Customer Advisory Boards are a Gold Mine for Startup Brand Champions
By Yousuf Khan, Partner
(This article was originally published in TechCrunch.)
As a 20-year CIO and advisor to multiple startups, I sat on many customer advisory boards (CABs) and saw how they were formed. Some companies have highly functioning CABs, others merely serve as feedback loops. Any startup striving to connect directly with their customers would benefit from establishing one.
Here are some considerations to make certain your customer advisory board is a success.
Why CABs Matter
For those unfamiliar, a customer advisory board is a group of customers who come together to share their experiences, insights and advice with an organization. First and foremost, the CAB functions to recognize and include the voice of the customer, an essential part of your company’s journey since customers interact closer than anyone with your product or service.
It’s best to designate early adopters to be on the board — those who took a chance on you and have been on the frontlines as your company evolved — as well as some newer customers.
While establishing this group signals appreciation and respect for your customers, it also provides an opportunity for you to formalize and structure the feedback you are requesting from them. You can seek validation for product ideas or guidance on roadmap development, test out marketing messaging and even tap into market intelligence.
The greatest benefit of a CAB, however, is the creation of champions for your brand. These loyal partners will ultimately offer testimonials, references and referrals. Key to this partnership is a shared sense of playing a small part in building the future of your company.
The greatest benefit of a CAB is the creation of champions for your brand.
Assembling Your CAB Superteam
The best route to assembling your CAB is to start with a very small group and expand slowly. There’s quite a bit of nuance in the selection of who to include. Do you go after the executive who sponsored you, the one who saw a vision and thought your solution would fit? Perhaps. But that individual may not be using your product every day, be involved deeply in its operational aspects, and/or have their finger on the pulse of the end-user’s experience.
Find that customer who knows the product and can provide your team with the ground truth, someone who is well aligned with their own company’s leadership. It might be a person looking to grow their career, who wants to be part of an innovation story. Your company’s product is transforming the experience of many. A thought partner will not only contribute valuable insights, but want to share that story for the benefit of others.
Be strategic about the dynamics of the group and pick members who will play well together. Will one person dominate conversations? Will another use the time to project their own success? Of course you’ll create a meeting culture that promotes collaboration and respect, but think through each member’s skills and your relationship with them. Find those who are able to blend candor with constructive reflections.
Keep in mind that making the group too large will diminish the CAB’s purpose. There will be too many competing voices and conversations, and the impact of one’s participation will be limited. By keeping the CAB small, you optimize for efficiency and create an air of exclusivity — being a part of something special fosters a sense of pride among the group.
Meeting Basics: Build the Community and They Will Come
I often get asked how often a CAB should meet. Meeting with your CAB three times per year is ideal, but there is no hard and fast rule as you have to balance content and relationships. Now that COVID has upended our ability to convene in the physical world, perhaps twice per year is more realistic. Too many meetings is onerous, less is an annual update. In terms of duration (when in person), a half day to a full day encourages thoughtful conversation and allows for a social element like a group dinner.
Set the tone by kicking off the meeting agenda through the voices of your customers. Rather than the typical introductions where members share their name and company, add a prompt that can generate future discussion. For example, asking, “What’s one thing our product/service could have, or could do better?” Leave it somewhat open-ended and solicit feedback that is both good and bad. One suggestion is to prepare some of the CAB members with the question in advance.
Next, segue into a company update, sharing your successes, the composition of your team, where you’ve been and where you’re headed. Incorporate your product and marketing leaders: showcase your team’s work through product updates and the roadmap. Don’t just steamroll through a bunch of stats and the particulars, take time to allow for member reactions. What resonates? What doesn’t? And, by including your own team members, they hear the feedback directly.
While this group is here per your invitation, they are also here for each other.
While this group is here per your invitation, they are also here for each other. These members are all using your product or service, so make time for them to speak amongst themselves. Having been in this role myself, I found it invaluable to hear how my counterparts in other companies were rolling out the product, messaging it with their constituents, and solving challenges that inevitably arose.
Another idea is to welcome an external speaker or an expert in a particular field. While at one company, I knew the CIOs were interested in the natural language processing (NLP) element of AI, so I invited one of our most talented engineers to pull back the curtain and show “how the chocolate is made.” The CAB members ate it up.
After the Meeting: Showing Gratitude, Measuring Success
Before gauging the effectiveness of the feedback you’ve received, first engender a sense of value and recognition among your new brand champions.
Your gratitude for their contributions of time and thought leadership must be evident. Sure, you can send a thank you note or email, but everyone does that. How will your brand stand out? Do the participants leave with a token of appreciation, or will something like a gift card arrive at their office (or home, in the days of COVID) a week later? Consider a gift tailored to each member after having learned about them as human beings during this time together.
Whatever you choose, be generous: you’re building a relationship with this group that will hopefully last a long time. They are participating voluntarily out of partnership and friendship, and should be recognized as such.
When you’re ready to measure the success of your CAB, sync with your team and think through your initial objectives. Were they accomplished? Determine if you received clear guidance on what to prioritize, and if you are able to take action on a problem you were wrestling with.
There are some quantitative measures as well: member retention rate, how many times a member championed you to another, the number of testimonials that can be tied back to the CAB. The most fundamental metric of all is how many invitees actually attended. If your CAB is not considered a valuable use of time, a place where the customer can influence your decisions in some way, they’re not going to show up.
If your CAB is not considered a valuable use of time, a place where the customer can influence your decisions in some way, they’re not going to show up.
There is No Time Like the Present
Don’t wait until you’re ready to establish a CAB; you’ll never be ready. Think about it early on in your startup journey and evolve it as you mature. The CAB will grow so long as you talk less and demonstrate your priority to listen and solicit feedback, following up with members from one meeting to the next regarding how their contributions came to life.
Some companies approach CABs as a way to tout their successes and to say they have a direct line to their customers. Don’t do that. Be somewhat vulnerable, and show how you’re building your company and the value the customer holds. Without your customers, you have nothing. Together, you can create a strong bond and kinship that will have a mutual benefit.