One Size Does Not Fit All – Customer Advisory Board Best Practices

Earlier this week I attended the Customer Advisory Board.org annual meeting in San Francisco, where our longstanding work on one Customer Advisory Board (CAB) was highlighted on the agenda and presented by our client. The meeting brought together approximately 50 Customer Advisory Board practitioners from companies spanning numerous industries. The speakers were also practitioners and they shared their experiences running Customer Advisory Boards. The maturity of the CABs they spoke of varied, which provided an opportunity to hear about early, mid- and late stage successes and challenges in Customer Advisory Board management.

Over the course of the day I heard participants discuss numerous areas where they are working to create value for both their organizations and the members of the Customer Advisory Board. Below are the top three that stood out as being the areas that participants grapple with across the board.

Member management. Meeting participants shared that they are challenged with a variety of facets of member management, starting with recruiting the right membership through to ongoing management.
Board Composition: Participants shared perspectives around whether membership should be determined by functional role, cross-industry or single industry, and this appeared to be tied to the organization and the type of advice and input they were looking to gather from their customer group.
Nomination process: Many meeting attendees struggled with cracking the nut on how to drive internal engagement and momentum to get the right nominations when recruiting is first kicked off
Size and scope: Determining the right number of members to have on a specific Customer Advisory Board was another area that participants focused on. Closely tied to this are term lengths and the optimal methods for keeping Board continuity and knowledge while also getting fresh perspectives from new members.
Member contribution: A few attendees mentioned the very delicate situation of non-contributing members and were eager to hear how others have managed through this.

Ongoing engagement. Ongoing engagement was an area that practitioners agreed is a constant battle. Determining the right cadence of face to face meetings can be difficult in and of itself; throw in virtual meetings and other touchpoints and engagement can be quickly become a pain point. Participants’ CABs varied in the number of face to face meetings they hold – 1 per year, 2 per year, 1 per 18 months as well as the virtual events. One participant also shared that her Customer Advisory Board has not done any face to face meetings, only virtual meetings.

Perhaps the biggest area of challenge arose around engaging members in between the formal meetings, and those leading Customer Advisory Board efforts tackle this in different ways. In our work with Customer Advisory Boards, we have found that speaking to members during one-on-one phone calls in between meetings to check in, gather feedback from the previous meeting and to glean insight on upcoming agenda topics and trends members may see in the market is effective in helping to further and strengthen the relationship in between meetings. Others at the conference have used this type of qualitative input gathering as well, but it was not a systematic approach. Some attendees have tried, with varying degrees of success, to engage members in virtual online communities. My takeaway in this area is that it is not one-size-fits-all, and a variety of methods may need to be employed over time until you strike the right balance for both members and the host organization.

Facilitation. Participants discussed the need to have strong facilitation in meetings, whether it is achieved by training internal executives or employing a third party for this key role. The facilitator plays the role of traffic cop and is integral to moving the conversation along, keeping track of time, and making decisions on whether to spend more time on a particular session or shift to the next topic ahead of schedule. Strong facilitation is critical especially when the discussion is sticky or if the topic takes an unanticipated turn. The facilitator also plays the important role of summarizing the discussion, boiling down the conversation into salient points, being able to synthesize on the spot and ask questions to probe further and get to the key issues, so insights can be turned into action.

It was valuable to learn from other’s lessons learned, successes, challenges and best practices. What are the areas of challenge and success you have experienced in your Customer Advisory Board management?

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