Managing Customer Advisory Board Programs
How Do Companies Structure, Manage, and Profit from Their B2B Customer Advisory Boards?
Do you have a Customer Advisory Board program? If so, how well is it managed and run? Is your CAB program considered a necessary evil—as a perq for loyal customers and a duty for top executives? Or, do you harness the wisdom and advice of your most loyal customers to keep you on the right track and to help bathe your organization in customer issues and customers’ priorities? This report is a summary of current practices in managing B2B Customer Advisory Boards. It’s the synthesis of my learnings from a two-day CAB Exchange that was held in October 2007. The participants included 60 practitioners—the people who run the CAB programs for dozens of businesses. The role of CABs is changing from relationship-building to strategy-building. CABs used to exist primarily to brief the executives of your most strategic accounts on your firm’s road map and product strategy. In today’s CABs, insightful customers give you their road maps and roll up their sleeves to help you craft your strategy.
NETTING IT OUT
Customer Advisory Boards are an important component of most companies’ Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs. Customer councils or Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) are most common in Business-to-Business settings—for companies selling products and services to business customers.
Customer Advisory Boards are gaining in popularity as businesses struggle to become more customer-centric and adaptive to changing customer demands and behaviors. Yet there are many other forms of customer engagement—executives’ visits to accounts, user group meetings, online customer communities, customer satisfaction and loyalty programs, customer co-design sessions, customer participation in alpha and beta programs—to name just a few. Companies need to decide whether to invest in CABs or to focus on other forms of customer engagement.
This report offers a look at the current state of CABs, based on the insights we gleaned from a two-day meeting of B2B CAB leaders, which took place in October 2007.
The role of CABs is changing from relationship-building to strategy-building. Once thought of as a way to keep large accounts in the fold, they are now becoming more strategic in nature, as customers roll up their sleeves to co-design solutions and to help plot strategy.
WHAT’S THE CURRENT STATE OF CUSTOMER ADVISORY BOARDS?
In October 2007, I had the opportunity to spend two days with about 60 people whose responsibilities include managing the Customer Advisory Board programs for their respective companies. This confab took place in San Jose, California at the first annual CAB Exchange TM Summit which was organized and promoted by the able Bill Lee. 1
Most of the participants ran B2B advisory boards. Their customers are business professionals and executives who use their products or services in their respective businesses. 95 percent of the companies represented were in high tech industries (software, computers, and communications). A few companies represented were in financial services and information services, but again, their customers are primarily business clients, not consumers.
Many B2B firms have Customer Advisory Board (CAB) programs. Some consumer companies do, too. Yet, in today’s time-pressed competitive climate, many executives question the need to continue their CAB programs and/or are reluctant to start such a program. They wonder whether the idea of Customer Advisory Boards is an antiquated practice; one that is no longer relevant; one that could be replaced by other more strategic investments in market research and/or customer connections, like online communities. The people who run these programs have to prove the value of these programs every year. CAB directors fight a constant battle to gain air time with their top executives.
Customer Advisory Board meetings provide a critical opportunity for customers to engage in strategic conversations with your company’s executives. They enable groups of key customers who share common interests and issues to provide valuable input and direction as consultants to your firm. Customers are often willing to invest a few days a year to serve on these advisory boards because they value the networking with their peers 2 —other customers with similar concerns—as well as the insights they gain into your company’s strategy and direction.
When managed well, Customer Advisory Boards provide a proven formula for keeping top executives in tune with their customers’ context and market realities. CABs serve both as a reality check and a “north star.” Your top executives can gain more insights and inspiration from spending two days in strategic conversations with a group of their most insightful customers than they would gain from a 10-day road trip visiting the same accounts. Why? When executives visit key customers, no matter what the ostensible purpose of the trip, they’re actually selling. When customers come to a CAB meeting, the customers take on an advisory capacity. By empowering your customers to be your consultants and advisors, you gain insights you’d never learn any other way.
The purpose of this Report it to provide a “state of the state”—an overview of what the majority of companies are doing with their CAB programs.
CURRENT CAB PRACTICES
What’s the Purpose of Customer Advisory Boards?
Customer Advisory Boards serve several purposes:
- They enable your executives to take the pulse of the needs of your key accounts as a group—rather than on an account-by-account basis.
- They enable your executives to gain insights into where the market is heading through strategic conversations, rather than market research.
- They help you strengthen your relationships with key accounts by engaging with their key influencers in social rituals—frank discussions, dinners, relaxation—that cement relationships.
- They can prevent you from making costly mistakes (acquiring the wrong company, diversifying into the wrong industries, investing in product development), and they can even help you innovate!
“Our CAB members “set us straight,” explained Joe Grieshop, VP of Marketing for Reynolds and Reynolds, a $2.5 billion solutions provider of hardware and software for car dealerships. “We had lost our way with our product direction, and our CAB set us straight. Then we lost our way again, with confusing brand messaging, after we were acquired. Again, our CAB showed us the way.” Joe’s company now engages its CAB members in formal product ideation processes to come up with new products and services that will meet their needs. Most of the solutions the customers develop in their interactive brainstorming sessions are ones that his company would not have thought of, Joe reports.
Are Most CABs Integrated into a Holistic Voice of the Customer (VOC) Program?
In the best of all possible worlds, a Customer Advisory Board program is an integral component in a customer engagement strategy or Voice of the Customer (VOC) program. Among the 60 people who participated in the CAB Exchange Summit, most were in the process of integrating their CAB programs more tightly with other customer engagement programs within their organizations, but, in general, this was something of an uphill battle.
WELL-INTEGRATED APPROACHES. About thirty percent of the CAB Directors who participated in the CAB Exchange Summit were able to demonstrate that their CAB programs were part of a reasonably well-integrated and holistic VOC program. In other words, the CAB Director works closely with the people who manage and oversee the company’s user groups and online communities, as well as with the head of the customer experience management program, customer satisfaction and loyalty programs, executive sponsorship programs, and Executive Briefing Center programs.
Dian Thomson, the Senior Director of Global Customer Programs at Oracle, offered a good example of an integrated approach (see Illustration 1). Dian explained that her Global Customer Programs group directly manages Oracle’s two executive level advisory board and customer council programs:
- CIO Advisory Board. This includes the CIOs from 75 strategic customer accounts. Groups of these CIOs meet quarterly with Oracle’s executives to advise Oracle on topics such as product plans, development practices, product quality, support delivery model, account management, and business practices.
- Fusion Strategy Council. This is a 35-customer subset of the CIO council whose role is to review and validate Oracle’s application strategy for the migration of Fusion (Oracle’s integrated application architecture).
Oracle’s Global Customers Programs’ Organization Sits in Field Marketing
Customer-Driven Innovation @Oracle
© 2007 Oracle
Illustration 1. The GCP oversees an integrated, yet distributed approach to customer engagement, under the leadership of Sr. Director Dian Thompson. The CIO Advisory Board and the Fusion Strategy Council are the most strategic customer advisory boards. These programs are managed directly by Global Customers’ Programs. The next set of Customer Advisory Boards and Early Customer Programs are managed directly by Oracle’s development organization, but in coordination with Dian’s team. The User Groups and Special Interest Groups are ...
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1) Bill Lee also runs the Customer Reference Forum—a peer group of practitioners responsible for running their companies’ customer reference programs. For more information about the CAB Exchange, visit http://www.cabexchange.com/event/ .
2) For more information about what customers value about CABs, please see: “ Creating Customer Advisory Boards that Your Customers Will Love ,” by Patricia Seybold.
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