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10 Steps to Driving a Successful Customer Advisory Board

When planning new marketing communications programs or evolving current campaigns, the customer voice is king.  That’s why many of our clients have, or are in the process of, creating a customer advisory board (CAB) to shape their vision through the lens of key buyers and decision-makers.  CABs, like focus groups on steroids, can be an invaluable source of input and insights into your initiatives.  Whether you’re creating a CAB for the first time or managing one that’s already underway, here are a few best practices that can help steer its success long-term:

  1. Define your goals. To glean the most from your CAB, set clear objectives upfront that are tied to your corporate and departmental goals.  For example, do you want to gain a candid perspective on your future product roadmap?  Or learn how your sales strategy or go-to-market approach will fare against your competition?  The CAB can be a great sounding board to get a realistic gauge on how your organization is currently perceived and how it could best position itself to serve the market today and into the future.
  1. Gain executive support. The value of sponsorship by your executive leaders cannot be underestimated.  The C-Suite, department heads and line of business (LOB) owners with a vested interest in learning from your customers should be involved from the inception of the CAB.  Choose stakeholders aligned with the CAB’s mission, who can provide recommendations on CAB candidates to recruit based on their relationships, and who will actively contribute to the agenda of CAB meetings to ensure they achieve the intended objectives.
  1. Recruit for impact. The secret to a successful CAB is simple: its members.  Selecting the right customers to serve on your CAB is critical and, surprisingly, may not always be the obvious choice.  Many companies gravitate toward tapping their best customers with the most prestigious titles from the biggest companies.  While it’s good to have a few top guns and loyal fans, consider reaching out to customers that haven’t purchased from you in 12 months or more to learn why.  Beyond C-Suite contacts, would it be beneficial to consider reaching out to newly emerging titles?  Or to include a mix of large, medium and small organizations?  Maybe it’s valuable to invite those that represent sub-verticals within your industry.  Diversity is are key to soliciting well-rounded, realistic input from this representative customer sampling.
  1. Set expectations early. Start by creating a charter that outlines roles and responsibilities for CAB members.  Define early in the process – even during the recruitment phase – what is expected of their participation.   How many meetings will they need to attend during the course of their term?  Will these be virtual or onsite, involving travel away from the workplace?  Will there by homework, surveys, evaluations or conference calls between meetings in which they’re asked to participate?  In turn, define what your commitment – as the sponsoring organization – is to the CAB.  For example, will you be providing an honorarium or charitable donation on their behalf in exchange for members’ time?  How will their travel expenses be reimbursed?  Addressing these and other questions upfront will help align expectations on both sides.
  1. Build commitment. The best CABs are based on a foundation of commitment – and that goes both ways.  While your organization is looking to extract the maximum value from its CAB, your CAB members are seeking the “what’s in it for me” benefit.  Why should these busy customers take time away from the office to attend your meetings?  What is the real worth of their contributions from their perspective?  Recognition?  Honor?  Exclusivity?  Yes, yes and yes!  But the underlying benefit for most members is the peer-to-peer sharing and learning from others that keeps them committed and coming back.  Make sure that your meetings foster a healthy exchange with – and between – members as part of the agenda.
  1. Share actionable outcomes. Beyond the obvious benefit of garnering feedback from members that can serve your needs, the most successful CABs extend value across your organization.  This goes back to gaining executive support at the start and making sure that all vested stakeholder interests are represented so that the CAB meetings satisfy their specific goals.  Make sure you have experienced, objective moderators to facilitate the group discussion and keep it on track.  Appoint a good note-taker who can capture the details and nuances of these exchanges.  Plan to record and transcribe your CAB meetings.  Then, issue a recap, conduct readouts with stakeholder teams and hold debriefs with these folks to discuss recommended action steps resulting from the CAB’s input.
  1. Showcase their value. Equally important is that you share with CAB members how your organization is using their feedback in a meaningful way that makes a difference.  They want to know how their contributions are manifesting and what tangible deliverables are resulting from their input.  Each CAB meeting should allow time to speak to “here’s how you’ve helped us” and showcase specific examples of how their feedback has translated into actions.  Examples might be incorporating product enhancements, offering a new service, creating a new marketing campaign or launching a strategic initiative unlike anything your competitors are doing.
  1. Communicate frequently. Stay in regular contact with CAB members and offer a way to continue the conversation in between meetings.  Share an occasional news article as an “FYI” to show you’re thinking of their business or addressing a point of interest.  Hold one-on-one briefings with individual members to garner insights on a more granular level.  Consider what role that your executive leaders could play in connecting with members.  Keeping in touch goes a long way in nurturing CAB member loyalty.
  1. Keep it fresh. After the first year of hosting a CAB, you may find that not all members lived up to expectations.  Some may have not been vocal in meetings, had spotty attendance or were simply not the right fit with agenda topics based on their expertise.  Typically, CAB members serve for one year, and then it’s time to rotate out some, retain top performers and find new recruits for the following year.  Remember, your #1 mission is to learn from the “customer voice” – and that voice should be actively engaged and always willing to contribute.
  1. Measure success along the way. You need to ensure that the CAB is staying on task and satisfying the objectives for which it was initially designed and are outlined in the charter.  Is the CAB serving the needs of your sales leadership team and other stakeholders across the organization?  Likewise, is it meeting the expectations of its members who are investing their time in this endeavor?  Aside from taking member surveys and sharing meeting recaps to show how insights and input have been used to shape planning, think of out-of-the-box ways to show the CAB’s value.  For example, review sales data from member organizations to see whether participation in the CAB has generated any sort of revenue lift or opened new opportunities.

If you’re looking to create a CAB, refresh an existing one or need support with planning and facilitating CAB meetings, Outlook Marketing Services is here to help.

Does your organization have a CAB?  Share your tips and ideas via Twitter @OutlookMktgLinkedIn or FacebookWe’d love to hear from you!

Author:  Kristin R. Fayer, Senior Vice President and Life Sciences Practice Lead, Outlook Marketing Services

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