Recruiting the Right CAB Members - #1 Biggest Challenge

I recently ran a poll on the LinkedIn group for  Many Customer Advisory Board (CAB) Program Managers belong to this group, so I thought they would be a great source for posing the question, "What is your most challenging obstacle in planning your CAB programs for 2012?"

From the three options provided, here are how the votes came in:
   14% - Executive team buy-in 
   50% - Recruiting the right members
   35% - Drafting an engaging agenda

I was not surprised by the results. After working with customer programs for over 7 years, this continues to be an area where we provide a great deal of assistance to our clients in building Recruiting Plans to help them successfully recruit their top customer executives.

If you're having difficulty recruiting the right members for your Customer Advisory Board, ask yourself these questions:

1. Have I developed the right profile for a CAB member?  Be sure you're aligned with your executive sponsor and stakeholders on the criteria for the ideal CAB member. Develop a profile outlining the characteristics they have identified as "must haves" and circulate among the team.
Meeting table
2. Do I have a defined process for recruiting? A consistent message and approach are important when reaching out to customer executives. Be sure your recruiters have the necessary tools to be successful (talking points, a clear Charter to help communicate the benefits of membership, etc.)

3. Are the right people recruiting?  Who in your organization owns the highest level relationship? This is who should be recruiting. If your target member is a senior executive, the owner of that relationship should extend the invitation; if no one owns that relationship, then a senior executive should extend the invitation.

4. Have I allowed enough time to recruit the right members? If you're trying to get C-level executives to join, their time is limited, and chances are they're already serving on several boards/councils. All the more reason to start the recruiting process early - at least 6 months prior to the meeting. If you get turned down, you'll have time to move on to the next candidate.

Watch for my next blog on Drafting an engaging agenda - the #2 challenge for CAB Program Managers.

HCL's Formula for Success

In October of this year the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA) held their 18th Annual Marketing Conference and Marketing Excellence Awards Ceremony. Our CEO, Sean Geehan, spoke at that conference on "How Winning B2B Companies Achieve Profitable Growth."  It was exciting to be part of that conference for two reasons:
  1. The opportunity for Sean to present the principles of his new book, The B2B Executive Playbook
  2. The chance to witness one of our customers receive the ITSMA Diamond Award for Marketing Excellence in the category of Building Client Loyalty and Trust.
That customer is HCL Technologies. Evaluated by a panel of renowned industryGowri Shankar Vembu, Head of Global CACs @ HCL, receiving the ITSMA Diamond Award for Building Client Loyalty & Trust experts, organizations were judged upon innovation, execution, and business results - three critical aspects to marketing success.

HCL won the award based on its Customer Advisory Council (CAC) programs. HCL's global, collaborative initiatives involve over 80 of its Fortune 500 C-level customers and thought leaders who convene on a regular basis to advise HCL on industry trends, changing business priorities, and HCL's strategic direction. HCL applies the advice received from Council members into actionable plans that transform business and technology needs, creating more value for their customers. With their customers' help, HCL has achieved 25% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the last five years, going from revenues of $1.4B to $3.5B. The CAC also serves as an exceptional platform for HCL's customers and their industry peers to exchange ideas and best practices, and to network.

Awards such as this exemplify the value of spending time with your customers to build solid relationships, gaining a better understanding of their business, and becoming a trusted advisor over time. Customer engagement programs like HCL's Advisory Councils are key drivers for account retention, customer loyalty and revenue growth.

A fundamental reason for the success of HCL's Council program is the internal team leading the initiatives. Executive Sponsor Shami Khorana, President, HCL America, leads the team, stays closely involved, communicates to members, and attends all CAC meetings. Samir Bagga, VP and Head of Marketing, and Gowri Shankar Vembu, Associate General Manager and Head of Global CACs, are equally committed to keeping the Councils at a high-quality and strategic level. They work hard to ensure meeting agendas are robust with relevant, engaging topics, while at the same time giving members the opportunity to serve as "advisors" to HCL.

We at Geehan Group are honored to work with a company the caliber of HCL, and look forward to our continued partnership to help them run world-class customer engagement programs and continue to lead their industry with a market driven strategy, bringing company-wide internal team alignment. Congratulations to Shami, Samir, Gowri and all of the HCL team on this much-deserved award!

Too Bad Netflix Didn't Have a Customer Advisory Board!

I'm a Netflix subscriber, so, when I received my "personalized" email from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on September 19, with the first line stating, "I messed up. I owe you an explanation," I thought to myself, "Too bad Netflix didn't have a Customer Advisory Board!" 
Hastings said that he should have been more communicative about the changes and why the company was making them, which he said was that the two divisions were becoming very different businesses, and the company wanted each to grow independently. Enter "Qwikster".

Then, on October 10, I received my second "personalized" email, this time from The Netflix Team, informing me that it was clear that many Netflix members didn't care for the "two websites" idea, so they were going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs - no change: one website, one account, one password ... in other words, no Qwikster.

Wow ... again I thought, if only Netflix had a Customer Advisory Board.  They could have avoided all of the above mess ...  they would have saved themselves much time, effort, embarrassment, lost revenue, and lost subscribers.  With a CAB, they would have proactively sought feedback and learned how the market would react to their "two separate websites" idea. Additionally, CAB members could have provided guidance on how best to communicate changes to their customers.  

A recent LA Times article stated that Netflix shares recently plummeted nearly 35% after it reported a loss of 800,000 U.S. customers in the third quarter. Even more troubling is that the defections have continued through October, leading Netflix to predict lower-than-expected growth through the end of 2012.

You would think it obvious that a price increase of up to 60% would not bode well with customers, but add to that the rebranding attempt of its DVD service, and you have a recipe for disaster. Still, had these ideas been vetted to a group of customers in an Advisory Board setting, there is no doubt Netflix would have heard the "voice of the customer" loud and clear and could have avoided the losses they have experienced.

Customer Advisory Boards have proven results for ROI.  Our clients not only see increased revenue from CAB member companies, but also receive guidance on how NOT to invest dollars in the WRONG places.  As an example, a new product in development was presented to members at a recent CAB meeting for feedback; it was "nixed" for being off-target and simply not a fit for the company.  That one recommendation alone saved our client $2 million.

Just think what a CAB could have done for Netflix ...

How to Get Attendees Talking!

I realize I've written about this before - the importance of dialogue among attendees during meetings - but once again I've seen the positive results first hand.  I just returned from a very successful  Executive Summit.  What made it successful?

Attendees had the opportunity to have small group discussions on relevant topics.

You might think that's a "no-brainer" but you would be surprised at the number of leaders who think they should "present" at meetings.  They have much to say about their company and the great things they can do for customers and prospects, and often overlook the benefits of listening to what "the market" is saying - or the Voice Of The Customer.

People talkingBy "teeing up" the discussion and actively listening to the conversations among your customers and prospects, you will better understand the biggest issues they struggle with in their businesses.  It gives you important insight to develop more relevant solutions and, in turn, gives the attendees a chance to learn from one another and share what has worked for them, what hasn't worked, and why.

We find Peer Interaction to be one of the highest rated benefits of participating in Executive Summits and Customer Advisory Board meetings.  Don't make the mistake of dominating the discussions at your next meeting.  Be sure to include time for peer-to-peer dialogue and exchange.  You'll be viewed as a "listener" and you attendees will rate the meeting as a more valuable learning experience, worth their time. 

Take Action After Your Customer Advisory Board Meetings

Show YoActionur Customers You Are Listening
One of the biggest keys to success with your Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) is to identify the actions and/or next steps your organization will take following the meeting. 

Your customers devoted their time and talent, and spent a few days with you to engage in discussions to help you better understand "their world" - their challenges, their concerns, what is working and what is not working - and what the future may hold for both of you.  In return, your ultimate responsibility is to respond with specific actions you will take based on their feedback.  Taking action lets them know their time was well spent, you were listening, and you took their ideas and recommendations very seriously.  Taking action will keep them coming back to participate in future CAB meetings.

Plan Ahead for Post-meeting Activities
Even before your CAB meeting takes place, you should schedule an organizational planning meeting a week or two after the CAB meeting.  This prepares your stakeholders for providing their key takeaways and thoughts on how to move forward on member suggestions, ensuring better market alignment.  As a team, determine one or two next steps the organization is willing and able to address.  Ensure you have:
  • Support and buy-in from the team
  • A plan and structure for addressing the issue(s), with associated timing and milestones
  • Accountability from team members to make it happen

Typically within 30-45 days after the CAB meeting, you will want to communicate to the members with a meeting summary and details of your Action Plan.  Send periodic updates on the progress you've made, showing how they have impacted the strategic direction of your organization.  You'll benefit from improved customer relationships and achieve sustainable profitable growth as a result!

Think Your Customer Advisory Board Isn't Important? Think Again!

If you've fallen behind or gotten off track with your Customer Advisory Board (CAB) planning, and think you could put off a meeting because maybe "it's just not that important," think again!  Below are some comments from Advisory Board members who had mistakenly assumed their host company was canceling their upcoming CAB meeting:

"From my perspective, having key leaders and key customers together in one room to hear about the [host company] strategy and direction, and then having an opportunity to share our insights, is incredibly valuable."

"If [host company] doesn't continue the CAB, I vote we create our own group.  I'd certainly miss the [host company] engagement, but least it would give us the opportunity to share with each other.  I could hold the meeting at my company if people are willing to travel."

"This CAB provides an opportunity for us to get together face-to-face.  I know the relationships I've built, and value I get from the CAB are far greater than what I get from any other [host company] event."

"We're planning to expand significantly, so the CAB is very important to me.  So far, my experience on the CAB has been great as [host company] really listens to our feedback and has implemented many of our suggestions."

EngageThese are incredible testimonials to the value of customer engagement programs, and specifically, Customer Advisory Boards.  One member went as far as to offer to host fellow members at her organization for the peer sharing and networking benefits!  

Clearly these members have experienced the benefits of participating on an Advisory Board.  They have a "seat at the table" with the executive leadership team allowing them an insider's view of the host company's strategy and direction.  They also have the opportunity to be that "voice of the customer" for the host company. 

Don't underestimate the impact of your CAB program.  And be sure to communicate clearly and often about plans and next steps.  As one meeting is completed, start planning for the next one by choosing a few dates to share with members, asking for their best availability.  Remember: continuous engagement and early planning are keys to success!

Choose the Right Internal Team for Your Customer Advisory Board

In his presentation at the 2011 Conference in Boston, Sean Geehan covered the Eight Building Blocks of World-Class Customer Advisory Boards (CABs).  Check out his post on the LinkedIn group for (and feel free to join the group if you like - it's a great source for CAB Program Managers).

In his post, he emphasized the importance of getting executive buy-in, sponsorship and support from the leadership team for your CAB program.  While this is a critical requirement to ensure internal support and alignment, also keep in mind the other stakeholders in your organization who are important to involve in the process and include in the feedback loop.

Below is a flowchart we developed showing the additional internal stakeholder input areas, and how that information should flow back to the Executive Sponsor (or CEO) of your CAB initiative.

Geehan flowchart

Your leadership team should always be connected to your CAB program.  Just as important are their direct reports in key areas of your organization - sales, marketing, customer service, product development, etc.  Be sure to provide an input mechanism by which these individuals can suggest areas to explore with CAB members.  Making them part of the process will foster camaraderie among the team and reinforce the value of their support and expertise.  These are your internal champions who will help take the feedback form the CAB and integrate that into new products and offerings - it is vital to keep them involved and informed.

Flexibility and Relevancy Key to Interactive CAB Discussions

I recently attended a Customer Advisory Board meeting with a well-establishepeople meetingd group.  Some of the members have been on the Board since its inception (3 years), while others have joined within the past year.

During an open discussion in one of the sessions, several members shared a similar concern about a specific trend from the host organization.  While this particular topic was not on the agenda, the group consensus was to spend some time discussing the issue.

There are times when unexpected topics come up, and knowing when to "adjust on the fly" is important.  Before changing the agenda, ask yourself these key questions:
  • Is the concern shared by and/or relevant to the majority of the members?
  • Does the Executive Sponsor want to explore the concern at the meeting or hold until later?
  • What would be the best format to address the topic (open discussion, small group discussions, etc.)?
Good facilitation is crucial when it comes to "shifting gears" or adjusting the agenda.  Adapting to the needs of the customers, as long as the Executive Sponsor agrees, shows flexibility on behalf of all parties.  When properly structured and managed, these conversations can help the host not only understand the problem more clearly, but also the underlying causes and impact.  Once that is complete, having the CAB shift to an Advisory role is key to addressing the issue at hand.  This approach will also stop the discussion from evolving into a "complaint session," which only leaves everyone frustrated and with no mutual action to address the core issue.

For the meeting I attended, the change was well received.  A concern was voiced, and the host organization is now better informed on what expectations are for the future.  They are currently addressing this concern internally in order to fast-track a solution.  This is a great example of CAB members truly fulfilling their mission of "Advisor."

How to Avoid Common Customer Advisory Board Missteps: Part 3 of 3

This is the last of my 3-part series on how to avoid common missteps in executing your Customer Advisory Board. The focus of this misstep is on the importance of treating the CAB as an ongoing program and not “just another meeting.”  

Minus signThe CAB meeting is treated as an event – this is a common misstep with Customer Advisory Boards. The host organization turns it over to their Event Team who plans the meeting. The leadership team prepares a few weeks prior, the meeting is executed, and everyone returns to their jobs. Nothing else happens until it is time to plan the next meeting, and the Event Team starts the process all over again.

Plus sign
Better idea
– it doesn’t end with the meeting!  A CAB is an ongoing program and should be treated as such. This is accomplished by careful attention and continuous planning.  Following are a few key elements to help ensure your team is aligned to deliver a valuable meeting experience, and your members feel it is worth their time:

  • Meeting agendas should not be driven by host presentations. Create sessions that engage members in two-way dialog and small group discussions, and allow time for networking and socializing.
  • Your key stakeholders and session leaders must spend time rehearsing as a team and share ideas.  This will ensure cohesiveness in the agenda and allow all presenters to be familiar with what other team members are presenting. CAB members appreciate well-organized meetings.
  • Provide a post-meeting report with a summary of discussions and next steps you will be addressing based on their feedback - this shows the members you value their input. Keep in touch with your members to give them periodical updates on your progress. 
  • Keep members engaged between meetings – provide opportunities for them to connect on topics of interest that came up during the meeting for further exploration/discussion. Poll your members for topics of interest for the next face-to-face meeting.

We have seen many variations of CAB meetings.  These Customer Engagement programs are in no way a “one-size-fits-all” scenario – they are customized programs that take time and thought to plan. When done properly, the rewards for your organization are better market alignment and enhanced customer relationships.


How to Avoid Common Customer Advisory Board Missteps - Part 2 of 3

This is part 2 of my 3-part series on how to avoid common missteps in executing your Customer Advisory Board. The focus of this misstep centers on your CAB members and ensuring you have the right mix of participants.

minusThere is a wide range in the level of customer attendees - mixing the levels of attendees tends to lessen the amount of feedback and degree of involvement; it frustrates higher levels, is intimidating to lower levels, and discussions will go to the lowest common denominator.

Better idea - first consider the companies (not individuals) that are most strategic to your success.  Second, identify the qualities, skills and/or characteristics needed to tackle the priority issues the board will be addressing, and align that to a role or roles.  Develop a Member Profile based on those roles and recruit to that profile.  We find that grouping by discipline is the most common advisory board makeup, for instance, all CIOs.  Cross disciplines (level appropriate) also provide an added dimension and perspective; i.e. CIO, CMO, CFO.

Once you have identified the level of your board membership and aligned that to the right customer executive, look for additional traits such as:

  • An individual who is recognized among their peers for their innovative ideas
  • A strategic leader in their organization
  • A "friendly skeptic" who is capable of challenging strategies in a positive way 

Be sure to check back in a few weeks for Part 3 of 3, my final “Common Misstep” in planning and executing your Customer Advisory Board.