Your Customer Advisory Board – If Not Now, When?

For those of you who have been thinking about launching a Customer Advisory Board but have not yet taken action, some recent IBM research about the C-suite and business performance suggests that you may be missing the boat.

IBM’s recently released C-suite study, The Customer Activated Enterprise, based on interviews with more than 4000 global CxOs—CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CIOs, etc.—shows just how important it is to bring your clients into your business, and into your strategy.

The study finds that customer influence is one of the biggest growing trends for the next 3 to 5 years.  More than half of CxOs expect to open up their enterprises to extend collaboration inside and outside of the enterprise, with a particularly radical shift in what it means to collaborate with customers.  A growing number of CEOs believe customer influence shouldn’t be confined to activities in which customers have traditionally participated, such as developing new products or services, and should move into what is typically the CEOs’ domain—developing business strategy.  CEOs—60% of them—expect to see customer influence grow most in the arena of business strategy development, and they further see customers coming in second only to the C-suite in terms of influence on the business strategy.  And finally, in considering the role of customer influence on business success, companies who are outperformers are 24% more likely than underperformers to have given the customer a prime seat at the boardroom table.

So what does this mean for you and your Customer Advisory Board?

Beyond Business as Usual
To start with, if you are not figuring out and implementing new ways to collaborate with your customers on where and how to grow and evolve your business, you are starting to fall behind.  This goes well beyond customer satisfaction surveys, customer service improvements and user groups.  Engaging your customers in your business strategy requires a specific approach and mindset which is different from business as usual.  Key components for success include:

  • Identify and tap your most strategic clients – involve those clients who bring the most value and who have an interest in shaping your future.  This can mean your largest accounts, your most loyal clients or even the smaller ones who are new to the fold, but are aligned to where you want to be.  Don’t waste time engaging strategically with clients who are uninterested in your innovation, who are not value-oriented or who cannot contribute significantly to a future partnership.
  • Focus on your executive relationships – to get real collaboration on strategic direction, you need to successfully engage the highest level relationships in those strategic accounts.  Your day-to-day client contacts may be loyal and smart, but they will not provide a meaningful partnership to your own executive team when it comes to strategy and growth.
  • Create the forums and the discipline for collaboration – to embed customers in your business strategy you need to develop a systematic approach to solicit input, engage in dialog, provide value back and deliver on the advice you receive.  Ad hoc or periodic conversations with key clients will fail to engender results or impact, and your clients will quickly tire of helping you out.
  • Recognize it takes time to build collaboration – trusted collaboration around strategy takes time to build.  You will get advice right away, but if you invest in an ongoing program to engage, you will find that the path is clearer, the advice more actionable and the commitment to joint value is cemented. 

Strategic Collaboration the Customer Advisory Board Way
So getting back to the Customer Advisory Board.  As we have talked about in other posts, a Customer Advisory Board implemented correctly is one of the most powerful tools for collaborating with clients around business strategy.  It provides a forum for clients to hear about your strategy and plans free from a sales environment, and for you to hear honest feedback separate from day-to-day client delivery concerns.  The peer environment creates a safe haven for exchange around challenges, ideas, innovation and new direction, which are hard to get at any other way.  And the rigor required to launch and maintain an Advisory Board ensures a commitment to jointly build trust, and to deliver back on the advice received.

But don’t just take our word for it.  The IBM study I referenced above notes “some of the most advanced enterprises are establishing customer advisory boards to get direct input on strategic issues.” (p. 5, The Customer-Activated Enterprise, IBM Corporation, 2013).

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