The Value of Customer Advisory Boards: The Power of the Peer

We are often asked the question:  how do the clients get value from serving on a Customer Advisory Board?  It is clear to many what the value might be for the sponsoring company – great advice and insight, new ideas and strategic direction, deeper relationships with high value clients leading to new opportunities.  But it often surprises those companies – until they see for themselves – just how much value their executive clients get by simply being part of the Board network.

In our work helping to build and facilitate Customer Advisory Councils and Customer Advisory Boards, we are repeatedly reminded by the Board members we interview how much they seek and crave connection to real peers.  They value the opportunity to share stories, commiserate around challenges, and learn across industries and organizations in a safe and collegial environment with others at their same level.

So why are Advisory Councils such a particularly valuable forum for this?  Surely executives have many opportunities to meet, learn from, and collaborate with other executives of all types.  What is the unique opportunity here?

True executive peer communities and environments are few and far between.  We hear in our interviews that many of the groups, associations and forums that are out there to serve all types of senior business leaders – even the most exclusive – often devolve to include lower level participants and aspiring leaders, rather than the intended audience. 

Convening around a specialized or high value content focus is difficult to achieve on one’s own.  Another area we hear about is the value in connecting with peers around a shared set of challenges or areas of focus that are not accessible in other environments.  It can be hard to meet peers in other industries, or in roles that tackle the same issue but fall into different functions in different organizations, for example.  And many executives are simply too busy to build that kind of network from scratch themselves. 

Very few forums provide a safe zone for sharing.  The other challenge we hear is the difficulty for executives to find an environment which offers peers and a shared agenda that also operates in a confidential, trusted setting.  Few executives will open up when they are unsure how their comments will be used, and by whom. 

First-hand knowledge exchange feeds executives’ needs to access ideas quickly.  Executives place a particularly high value on what they learn from peers, and we often get feedback on how the time spent with other Council or Board members provides efficient and rapid access to new ideas and broader thinking from that valued audience.  Executives don’t have the time to chase after learning in all its potential formats, and a concentrated environment brings tangible value.

Given the power of the peer, here are a few things to consider in building and operating your Customer Advisory Board.

  • Make sure to convene the right peers.  Start off with the right membership screen to ensure that all of the Council members are truly peers.  And revisit the membership over time to make sure that they remain peers and perceive themselves as such.
  • Provide explicit opportunities for peer sharing in the agenda of each meeting.  We have found that the most effective way to showcase and support the peer exchange is to assign specific blocks of time on the agenda – a “Members’ Corner” – to getting Board members to share cases or tell their stories and enable discussion on what they present.
  • Make expectations clear at the outset that sharing is expected.  Peer exchange only works if all Council members contribute to the conversation.  Other members will notice if there are reluctant participants, which decreases trust and starts to close down the conversation over time.  Make it part of your Council charter that members have to present a story at least once a year to make the expectations clear.
  • Hold true to the principles of confidentiality.  We operate the Advisory Boards we run using a version of the Chatham House rules, which allows participants to talk about what is said in the room but forbids attribution to the individual.  This not only protects the Board members from unwanted sales calls by over-eager members of the sponsoring organization who learn things they shouldn’t about specific clients; it also lays the core ground rules for trust and openness among members.  If this gets breached even once, momentum and trust will quickly erode and the open exchange will disappear.

A final note about the power of the peer:  the executive peer connections formed through the Advisory Board reflects strongly back on the sponsoring company too.  The ability to convene a compelling group of executive peers elevates your own ability to connect with executives around the things that matter to them.  You’ll get value from the brand lift, and the perception of thought leadership that accompanies the role of convener.  And you’ll learn from all of that peer sharing too – in a way that your competitors cannot touch.

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