Should You Form a Customer Advisory Board?

Shaking things up when you’re lost in your roadmap

Kit Merker
Jul 28 · 6 min read
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Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

“What do customers want, and what will they buy?” is the essential question for every product manager. There are lots of ways to get answers. This article will explore one approach: The Customer Advisory Board. What is it? Why do it? Who should be on it? How do I run it?

A CAB isn’t for every product. Let’s assume you have a product that already has some market adoption. You’ve made it past the initial stages of finding product/market fit, and you even have some loyal customers. The challenge went from, “will anybody buy it?” to “what capabilities do I need to add to keep customers happy AND find new ones?”

Inside your organization are opinions, and maybe even hypotheses about what to build. To find the truth, you have to get outside and learn from customers and the market. If you’re in a business-to-business (B2B) context, you are unlikely to get enough volume from A/B testing or adding dead-end test links to potential features to make decisions. These techniques are great for consumer software, but in B2B, you risk alienating or annoying these crucial customers.

How can you test your ideas and see what makes sense in the real world?

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

The CAB is a working group of existing customers who are interested in the long term future of your product. The goal is simple: get feedback from people who care about your product to help you steer its future.

Your CAB can be formal or informal, meet together or separately, and communicate in many different forms. The best CAB will be a diverse yet representative sample of your product constituents.

You want honest feedback about your grand plans for world domination, and to get that, you have to build enough trust and confidence that you can share the reality going on inside the product team. Transparency doesn’t mean airing dirty laundry but instead sharing the tradeoffs that are pushing you in different directions.

For example, you may be wrestling with expansion to an unfamiliar market, perhaps geographical or selling to larger organizations. While you may not have direct experience within your company, you may have customers who operate in that area and can shed light on that new market opportunity. This deeper context couldn’t be achieved with a survey or asking either-or questions; you need to tap real experience from someone with an appreciation for your current offering.

My Advisory Board Insight

I was a product manager for a cloud computing framework, and we had an informal advisory board of loyal customers. Some of them had been early adopters and used the product for several years. We thought we could create a one-click automated procedure to onboard legacy software applications without rewriting application code. While it wouldn’t give you all the benefits of a complete rewrite, it would speed up the adoption of our platform.

The idea fell flat with the group. They counseled (correctly, I might add) that while automatic migration seemed like it would let new customers adopt more quickly, the result would be a poor facsimile of actually doing the hard work to migrate. Counter-intuitively, making the product too easy to use upfront would lead to less satisfaction.

Had I not spoken to a committed group of existing customers, there’s no way I would have gotten this insight so quickly, concretely, and in such a way that it overcame my own wrong opinion.

Is a CAB right for you?

Not every product needs a CAB, and it’s essential to know why you want one.

Do you have pressure to take your product into unfamiliar territory that you can’t research on your own? You may need more in-depth advice from folks familiar with your product and your expansion goals.

Do customers vocally complain or talk about your product when they don’t like the decisions you make? Perhaps you need to give them an earlier outlet to share their feedback, so you know before the market.

Have you had a series of misfires where internal beliefs about product direction ended up being duds when they went to market? Mistakes like these could mean internal biases and groupthink are overruling market reality.

Are you late in the product adoption cycle with a legacy product? You may need to be careful about confusing loyal customers in your quest for innovation.

These are some of the reasons why formalizing and inviting your customer constituents into a CAB can help.

Aligning CAB With Strategy

You may be wary about sharing your top-secret strategy with the CAB in case of leaks to competitors. A good strategy shouldn’t require secrecy, but some of your immediate plans and details must. Strive for an environment of trust within the group and be picky about potential conflicts. I tend to be more open and expect people to behave ethically with information. I am very clear about what is confidential and what is public.

It’s crucial to connect any feedback you receive from the CAB into your overall company strategy, purpose, and vision. Take the advisory input with a grain of salt and use it as a validation tool for your ideas. Don’t follow CAB without regard to your internal compass.

Creating the Perfect Mix of CAB Members

The people you want on the CAB are natural early adopters that think critically and reasonably about tradeoffs. Anyone who has proactively tried out new features in your product and given feedback without prompting is a perfect candidate.

Be selective and try to create a dynamic board that will not just agree with each other but won’t devolve into political shouting matches either. If you bring in two customers that compete with each other, you are more likely to have unnecessary difficulties. In some industries that are unusually heated, you may need to form multiple CABs with conflicts firewalled from each other.

I also strongly suggest a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for CAB related activities, but you should discuss this with your lawyer.

How to Run a Customer Advisory Board Meeting

You’ve invited and gotten commitments from several customers, and you’re ready to convene the first meeting. You have a clear challenge or opportunity that needs attention so you can make a decision.

One mistake that some companies make is trying to use the CAB as a marketing or sales tool. Thinking this way might make you sugar-coat or hide information about what’s going on with your product.

Here is an example plan from how I like to run a CAB meeting:

  • Welcome and introductions
  • Why are we here? Remind everyone what the CAB is all about — no sales pitch, be open and honest, and keep it confidential.
  • Before we begin — any hot items or issues anyone wants to share? Take note to follow up offline and engage your support team as needed (it’s helpful to have a senior support person in the meeting)
  • Product situation and background, including adoption data and already committed upcoming roadmap
  • Product pressures — What’s going on in the market? Where are competitors likely to go? How do emerging technology trends affect your customers?
  • Roadmap Opportunities — what are the possible future directions we could take that are on the table for today?
  • Reactions & Discussion — Ask the CAB for their opinions so far, what would they do, what is best for them as customers
  • Summary and next steps — summarize the feedback received and set a date by which the decisions will be made and communicated to the CAB.

You can modify the schedule to meet your needs, but the basic structure will help you provide enough context and background to get actionable feedback without “leading the witness” too much. You are looking for new perspectives on the information you have, trying to expand your vantage point and gain insights. You don’t have to do what the CAB suggests, but you do owe them your attention and consideration.

What a Great Customer Advisory Board Can Do

Before you begin, make sure you know what you are trying to accomplish and why a CAB is the right method to achieve it. Forming a CAB without a clear goal is a great way to waste everyone’s time. See how far you can get with research, one-on-one interviews, and further developing your personas and market segmentation analysis.

If you succeed in building a great CAB, you will have a strategic resource that will give you a fresh perspective, a check on your own internal biases and ego, and validation of your best ideas. It isn’t free and will take time and skill to cultivate these relationships. Be prepared for confusion and conflicting advice, which is the life of a product manager.

Path to Product

A community of product managers sharing actionable, on-the-job insights from real teams & projects

Thanks to Emma Townley-Smith

Kit Merker

Written by

Writing a little of everything since quarantine.

Path to Product

Actionable, on-the-job insights from real teams for early and mid-career product managers.

Kit Merker

Written by

Writing a little of everything since quarantine.

Path to Product

Actionable, on-the-job insights from real teams for early and mid-career product managers.

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