There’s nothing more rewarding than listening to a room full of customers tell you about their challenges, whether or not you’re helping them solve those challenges, and how. Great products are born of a need, or a problem to solve, and it’s exciting when you identify the problem that creates demand for your solution.
When I joined XANT 10 months ago, Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) were talked about, but not a priority. Since then I’ve been part of the planning and execution of 4 regional CAB’s. Here’s what I learned about putting a successful one together.
1. Plan for strategic rather than feature-level discussions
Before the first CAB, we wanted to better understand our customer’s challenges so that we could align products and services to meet them, and to create customer advocates in the process.
The CAB was a vehicle for us to do both.
We didn’t want our CAB meetings to turn into a feature demand sessions. We already had other mechanisms in place to get at those insights.
Instead, we identified a group of customer Directors and VP’s (people familiar with our products but whose job functions were more strategic). We told them the CAB would be an opportunity for them to collaborate with their peers and to have a seat at the table with our execs in defining our product vision.
That message resonated.
2. Keep it simple and align to core objectives
We wanted to hear our customers talk about their problems and goals. To do that, our CAB sessions were divided into two broad sections:
- Section 1: Customer initiatives (2-2.5 hours). As part of their intro’s, we asked each participant to take 5-10 minutes and highlight their growth initiatives and challenges. This was easily the most engaging part of each session because, as it turns out, customers LOVE collaborating with each other on shared problems. We’d let this section run long.
- Section 2: Product vision (1-1.5 hours). This was led by our Head of Product. Before each CAB, he’d prepare several product-specific talk tracks and in the sessions we gave customers the option to choose which one THEY wanted to talk about. This gave them a sense of ownership over the dialogue. They were engaged and gave us amazingly candid feedback on the thematic direction of our products.
3. Invite a strong customer to host your CAB
Our host customers have all been dynamic, outspoken, senior leaders. They have strong opinions about us and about our products, but are partnership-minded.
They can also command a room, which was important because a customer-led conversation can quickly derail, so it was nice to have a voice (other than ours) maintain order and pace.
Hosting a CAB session can help position your customer as a thought leader amongst their peers and strengthens their advocacy.
4. Keep it small and intimate
If there are too many people, some won’t feel comfortable speaking up. Our goal was no more than 15 customers in a room.
We also capped employee attendance. Our core employee CAB team consisted of only 5 people (all senior execs) but we also invited a couple AE’s and AM’s if they were able to get multiple customers to attend.
Our first two CAB’s had 11 and 13 customers respectively and 6 or fewer employees, and these were arguably our best sessions.
5. Survey before and after
Getting feedback is a no-brainer. For our first CAB, we sent out a survey immediately after the session. About half responded. The survey only had 5 questions and most were free response. We picked up things that made our next 3 CAB’s better.
Starting with our second CAB, we began surveying customers a week before the session (asking about the makeup of their sales teams, their priorities for the year, key challenges, etc.) and used their responses as a guide for the customer-led discussion.
Here’s how: We’d flash their LinkedIn picture on a slide along with their survey responses, they’d recoil in embarrassment and promise to update their 10-year-old profile pic’s (this actually helped break the ice) but then they’d speak to their survey responses.
This approach helped to enrich the conversation.
6. Dinner can be a multi-purpose event
We reserved closed rooms in off-site venues that could accommodate 20-30 and encourage conversation.
We also turned these gatherings into prospecting events. Our AE’s invited prospects to the dinner in order to hear from a thought leader (more on that below), to meet some of our existing customers (who just completed a thrilling 3-4 hour CAB meeting) and to rub shoulders with our execs.
Customers and prospects sat together. They talked about the CAB and would inevitably talk about us, our products and our services. Customers can be great salespeople for you.
For our thought leader, because we operate in the space of Artificial Intelligence, we arranged for AI expert Justin Lindsey (former CTO of the FBI and Department of Justice, current CTO of MLB) to speak for 20 minutes while everyone placed their food orders.
He had entertaining stories, a strong message that tied into our product vision and he gave customers some creative things to think about. They ate it up!
7. Establish a feedback loop for key follow-up items
I was surprised how much we learned about our customers in each of these events. Between the 6-8 employees in each session, we took copious notes and debriefed the day after.
I’d compile those notes, distill them down into their broad themes and draft a post-CAB summary for customers to review.
There’s still a lot for us to improve on when it comes to closing the feedback loop, but even just communicating back to customers what we heard and how we plan to incorporate their ideas into our strategy has paid huge dividends.
8. Listen more than talk
Customers want to collaborate. You’d think in this digital age your customers would connect often. Apparently, that doesn’t happen unless you make it happen.
I’ve asked each one of our 50 CAB members what they liked most about the CAB session they attended. The most common response has gone something like this: “I loved hearing from my peers and learning how they’ve tackled the same kinds of issues we’re now going through.”
You’ll learn more about your customers by listening to them collaborate with one another than in most other ways.
It took some planning to get the right group of people together. We gave ourselves 1-2 months lead time ahead of each CAB and still had to sell the concept during our first round to our own AE’s and AM’s so they’d help invite their customers to participate.
But the result has been 4 solid groups of customers articulating their strategic goals directly to us. That’s gold baby!
You’ll probably run your CAB’s a little different than us (at your peril!). For the time being, this model works for XANT. Whatever approach you take, a key learning for me is to put more emphasis on what customers have to say than on what you want to say, and listen, listen, listen!