
Before you get started, think about how you will measure success, and review these measurements often.
Are you living up to the Purpose Statement? It’s there for a reason. Evaluate ways to live up to that purpose often.
Have you identified key performance indicators (KPIs)? It’s important to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the performance of the CAB. These KPIs should be tailored to the goals of the CAB, your organizational outcomes, and your CX Success Statement.
You can approach this with both a lens towards your Board members specifically and overall KPIs. Some KPIs and other measurements to consider include:
- Product Feedback: Set goals to uncover a specific number of product improvements to add to your roadmap.
- Customer Journey Improvements: Set a goal to find customer journey improvements and track progress.
- Loyalty and Retention: Track loyalty around CAB members specifically. Leverage this learning in ways to engage the rest of your customer population.
- Invite testimonials, referrals, and case studies. Track the outcomes from this population.
- In some industries, like technology, tracking improved usage or efficiencies for customers based on CAB feedback is another way to see success.
- Don’t forget to include CAB-specific customer feedback metrics and overall satisfaction with the program as key measurements, as well.
ALL Customers Benefit from a CAB
Building a successful customer advisory board is an important step in unlocking the potential of ALL of your customers. By engaging specific customers in meaningful conversations about your products and services, CABs can provide valuable feedback on product and service design, as well as insights into customer needs and preferences. Plus the relationships with the actual board members will lead to case studies, testimonials, referrals, and long-term customer loyalty. If you are thinking about starting a customer advisory board, then you’re ready to take action.