Client Advisory Board membership holds the key to the kingdom of successful engagement and advice. Securing the right members is critical, and takes considerable time and effort. In our work launching Advisory Boards, we find that in their desire to rapidly get a program off the ground, companies often underestimate how much work and lead time is required to assemble the right group of clients. It can take as long as 4 to 6 months before the first meeting to conduct the right level of outreach and secure your initial round of members for a robust Advisory Council launch. And the challenges are just as much on the internal front as on the client side.
What gets in the way?
Here are some of the top reasons we see that make it hard to get momentum with member recruitment.
- Lack of internal priority and focus – business unit heads, sales leaders and client reps do not pay attention or prioritize the client outreach and invitation process over other requests and activities.
- Lack of understanding and knowledge of the purpose and value of the Board – internal executives often don’t understand what the company is trying to do with the Council, or why it is in their interest to make the offer to a client to join, making them reluctant to reach out to extend the invitation.
- Tendency to approach a Council like an event – participation in the Advisory Board is lumped into the same engagement bucket as client events, which typically are one-off and less strategic in nature, and can be delegated. Putting Board participation in the same bucket minimizes the value and can undermine the invitation process.
- Weak or non-existent client relationships at the right level – companies aspire to have their C-suite or senior executive clients participate in their Client Advisory Council, while the relationship is actually with contacts at a lower level in the client’s organization, or within a different function, making it much more challenging to get your ideal target to agree to join.
What helps to increase results?
Here are some of the best practices we see in ramping up the recruitment process.
- Leadership and priority-setting from the top – This is not a place where grassroots support alone will drive success. The CEO, business unit head or most senior leader driving the effort must clearly establish the priority of the Advisory Board for the business and put his or her weight and commitment behind both the internal communications and the invitation to clients. Once the connection is made and the clients agree, having the formal invitation come from this leader is critical in setting the tone.
- Frequent, clear and succinct communications about value and impact – Educate internally just as you would any new product or service launch, and provide executive-level materials and talking points to empower your own executives to talk effectively to clients about the Advisory Board.
- Relentless and systematic follow up – Sales leads and client reps are busy, and without a steady drumbeat of individualized follow up and requests for progress updates from a leader with influence in the organization, the invitations tend to languish in the black hole of “things to do.”
- Review and revisiting of key relationships and client roles – Take the time to realistically assess who you are targeting to join the Council, and whether you have enough stickiness with those clients for them to care about advising you. If you are trying to go too far up the ladder from where your relationships really are, for example, you just may not have the permission to engage. You may need to reset your focus, refine the criteria or broaden the nature of the roles you want involved to get effective advice while still advancing your strategic efforts.
And if you still have a recruitment challenge…
There are times when you have the right focus and approach and you have done the right things internally, but you just cannot get a critical mass of clients to agree to join your Advisory Board. This may mean that the time is not right to take this step, but it doesn’t mean you cannot execute some valuable and useful actions to start involving your clients in your strategy and your business.
- Start with interviews and information gathering – there are a number of reasons why you may be having trouble getting clients to say yes that may reflect on the nature of their relationship with you, their own roles and level of influence, or other challenges. It can be extremely valuable to pause and get input into what they are thinking, and what would make them interested in convening to help advise you on your business.
- Convene a dinner or smaller event – if you have a small group of clients who have agreed and are having trouble finding more, go ahead and bring them together for a one-time session, without the larger commitment beyond one meeting. Use the event to get feedback and input on the steps needed to successfully move to a more strategic Council, as well as begin to build the peer network your clients will value from participating with you.
- Create a Steering Committee or Kitchen Cabinet – we have also seen companies create a group or committee comprised of a subset of key clients and internal leaders to more proactively co-create the Advisory Council, meeting together to consider things like membership, charter, and where the company can focus to get value from the Council and attract the right clients to participate.
The main thing is to take the time and get your recruiting right – not only will your first meeting be more successful but you will secure a strong foundation for sustaining high quality membership.
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