Customer Advisory Board Advice: Learn to Love the Pain

The trouble with Customer Advisory Boards is you just might get what you wished for: unvarnished advice about your strategy and your business. And while this is the very reason for convening your valued and strategic clients, it can sometimes be hard to take. But if you can find a way to leave defensiveness at the door, and take a few steps to keep things constructive you will gain much more than you lose in discomfort.

Having an open dialog can be tricky, and you want to ensure that honest feedback does not devolve into complaining, or reinforcing of some of the gaps you are trying to overcome. Here are a few things to consider to keep those Council meeting conversations helpful and constructive.

  • Listen, don’t argue – we often see those executives new to the Advisory Board table quickly leap to debunk and defend against the point the client is trying to make. The table is not the place to debate the point, and your defensiveness will shut down any further conversation that will help you learn the reasons behind it.
  • Ask for clarification – sometimes clients react with a blanket statement of criticism that is hard to interpret or respond to, but once peeled back contains some good nuggets. If you can help the commentator break down their thoughts, you can get to more specific input that is actionable, and discover that the initial negative reaction was somewhat overblown when the elements are teased out.
  • Focus on your value and vision – if you are looking for advice on areas where you have gaps or challenges in the marketplace, it helps to start with your value proposition, and where you are looking to go, then ask for advice on how to get there. If you start by dwelling on the gaps, you’ll leave them focusing on your weaknesses, rather than helping to think through what is required for growth. You will still hear plenty from them on why they perceive those gaps, but it will be in the context of where you want to get to, which brings them along on your journey.
  • Avoid open-ended feedback sessions – we sometimes have an executive who wants to take an hour or two out of an Advisory Council meeting to just ask clients for general feedback about their company, without structure or specificity around the areas of input. While this may sound like a good idea to encourage open dialog, it is a recipe for devolution into random complaints, rambling commentary, off-target suggestions, and insights into areas where you cannot – or have no wish to – take action. We find that applying a focus to the conversation makes it easier for everyone to share more effectively.
  • Report back on action and progress – it is critical to come back at future meetings with a response to feedback – especially negative input. If clients feel their remarks are falling on deaf ears, or if you only respond to places where they commented positively, you will erode the honest nature of future advice. Clients really respond to and admire those executives who take their comments to heart, and come back with an updated, revised, reworked approach that honestly admits to the usefulness of their insights.
  • Consider the source – while it is necessary to take client input seriously, by the same token not all client advisors are created equal. Some clients are just critical or negative by nature, and come to Council meetings with their chip firmly on their shoulder. It is important to understand what is behind feedback that seems unconstructive over time. If it is indicative of a problem in the client relationship it is good practice to take the discussion out of the Advisory Board meeting and back to the client team. And it if is a characteristic of the individual it may make sense to eventually move them off the Board, as it is not constructive for the rest of the members and the value they get from their participation.

We have seen even the most impatient and defensive of executives over time learn to love and crave the open advice – painful or not. Trusted clients will only tell you what they think you really need to hear to be successful so tough it out and you will learn a lot.


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