Turn Your Customers Into Advisors

Your company invests heavily in making sure that your customers are happy with your goods and services. But, it’s time to go beyond traditional focus groups and learn what shoppers really think. It’s time to implement the CAB, or Customer Advisory Board.

August 25 2011 by Morey Stettner


In 2002, Brian Gentile was chief marketing officer for a software firm. He gathered a group of influential customers and sought their feedback on a new product his team planned to launch.

Near the end of the meeting, an outspoken customer said, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about this new thing. I want you to put all your resources into making your existing product better.”

Gentile polled the 10 or so others in the room. Most of them agreed that the company should improve its current software rather than introduce something new.

“You want to pay attention to the voice of the market,” says Gentile, now chief executive of Jaspersoft Corp, a San Francisco software firm. “I still remember that moment when our customer—this emotional, passionate guy—gave his opinion. And we listened.”

Gentile cites this incident to highlight the value of Customer Advisory Boards. He started using CABs in 1998 as an executive at Sun Microsystems, and he has continued to convene groups of key customers ever since to collect their input.

Entrepreneurs form CABs to learn how their customers think and what business challenges they face. In regularly scheduled meetings (usually one to three a year), business owners share their ideas and strategies—and seek input from customers who attend.

Unlike a traditional focus group that provides feedback on a specific service or product, a CAB addresses big-picture strategic issues that shape a company’s future. Customers agree to participate because they want to help the CEO make sound decisions and solve problems that affect the business.

Recruit the Right Mix

To set up a CAB, start by identifying 20 to 25 of your most important customers and invite them to participate. Expect up to half of them to accept. Ideally, the eight to 12 customers who attend should represent a diverse mix in terms of geography, industry and size.

“Invite customers who are in a growing or exciting marketplace, even if they’re small customers now,” says Mike Gospe, a marketing consulting with KickStart Alliance, a sales and marketing consulting firm in Los Altos, Calif. “Also include some customers who are doing interesting things with your product.”

He suggests recruiting CAB participants who meet three prerequisites: they wield budget authority, they’re in senior positions and they play a role in setting strategic direction for their employer.

“At the first CAB meeting, ask them, ‘What are the trends shaping your business?’,” Gospe adds. “You want customers who can talk about important issues in their industry while you sit quietly and listen for ‘a-ha’ moments.”

Set clear expectations to help customers understand their CAB role. Explain how many meetings per year you want them to attend (usually for one day each) and that you’ll cover their travel, lodging and food. Promise to distribute agendas in advance based in part on customer input, but emphasize that the actual discussions will flow freely with everyone sharing ideas and insights.

“A real eye-opener for us is how much customers enjoy talking with and learning from each other,” says Jeff Tinker, senior vice president of treasury management at Wells Fargo & Co. He has led CABs at the bank since 2003, which it calls “Advisory Councils.” Within his business unit, there are now 12 Councils with 10-12 clients each. They are organized by region or industry—and some consist of large corporate clients.

Listen and Learn—But Don’t Sell!

A company the size of Wells Fargo has the financial wherewithal to host a dozen CABs across the country. But for smaller employers, investing in big gatherings of customers can pose a challenge.

Dean Stoecker estimates he spends $25,000 to $30,000 for each CAB session. As chief executive of Alteryx, a software firm in Orange, Calif., he deems it a wise investment.

“We’ve had eight CAB meetings so far and participants have given us great guidance on packaging, pricing, messaging, web design and other areas of the business,” Stoecker says. “Now, a lot of customers are asking us if they can be part of our CAB. They want us to be successful so that they can be successful.”

Many CEOs hire an outside firm to facilitate CAB sessions. As a result, the host company’s executive team can spend more time listening and learning.

An outside expert can also enforce certain ground rules to prevent CEOs from dominating the meeting. Without an assertive facilitator, some chief executives will deliver long sales presentations that stifle customers’ engagement.

“You want a dialogue, not a monologue,” says Rob Urbanowicz, principal at the Geehan Group, a consulting firm in Dayton, Ohio. “Sometimes, it’s hard to ask CEOs to shut up because they can’t wait to tell you everything they’ve done and what they’re going to do.”

From his experience facilitating CABs, Urbanowicz has found that CEOs gain the most value by listening with an open mind and following up with CAB members after the session. While customers understand that a CEO cannot act on their every suggestion, “they expect to hear what you’re going to do and not going to do—and why,” he says.

He facilitated a CAB meeting a few years ago when the president of a tech firm shared his reasons for pursuing an acquisition. The customers on his board unanimously warned, “Don’t do it.” Instead, they proposed two or three other firms as better acquisition targets.

“Afterwards, the president told me, ‘This one meeting has paid for itself for the next 10 years,’” Urbanowicz recalls. “He knew the CAB was right, and listening to them resulted in $75 million in savings.”

Calculating the Benefits of a CAB

Dean Stoecker, chief executive of Alteryx, views the money he spends to host each CAB meeting as an investment rather than a cost. Here’s why:

  1. His firm’s customer satisfaction scores have surged since 2008, when he convened his first CAB.
  2. Thanks to input from his CAB, he focuses on the issues that matter most to his customers. This makes him a more efficient, results-oriented CEO.
  3. He profits from his customers’ ideas. In one CAB meeting, for example, the group discussed Alteryx’s pricing of its server product. They told Stoecker, “Give us an unlimited number of users on one server for the same price.” When Stoecker asked why, they replied, “Because I have to get permission from my budget committee whenever we need to add users, and that’s a pain. Stop nickel-and-diming us and we’ll buy more servers.” Stoecker implemented their idea—and his server sales increased as customer adoption rates soared. It’s one reason why Alteryx’s “upsell” rate was up 41% last year on its strategic accounts, he says.

Follow the 80/20 Rule

CEOs should keep quiet and let customers talk in CAB sessions. Eyal Danon, president of Ignite Advisory Group in New York, N.Y., recommends that CEOs listen 80% of the time and limit their speaking to the other 20%.

“As you listen, do soul-searching and be ready to act on what you hear,” he says. “I’m not saying you should act on every customer’s suggestion, but if you keep rejecting everything, you won’t get anywhere.”

Links and Resources

Books

  • Customer Advisory Boards by Tony Carter (Best Business Books, 2003) is a 162-page book that provides an overview of CABs—their structure, function and impact.
  • Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit by Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon (AMACOM, 2010) is a 170-page book that goes beyond advisory boards to provide a comprehensive set of tools to communicate with customers.
  • Managing the Customer Experience by Shaun Smith and Joe Wheeler (FT Press, 2002) is a 272-page book that explores how to turn customers into “advocates” who grow closer to your company.

Websites

  • At CustomerAdvisoryBoard.org, you can download a free strategy guide and review research and best practices relating to companies of all sizes that use CABs.
  • Geehan Group provides a free “Customer Advisory Board Checklist” and other background information on CABs.
  • KickStart Alliance cites case studies of companies that have implemented Customer Advisory Boards.
  • CABHQ lists a six-step process for implementing a CAB.