Just Listen: You Might Just Learn Something!

I spent some time earlier this week cleaning out some old files and came across an article by Matthew Swyers that was published nearly a year ago on Inc.com. It shares the story of when and how he learned to keep quiet, and advises that if you really want to learn something, listen more than you speak. In this week before our presidential election, it really resonated with me. I find myself wanting to say this to so many people throughout the day…. to the news anchors on television who constantly interrupt their guest commentators, to my friends and acquaintances (and perhaps even a few family members) who have a need to sway my opinions and debate everything that is said. And yes, I even find myself wanting to say it to our politicians…shut up and listen to what others have to say. You might just learn something!

I was reminded of this advice again this afternoon during a planning call with the leader of an upcoming advisory council session. He is already anticipating how his advisors might respond to some of his questions, so he is planning a lengthy presentation to pre-empt their thinking. He’s planning his rebuttal too! He wants to be sure they understand what he has already done, what solutions have already been tried without success, and why their anticipated suggestions won’t work. After all, he knows his business and industry better than anyone else. He knows what he’s doing. Doesn’t he?  

Maybe…but maybe not as well as he would like, or he wouldn’t have formed a customer advisory council and invited his customers to help him! After all, that is the over-arching purpose of an advisory council… to develop a deeper understanding of the market from your top customers, while simultaneously strengthening your relationships with them. This market insight, when incorporated into your strategic planning, ultimately leads to sustainable, predictable, and profitable growth. And that cannot be done if you’re talking the whole time!

So shut up and listen! Ask questions. Let your customers answer. Ask for clarity if you don’t understand, but let them do most of the talking. You may or may not like what you hear and you may or may not take their advice. But listen to what they have to say.  You might just learn something new, something important, or something that changes the game. But you won’t learn it if you’re not listening… so shut up and listen!  


Want to Improve Customer Engagement? Get Personal!

Have you ever read something that rubbed you the wrong way, but you couldn’t quite figure out why? That happened to me earlier this week when I came across a blog post on the Forbes CIO Network,  Written by John Dillon, CEO of Engine Yard, the premise is that “it’s time for business leaders to take a closer look at new opportunities for improving customer engagement…” and that “information technology is a great place to start.”

I read it four days ago and it has been gnawing at me ever since! I agree and I disagree. Something about it just didn’t sit right with me! My initial reaction was “what a bunch of bologna. You can’t improve customer “engagement” via the cloud!” Or could you?

So I did a little research. I explored the idea of customer engagement. I looked up the definition. I re-discovered a couple of articles I had previously read on the subject. I came to the conclusion that my struggle with this article was not so much the content, but the terminology Dillon uses. He uses the term “customer engagement” the way I use “customer experience.” In my mind, “customer engagement” implies a personal relationship, as in “engaged” to be married.  In my mind, “personal” and “cloud” simply do not go together, which is why I struggled so much with his article. So I read the article again and replaced the word “engagement” with “experience” and “connection.” It made much more sense to me that way, and I now understand what Dillon was saying.

In my mind, the only way to improve customer engagement is to get personal! Why is that so hard to understand!? In a 2010  survey of how marketers view their customer engagement strategies,  Forbes found the following:

  • 97% of survey respondents said their companies viewed the issue of engagement as very (67%) or somewhat (30%) important.
  • 86% said engagement is part of the ongoing conversation between marketing and top corporate leadership.
  • Marketers know that engagement is intrinsically linked to customer loyalty and retention.
  • 72% want repeat purchase behavior
  • 69% want customer advocates
  • 95% want to optimize their engagement with customers

But… they are unclear about how to accomplish it. Many have no specific strategy. 33% rated their current efforts as just fair or poor. Surprising, when asked to assess their various marketing tactics in terms of how deeply they engage customers, 48% of the marketers surveyed indicated that in-person and permission-based methods had the highest engagement. But they still don’t know how to foster deeper engagement? I don’t get it. It seems like a no-brainer to me!

The issue of engagement is important! So, if you want to improve customer engagement, get personal! The cloud and social media are great ways to communicate with your customers and to improve the customer experience, but they are impersonal. To really “engage” with your customers, you need to develop a personal relationship. Reach out to them on a personal level. Get to know them. Get personal!  


3 Tips for an Impactful Customer Advisory Board

I recently attended a breakfast briefing, Street Smart Secrets for Change Management, where Jeff Cole, co-author of Driving Operational Excellence, shared nine tips for changing behavior throughout an organization. I found it intriguing. In less than 90-minutes, Jeff managed to get me thinking differently about how customer advisory boards impact an organization.

I’ve seen first-hand how customer advisory boards provide strategic insight, focus marketing direction, and promote leadership team alignment.  My clients have leveraged their customer advisory boards to acclerate sales, improve customer retention, and advance product innovation. Customer Advisory Boards are proven to drive sustainable, predictable and profitable growth (SPPG), as outlined in Sean Geehan’s book, The B2B Executive Playbook. So I know how customer advisory boards can truly impact an organization. I did not consciously realize, however, that an organization’s inherent resistance to change can make transformational impact extremely difficult, or kill it altogether.Resistance

Launching a Customer Advisory Board often implies that change needs to happen in your organization.  After all, that’s why you are investing in it!  Savvy leaders see the need for change (a new direction, increased sales, improved relationships, etc.) and realize customers can provide the guidance to make it happen.  In fact, organizations that utilize advisory boards to their fullest potential have made them synonymous with continuous improvement and drivers of transformation.  But, you have got to get everyone on the same page.

To achieve truly impactful results, consider the following when developing your customer advisory board.

  • Stakeholders inherently resist change, so communicate progress, both big and small, early and often.
  • Culture impacts an organization’s ability to change, so build a tolerance for ongoing change into your corporate strategy. 
  • Change doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time and requires a certain set of skills, so designate a change agent/architect to manage the process.    

As you can see, I had a few “Aha” moments during Jeff’s presentation. So much so, in fact, that I immediately ran out and bought his book.  I recommend it to all who aspire to be the agent of change and transformation in their organization.


Customer Advisory Councils…. Assistance for Navigating the Road Ahead

On a recent road trip with my son and future daughter-in-law, traffic on the highway came to a complete stop thirty minutes into our 3 ½ -hour drive. Not knowing what lay ahead, I was instantly reminded of the time it took me 14 hours to drive to Chicago after a snowstorm, normally a 5-hour trip! I still cringe every time I think about it… the discomfort, the stress, the feeling of helplessness, and the disappointment over all the missed appointments and opportunities. Luckily, my quick-thinking and a bit impatient son, who was listening to the traffic report, quickly maneuvered the car into the exit lane and took an alternate route. In no time at all, we were back on-track and actually arrived at our destination a little ahead of schedule. It was painless and we didn’t miss a thing.

It’s too bad the people in all those other cars weren’t listening to the traffic report. They would probably be delayed, and were likely to miss something special. They too, could have maneuvered around the accident and arrived ahead of schedule like us. Catching up on some work-related reading in the backseat, our little glitch in the road got me thinking… customer advisory councils are a lot like that traffic report! They provide insight to what lies ahead. 

If you’re planning a road trip and want to know what condition the roads are in, tune in to your local traffic report. You will learn where to expect slow-downs due to construction. You will discover where caution is needed due to ice and snow. You will find out which roads should be avoided altogether due to accidents. You will realize that an alternate route may be necessary, and which one will get you to your destination more quickly. You will get a glimpse into what lies ahead so you can anticipate and plan accordingly.

Likewise, when navigating the road to success for your organization. Tune in to your customer advisory council and gain insight to customer challenges, industry trends, and product development! 

  • Learn what to expect from the market.
  • Discover where caution is needed or where speed is of the essence in developing new products.
  • Find out what new programs and services are needed or what should be avoided altogether.
  • Realize that a different perspective or strategy may be needed or that another way or doing things may work better.
  • Discover how to achieve differentiation.
  • Anticipate the future and plan accordingly.

Take my advice. Tune in to your “traffic report.” Learn what to expect and what lies ahead. Prepare for the open road, congestion, and potential detours. Avoid the stress and disappointment of missed opportunities. Anticipate an alternate route and you may actually arrive ahead of schedule like we did. Tune in. It’s painless and you won’t miss a thing!


5 Things To Do to Prepare for your Next Customer Advisory Council Meeting

I recently came across an article by Tom Searcy, Break down a Sales Presentation like an ESPN Analyst, where he suggests that you prepare for a sales meeting the same way ESPN’s analysts prepare for their pre-game shows: do the match-up analysis, know the stats, identify the 1-2 things to win,  calculate the risks; and, understand the game-changers.  Dare I say this is relevant to a Customer Advisory Council meeting, as well?

ESPNNow we all know, or at least we should, that Customer Advisory Council meetings are not intended to include sales presentations and that anything that even hints at selling is a recipe for disaster. Don’t do it…. ever.  Resist the temptation at all costs as you will lose the trust of your board members and could cause irreparable damage to your existing relationships.

That said, members of your executive team should indeed, do these five things to prepare for a Customer Advisory Council meeting:

  1. Do the match-up analysis. Take time prior to the meeting, perhaps en-route to the meeting destination so it’s good and fresh, to review the profile and photo of each member. Knowing each member's responsibilities, background, and interests will help you connect with them on a more personal basis and help you introduce them to their fellow Council members. Additionally, during the Prep Session, assign an executive to serve as “host” to 1-2 Advisory Council members, especially if they are new to the group.
  2. Know the stats. Review company profiles, financials, recent news and press releases, and have an understanding of the volume and types of business they do with you. This information will help you better understand their perspectives on key issues discussed during the meeting.
  3. Identify the 1-2 things to win. Since these are your top customers, chances of good that you have deals pending. Know what they are, what it will take to win them, and any other opportunities that may be coming your way.
  4. Calculate the risks. Likewise, know if there are any unresolved customer-service issues that may come up in conversation. You don’t want to be caught off-guard and ill-prepared to address them if they do.
  5. Understand the game-changers.  Know who the other key leaders are and how your Advisory Board Members may influence them. 
In other words, prepare for the meeting like ESPN’s analysts prepare for their pre-game show. Know the elements of the game… the strengths and weaknesses of the players, and their team’s strategies and statistics. The “pre-game” analysis will be worth your time. It will provide more direct focus for your interactions with members, will lead to a better understanding of their perspectives, and will ultimately lead to a win! Go Team!  

Customer Advisory Board Meeting Tip: Help Members Participate Effectively through Professional Facilitation

During a recent meeting with a prospective client, conversation turned to the need for a professional facilitator for an upcoming advisory board meeting.  He was considering having a member of his leadership team play that role and wanted to know what we thought. In some ways, having an internal facilitator is a good idea. He/she may be a subject matter expert and may already have some level of relationship with advisory board members. But it’s risky. There is much more to gain from bringing in a professional facilitator from outside the company.

Sure, anyone can run a meeting. But running a meeting well and in such a way that uncovers key insights is a whole other issue! Remember, advisory board members are your top clients. Every meeting with them should be executed flawlessly.  Every interaction should be well-structured to deliver rich insight and focused dialogue. Every moment should be well spent. This is not a time or place for an amateur!

wordleWe would all like to think that advisory board members will come to meetings well prepared, eager to participate, and ready to function like a team. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Your members are busy executives who still have major responsibilities back home. And as much as we provide them with information on how to participate most effectively (see Tips for Advisory Board Members below), they may still come into the meeting ill prepared. They may be hesitant to voice their opinions or need to step out for a conference call. They may arrive late and leave early. They may stray from the topic, be disruptive, negative or overly emotional. When dysfunctions like these happen, as they surely will, you will want an unbiased, skilled facilitator who can prevent and/or diffuse what could be an uncomfortable situation. After all, professional facilitators have the necessary skills and are prepared to manage dysfunction.   

So if you’re considering having a team member facilitate your upcoming advisory board meeting, think again. Is it really worth the risk?

Tips for Advisory Board Members
  • Read ALL materials prior to the event.  Write questions in the margins.  Highlight key ideas, areas you don’t agree with, and points that concern you.  Review and scan to stay fresh.
  • Make an effort to meet everyone prior to the meeting session, especially if there is an opening reception.  Meeting your peers prior to the meeting helps the meeting itself move along more quickly.
  • Be brief and concise with your comments so conversation keeps moving and everyone can have an opportunity to contribute.
  • Ask questions that bring out depth behind the comments.
  • When possible, try to remain for and participate in optional social activities.  Getting to know fellow members helps for in-session success.
  • Constructive criticism is welcome.  Even greater value is gained when a solution is offered for host consideration.
  • The host organization asked you to be on the Advisory Board because you impressed someone with your talent and insight.  Leveraging your customer status will diminish your credibility and frustrates your fellow Advisory Board Members.
  • Stay engaged throughout the meeting.  You would be surprised what information you can learn, relationships you can forge, and influence you can extend during refreshment breaks.
  • On occasion, some have found their emotions taking over.  In those instances, take a mental break.  You can always reach out to the facilitator at a break.  He/she may be able to help guide the conversation more appropriately to avoid an uncomfortable situation.


Planning Ahead and Being Prepared for Growth in 2012 - Starts Here!

Back in September, Gartner came out with their rather controversial CIO Advisory:  Four Recession and Growth Strategies That Make Sense for 2012.  Though forecasts for growth in 2012 are modest, Gartner recommended that clients plan ahead and “avoid consuming time preparing for growth should growth opportunities suddenly arise” and that “however long a distressed economic climate may last, growth will remain a top priority of CEOs and boards of directors.”

Many organizations may prefer to wait and see what the economy does, but that would be a big mistake. I agree with Gartner that organizations must be prepared to take action when the opportunity arises.

Plan ahead. Get started by attending Geehan Group’s upcoming B2B Executive Summit:Summit logo Navigating Growth & Transformation. Designed exclusively for VP & higher executives, the B2B Summit provides an intimate setting (attendance is limited to 50 attendees) for learning from a prestigious roster of speakers, including Paul Gottsegen, CMO at Infosys, Joe Austin, SVP Customer Experience at Juniper, and Brent Ahrens, General Partner at Canaan, as well as author Jim Hauden.

  • Learn how Bill Fathers, President of Savvis, helped shape the company’s international presence, increased its market share, and developed leading-edge products for the financial services, media and telecom industries.
  • Discover how John Schwarz, former CEO at Business Objects, doubled the company’s revenue to more than $1.5 billion, improved profitability, and oversaw seven strategic acquisitions.
  • Hear how Joe Morgan, CEO at Standard Register, is transforming his organization from a document printing company into a provider of communications technology.
So get started. Plan ahead by attending Geehan Group’s B2B Executive Summit and begin preparing for growth in 2012. You’ll be glad you did!  

Click here to learn more and to receive your personal invitation.

“Rarely do you find an approachable business environment that invigorates your social senses with intriguing conversations, collaborative exchange of inventive ideas, fascinating speakers with applicable war stories, and the urge to network well beyond the two days that the Geehan Group brought us all together. What I gained out of this B2B gathering of like minds expanded my strategic thinking, opened new opportunities about how marketing can make an impact, plus enlightened me on similar management challenges with realistic solutions and results.”

Greg Jorgenson, SVP Marketing, VeriSign


Customer Advisory Board Members are Better References!

Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a few LinkedIn discussions about customer reference programs and they got me thinking. I know from previous research by the Geehan Group that 94% of executives who participate on advisory boards are willing to recommend their hosts to peers, but I wonder if our clients, or others who utilize Advisory Boards, are really leveraging that willingness. Are you?

Improved PerceptionIt seems to me, that you’re nuts if you aren’t! After all, customers selling and/or bringing other customers up to their same perceptions are two of the most powerful sales tools available. And yes, I believe your Advisory Board members are likely to do this better than your other customers! Here’s why.

Three years ago, at the conclusion of my client’s inaugural Advisory Board meeting, we asked members if their meeting experience had impacted their perception of their host, and; if it had, how? Seven of the ten members present (70%) said their experience had a positive impact on their perception of their host. Four of them offered the following commentary (which is pretty typical), and the other three said their perceptions hadn’t changed; they already knew how great they were!
  • Yes, they really seem to care about what their customers think and want.
  • Yes, their business depth gives me confidence in their abilities.
  • Yes, they are driven to provide practical solutions much more than I suspected.
  • Yes, it’s good to see they want to reach a deeper understanding of my company.
Now remember, the executives who offered these comments were hand-picked to serve on the Advisory Board. They were already top customers and 70% of them left their first Advisory Board meeting with a more positive perception of their host! Today, each of these customers is willing to help their host beyond their participation on the Advisory Board. 90% are willing to serve as a reference. 80% are willing to participate in a case study. Others are willing to serve as panelists, write articles and white papers, and speak on my client’s behalf. A couple of them said they would do “anything” they were asked!

So I ask you. Will these customers make better references? I can almost guarantee it! Is my client leveraging their willingness to help? I certainly hope so!

Give & Take; Building Relationships with Top Customers

Let’s face it. Spending time with customers strengthens relationships and strong relationships lead to loyalty. And there’s no better way to add value to the time you spend with your clients than during an Advisory Board meeting. 

An article by Andrew Sobel, Value for Time, recently came across my computer screen. In it, he points out that for customers, value can be seen in both giving and getting something in return for their time. He goes on to list ten ways you can increase the value of time spent with clients. I see it as the yin-yang of customer relationships!

What struck me is that nearly every suggestion can be done during an Advisory Board meeting. And better yet, it can be done with your top 15-20 clients all at the same time!

YinYang1.  Conduct a pre-meeting survey. Allow members to provide you with their most important issues and priorities, then include them on the meeting agenda.

2.  In the opening session, ask members the following questions:  “What key initiatives are you working on?” or “What’s top-of-mind?” or “What are you losing sleep over?” Acknowledge that priorities change and allow them to vent for a moment.

3,  Make a list of non-agenda topics that members want to talk about. If time allows conduct a “hot topic” brainstorming session at the end of the day.

4.  Pique their interest early on. Share what’s keeping you up at night and/or include a strategic/industry update from your CEO. Give them something concrete to take back to their own organizations. 

5.  Share a secret or something new that hasn’t yet been announced to the general public. Reward them for meeting with you.

6.  Stretch their thinking and ask a thought-provoking question about the industry. Allow them to give you their perspectives and make an impact to your organization.

7.  Make a personal connection with each member during refreshment breaks and meal events.

8.  Discuss a common problem in an open forum. Allow members to share their own best practices whether or not it pertains to you!

9.  Provide members with a pre-meeting reading assignment so they are prepared for discussions. Allow them to learn something new too. 

10. Focus on client needs, not your own agenda during the meeting. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s all about them!

Relationships of any kind are all about the give and take, the yin and the yang. We feel valued when we are able to give a little of ourselves, our time and our perspectives to help someone else. And that value increases exponentially when we get something in return.


Are HBR and McKinsey Right?

Is Sustainability Gaining Momentum in Your Industry? 

Last month Harvard Business Review (HBR) and McKinsey Quarterly both published substantial articles on sustainability. McKinsey’s, The Business of Sustainability: McKinsey Global Survey results, shares highlights of the results from their recent survey that explored how and why companies are addressing sustainability today and over the next five years. HBR’s , The Big Idea:  The Sustainable Economy suggests that with developments in three areas, it is inevitable that “successful business will become synonymous with sustainable business.” It appears that it is no longer of question of if, but when.

Do you know the answer? My client didn’t, so they took the question to their Advisory Board members to find out! 

My client knew their industry was being impacted by environmental concerns. They knew some regulations were already in place and that some companies were already operating with some type of environmental policy. They knew they needed to stay ahead of their customers, but what they didn’t know was how far ahead they needed to be. They did not know what their own top customers (their Advisory Board members) were thinking in regard to sustainability. corporate sustainabilityWas it a strategic initiative for the current year or have they not yet begun thinking about it? Where are they in writing policies? Where are they in implementing initiatives? How are their policies impacting procurement?

My client wanted to understand just how quickly they needed to make sustainability a strategic initiative within their own organization. If their customers were moving “full-steam ahead,” perhaps they need all hands on-deck to move forward as quickly as possible. If their customers had plans to include it in their RFPs next year, my client needs to be ready to respond. If their customers are already evaluating vendors based on their carbon footprint, perhaps my client needs to promote themselves differently. And what about marketing? Are their customers aware of their efforts to improve energy productivity? Are they aware of their recent awards?  Could their own initiatives be a differentiator? If so, perhaps my client needs to enhance their marketing strategies to include an emphasis on sustainability.

My client got some answers that day. They learned what their top customers were thinking and doing about sustainability. They learned that their customers are in various implementation stages and that some regions of the globe are moving much more slowly than others. They learned that their own initiatives could be a differentiator and that their own strategies need to be somewhat revised. More importantly, they learned just how far ahead of their customers they need to be!  

So I ask you… are HBR and McKinsey right? Assuming they are, just how soon will “successful business become synonymous with sustainable business?” How quickly are your customers moving in that direction? If you don’t know, you need to be asking!