Meeting Facilitation

Every Advisory Board meeting needs a good facilitator - and this is #7 on my list of key factors for successful advisory board initiatives.

A facilitator sets the tone for your customer meeting - if they're experienced, your meeting will run smoothly and your customers will appreciate the "natural pace" they can maintain.  If they're inexperienced, their awkwardness will over shadow the great experience you worked so hard to create.

Not everyone is a natural facilitator - it's an art and a skill.  Have you ever attended a meeting where the facilitator seemed nervous or uneasy?  Sure, we all have.  It's distracting; you feel their pain ... and anxiously await the moment they "find their comfort zone" or "get back on track."

There are many advantages to engaging a professional facilitator - here are just a few:
A 3rd party facilitator
  • Is "neutral" and can create an atmosphere for open and honest feedback
  • Can draw out the quiet people and defuse the "complainers"
  • Will maintain focus and keep conversations relevant and purposeful
  • Can tactfully "coach" a board member who dominates conversations, saving the host the task of approaching one of their top customers
  • Has the skill and expertise to deal with on-the-spot changes and reorganize sessions
  • Possesses a variety of tools and techniques to uncover the insight you need from your customers 
If you (or a team member) feel "up to the challenge," consider incorporating these best practices:
  • You are there to listen; give your customers plenty of time to provide feedback
  • Be inclusive - elicit feedback from everyone
  • Limit presentations; instead focus on the brainpower and dialogue from your advisory board members - after all, that's why you invited them
  • Accept feedback without being defensive; show patience
  • Mix it up a bit - variety will keep members engaged; incorporate small group discussions, panel discussions, etc. into your agenda format
Utilizing a professional facilitator will keep your meeting on topic and on time, allowing you to maximize the meeting experience for both your team and your strategic customers.  The result: solution-focused, relevant discussions resulting in valuable market feedback.

Meeting Preparation

I can't stress enough the importance of #6 on my list of key success factors - meeting preparation.  Comprehensive planning is essential to ensure your customer advisory board meeting experience reaches its full potential.  For the purpose of this blog, I'll segment Meeting Preparation into three buckets:

  1. Meeting Logistics
  2. Meeting Schedule
  3. Host/Member Preparation
Meeting Logistics
Not sure where to hold your meeting?  There are many avenues of thought on this subject ... some feel headquarters is a good location, especially if there are data centers, labs, etc. that would be beneficial for customers to experience.  I've read where others hold their meetings locally in a private room of a restaurant (not the best choice in my opinion).  Based on my experience managing and organizing customer programs, here are a few best practices for planning meetings with your top customers:
  • Hold the meeting at an appealing location.  Sean Geehan, our CEO, suggests, "A great location will get members to the first meeting, rich and relevant dialogue will keep them coming back." 
  • Choose "hub cities" where possible to limit flight connections.
  • Carefully consider "headquarters" locations - while they may provide valuable facility tours, keep in mind it can be distracting for the host team (easily pulled away from the meeting).
Meeting Schedule
When planning the meeting (typically 1½-2 days), be sure to allocate adequate time for:
  • General session meeting time
  • Break-out group discussions
  • Time for networking/socializing
  • Free time
It is very important that the host team is present at all meetings and social activities.  Staying engaged with your top customers sends a powerful message that this initiative, and their participation, is important.  The bottom line:  executive interaction helps build stronger customer relationships.

Host/Member Preparation
For the Host:  Your board members will appreciate well-organized and well-prepared presenters.  Spend time rehearsing as a team and share ideas.  This will ensure cohesiveness in your agenda and allow all presenters to be familiar with what other team members are presenting.
For the Members:  Share an agenda with your board members in advance of the meeting.  They will appreciate the opportunity to gather their thoughts or even discuss with a colleague prior to the meeting.

If you've had a unique customer meeting experience, or would like to share some of the challenges you've face, I'd enjoy hearing from you.


Content Design

To ensure your advisory board meetings foster dialogue and encourage member feedback, much thought and preparation must be put into content design, the fifth item on my list of key success factors in building an effective customer advisory board program.

Topics must be thought-provoking and presented in a way that not only keeps customers engaged, but encourages them to offer their perspectives, insights and ideas for solutions.

Considerations for Content Development

  • Discussions must be relevant to all participants (or they won't feel it is worth coming back)
  • Meeting topics should align to the objectives set forth for the advisory board
  • Survey members prior to the meeting on the topics they would like to discuss with their peers
  • Incorporate variety in session formats to keep members engaged
  • Discussions should be designed for dialogue (tee up the discussion and let the members talk)
By following these guidelines, your advisory board meeting discussions will generate actionable feedback and build collaborative relationships with your strategic customers.

Selecting the Right Customers for Advisory Board Membership

Today's blog covers step #4, selecting the right customers for membership when building your advisory board.  With careful planning, preparation and follow-through, you can structure your board membership with the right mix of professional market leaders from your strategic customer base to provide the input and perspectives you need to drive program success. 

Many of our clients struggle to define what the right mix of membership should include.  Jena Shore, Program Manager at Autodesk, shares her success on recruiting for their Executive Council:  "The key to recruiting the right people is clearly defining the level, personality type, and market focus of the candidate.  Our sales team then nominates someone who meets these requirements."

Consider the following when defining board membership:
  • What companies (not individuals) are most strategic to your success?
  • What qualities, skills and/or characteristics would best align to the priority issues the board will be addressing?
Be careful about mixing levels - it frustrates higher levels, is intimidating to lower levels, and discussions will go to the lowest common denominator.  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.

For more tips on recruiting members to your advisory board, I'd like to refer you to a paper I wrote called Three Keys for Recruiting and Membership Success, which can be found on our website under Resource Library.  The last page of the article includes some FAQs you might also find helpful. 

If you would like to share some of your experiences building advisory board membership with the right strategic customer mix, I invite you to post a comment.  I'd love to hear some of your challenges and successes!

Watch for my next blog on Content Design.

- Karen


Clear Definition of Advisory Board Program Mission and Objectives

The third step in my 10 Keys to Customer Advisory Board success is establishing a clear definition of program mission and objectives for your Advisory Board.

Every initiative requires defined objectives to ensure all stakeholders understand its scope and purpose.  A customer advisory board program is no different.  Capturing your program's objectives in supporting documentation will provide a program framework to share with board members and the internal team to:
  • Establish guiding principles for all who will participate in customer advisory board activities
  • Develop a mutual understanding of the mission and objectives of the advisory board
  • Clarify the purpose of the advisory board to members as well as internal stakeholders
  • Define the roles of the host team and the board members
By defining the purpose of the advisory board, you establish reference points to which you can align discussions with your strategic customer members.  The members will appreciate it too - they agreed to join the advisory board based on the defined objectives you shared with them - seeing that you are keeping meeting topics relevant to the mission and objectives, and aligned to the board's purpose will keep them engaged.

Cross-functional Support and Alignment

Getting back to my list of keys to success in customer advisory board implementation, here's a look at the second step:  Cross-functional support and alignment.  Getting internal executive involvement across functional areas of the organization is essential and will:
  • Align the executive team to the goals and direction of the program
  • Give leaders an opportunity to convey where they feel customer input could help drive decisions on strategic issues for their area of responsibility
  • Provide a reference point for key decisions required to build a sustainable and productive advisory board program
Taking the time to accomplish this important step will lay the foundation for ultimate success.  Once your executives are "on board" and engaged with the customer program, be sure to set the precedent early that you will only call upon them when you absolutely need their input or guidance to move something forward.  We've found that most successful programs involve the executive team at the right time and for the right amount of time to drive a world-class customer program.

M.planet - "The Voice of the Marketer"

I along with two of my colleagues, recently attended AMA's M.planet Show in Orlando.  A recurring theme I heard from marketers, no surprise, was that companies are scrutinizing their marketing spend now more than ever.  Many of the marketing research analysts I spoke to were a bit disillusioned that, after providing a client comprehensive results and metrics from their research, often nothing is done with the results - the data just sits.  What a shame ... that information is invaluable!  It can define the areas of the organization that need the most attention and serve as a window to the "customer's world" revealing how the organization is perceived.  What are you doing with your research results?  Have they fallen into the proverbial "black hole?"

During these economic times, organizations are so focused on getting the most impact for their marketing dollars.  We've helped many clients analyze their marketing research results, and have recommended best practices and approaches for customer program implementation.  The bottom line:  use your research results and feedback to develop customer retention strategies that align to the market.  You'll set the stage for more profitable customer relationships.

The Importance of Executive Buy-in, Sponsorship and Support

In my last blog I listed 10 key success factors to consider when planning and implementing a customer advisory board program.

Let's take a look at the first step: Executive buy-in, sponsorship and support.  This is #1 on the list for a good reason - if you don't have support from the top, your advisory board program won't reach its full potential.  A customer advisory board provides your executive sponsor and executive team the opportunity to meet face-to-face with 15-20 of your top customers.  Natural outcomes and benefits for your executive team include:
  • Stronger customer relationships - through participation on the advisory board, customers become advocates
  • Market alignment - learn customer needs and market trends from those who are "living what you're selling"
  • Account retention and increased spend from participating customers
Now more than ever executives are looking for tangible ways to retain top customers and expand revenue within those customers - a customer advisory board provides a programmatic approach to achieve those results. 

Watch for my next blog on #2 on my list of success factors, Cross-functional Support and Alignment.

Advisory Board Getting Started Checklist

Many of our first-time customers ask the question, "Where do I start?"  They know building an effective advisory board encompasses many steps and want to ensure they get it right the first time so their leadership team and key customers have a great experience.

Following is my "top 10 list" of key success factors to consider as you plan and implement your customer advisory board program: 

  1. Executive buy-in, sponsorship and support
  2. Cross-functional support and alignment
  3. Clear definition of program mission and objectives
  4. Selecting the right customers for membership
  5. Content design
  6. Meeting preparation
  7. Meeting facilitation
  8. Post-meeting follow-through and action tracking
  9. Continuous member communication and engagement
  10. Program management process

In forthcoming blogs I'll share some of my observations, experiences and a few tips on these 10 keys to success.


Are You Considering a Customer Advisory Board Program?

I can’t think of a single business that would not benefit from a Customer Advisory Board program. These structured, proven programs help organizations develop a deep understanding of market conditions while building the rapport with key executives that leads to increased opportunities and profitable customer relationships. Creating the right environment for your strategic customers to meet as a group to provide feedback to your strategy, marketing, product, service, etc., is a win-win for all! The customers feel “part of the process” and are afforded a unique opportunity to network with peers and share challenges. And, your executive team hears first-hand through the “voice of the customer” what is needed in the marketplace and more specifically, how your organization can play a role.


So now you’re wondering, “Where do I start?” Watch for my next blog for a Getting Started Checklist.