Criteria for Success: Define the Right Customer Advisory Board Membership

Getting the right members on board is the lynchpin of launching and running a successful Customer Advisory Board (CAB). It is also one of the biggest challenges.  An important place to start is by defining the right criteria for membership on your Board.  Here are some lessons we have learned in developing an effective screen and outlining the characteristics to recruit and maintain your members.

Guiding Principles for Recruiting

  • Articulate and align on your criteria up front – before a single invitation is issued, lay out in writing the elements you care about, and ensure that your internal stakeholders are all aligned and in agreement. This will help to avoid surprises and the unpleasant task of needing to uninvite or redirect an offer to a client.
  • Create realistic criteria in the context of your relationships – stretching your wish list to engage key clients too far beyond the organizational level and depth of your existing relationships will stymie your efforts to get them on board.
  • Link the criteria to your vision and strategy – consider not just where you are as a company, but where you want to go, and plan to engage the clients who are best suited to go there with you. For example, if you are trying to make the shift to a new marketplace position you may want to include not only your largest, longest-standing clients, but also your smaller, newer accounts who are less caught up in your past and are well positioned to see you through different eyes.

Baseline Criteria for Membership

While each company has to create the right framework depending on their own strategy and relationships, we see a set of typical core elements that companies use to segment the right Advisory Board members. These include:

  1. Strategic clients or key accounts
  2. Those already invested significantly in your business
  3. Clients where you have existing relationships, at the right level, with the target members
  4. Industry and geographic mix
  5. Individuals who are leaders in their industry and/or in the business area in which you are convening the group

You may want and need to refine these if you are trying to build out a new part of the business, or tap into a new set of buyers, but consider the guidelines described above and what you might need to do to get there successfully.

Going Beyond Core Clients

We often get asked about including others besides existing clients as part of Advisory Board membership. It is possible to incorporate these groups, but the decision should be taken carefully and baked into your criteria up front.

  • Prospects – prospective clients can be an intriguing addition to a CAB, with their unbiased perspective of working with you and an outside lens on new ideas, directions and strategies to consider. Companies also see this as an opportunity to bring them into the fold. The challenge is that they have no skin in the game in their relationship with you, and no real reason to prioritize their participation in meetings in the course of their busy schedule. As a general rule, there are better ways to engage prospects than a Client Advisory Board, and they can be rotated onto the Board after they have indicated a readiness to partner.
  • Clients who leave their company – As executives continue to rotate in their roles with increasing frequency, the question often arises whether Council or Board members who leave their company should be invited to remain on the Board after their departure. The answer depends on several factors. First of all is whether they were individually a good advisor, an active contributor and a strong leader in their field. If not, this is the chance to let them go gracefully.  If they are strong and desirable advisors, there may be instances where it makes sense to ask them to stay. If they go to a different client of yours, the answer can be an easy yes.  If they are in transition, or go to another company that is not a client, you may give them a grace period to continue on their membership for 6 months, or the next meeting.  If they have left to go to a competitor of yours, the answer is clear that they should not stay on.  The most important thing is to be consistent in how you apply this, and make it clear as part of the CAB charter so there are no surprises.
  • External experts – Sometimes companies want to flesh out their CAB with external experts such as analysts, consultants, or industry thought leaders. In general we find the same issue of “skin in the game” as with prospects, and this group often has their own agenda with your clients who are captive in the room, which can distract from the trust and relationship building. One solution is to invite experts to a subset of the meetings in the role of outside presenter, which brings the external perspective without engaging them as permanent members.
  • Retired executives – On occasion, we have clients who want to invite retired executives – whether from existing clients or other former industry leaders – to participate, reasoning that they have more time to engage and insights to share. This is an area to consider carefully. If the leader has recently retired, is well known in his or her field, and has relationships with other targeted members it can work very well. But if they have moved on and are less connected, the other members are less likely to see them as peers, which can potentially dilute the value of the ongoing conversation.

The recruiting criteria are just the beginning – but they are important to create with care. You can learn more about other recruiting hurdles and how to overcome them in this post.

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