Customer Advisory Boards - An Industry Agnostic Solution

In our daily lives, we seek solutions from experts in the right industry.  Whether it's a company providing goods and services to consumers (B2C), or a business looking to partner with another business (B2B), providing the right solutions + creating customer retention = success.  As B2B and B2C organizations continually strive to improve customer retention and build customer loyalty, there is one solution across any company in any industry that can help do just that -- a Customer Advisory Board.

I recently read an article by a financial planner, Josh Patrick, CFP, and founding principal of Stage 2 Planning Partners. It's a great example of how industry agnostic CABs are, and I fully support his advice on the right way to build and maintain a CAB.

One of the benefits Josh outlines is 'synergy of the group.'  How true!  As CAB members share ideas and best practices, they not only learn from one another, they build on each other's ideas to help you.  And that leads to another benefit - by embedding their feedback into your company's new offerings and services, the bond between you and your members grows even stronger over time.  Members become loyal advocates and are willing to speak on your behalf, such as participating with you at an event and/or serving as a reference.

Our client base spans many industries from banking & financial services to healthcare to technology to media & entertainment.  I've seen first hand that regardless of the industry, the benefits of a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) program are many:

  • An opportunity to listen to the priorities and challenges of your most important customers.

  • Advice, guidance and outside-in thinking to help drive your organization's strategic direction.

  • A better understanding of market trends from your customers' point of view.

  • An ongoing initiative that helps your executive team make decisions and allocate resources with confidence and clarity.

  • Greater alignment of solutions to the market.

  • Relationship building opportunities.

The result?  Enhanced relationships with customer decision makers, loyal advocates and a greater understanding of the market you serve.

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B2B Marketing's Huge Opportunity to Drive Profitable Growth

Marketers often times find it easier to apply the trusted tenets of B2C marketing to B2B selling. Unfortunatley, they then end up with disastrous results because of B2B marketing’s more complex and lengthier buying cycle. While some basic rules apply, B2B marketing is quite different and needs different tactics. It demands marketing involvement for a longer time, and with more specificity.

What else makes B2B marketing different? What should marketers change to get more results from B2B campaigns? How can a B2B marketer connect with customers and leverage innovation to drive business growth?

Join this free webinar sponsored by Regalix for a chance to engage directly with Geehan, as well as other marketing professionals. Don’t miss this insightful discussion on:

  • Unraveling the differences between B2B and B2C
  • Increasing marketing’s credibility with the Leadership team
  • Aligning strategies to market needs
  • Engaging & leveraging your most valuable customers
  • Achieving sustainable, predictable and profitable growth

All registrants will receive an abstract from Sean's National Best Seller, The B2B Executive Playbook.

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Learning to Drive B2B Profitable Growth at Ariba Live

Business strategy books fill bookstore shelves, but none draw attention to the unique ways in which B2B organizations need to strategize and run differently than B2C companies in order to achieve true sustainable, predictable, and profitable growth.

Please join me at Ariba Live In my feature break out session, where I will identify those unique differences and demonstrating how B2B companies need to apply B2B strategies with proven approaches. Everyone attending this session will receive a signed copy of The B2B Executive Playbook.

Don't miss this amazing event where you’ll learn to optimize the connectivity and analytics made possible by business networks and the Cloud, gaining essential insights that empower you to transform business commerce. This event includes informative breakout sessions, dynamic keynotes, and engaging networking opportunities, where you'll learn how to buy better, sell more, and manage cash more efficiently.

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3 Keys to Retaining and Growing B2B Revenue

In the B2B World, 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers. The reality is that losing just 5% of those customers could potentially sink your organization. So in this age of big data and rapidly evolving technology, what are the best ways to retain and ultimately grow those customers?

B2B companies must meaningfully engage with their customers to evolve loyalty into advocacy, and engagement begins with a relationship.  Through our work with over 50 leading B2B companies, we have found time again the following three key relationship building practices lay the foundation for account retention and growth:

1.    Educate, Don't Sell.  B2B relationships start with education, not a sales pitch. Educate yourself on your customer's industry, market, challenges, and opportunities, and then demonstrate how you can show them a path forward.  Providing relevant content through discussions and forums, blog posts and articles, and research is an excellent way to establish your credibility and begin the customer loyalty to advocacy journey.

2.    Customer Advisory Boards create a platform where you can leverage happy customers and drive innovation through customer co-design and collaboration. The end result is overall market alignment in offerings, communications, and strategy.

3.    Executive Summits bring key decision-makers together to preview a strategy, product, or market innovation. Through these focused exchanges, customers become first-to-know, first-to-buy, and first to advocate your solution in the marketplace.

Structured, proven, and dynamic educational forums, customer advisory boards, and executive summits help organizations develop a deep understanding of market conditions while building the rapport with key executives. This powerful formula turns customers into true advocates and is the best recipe for retaining and growing your top customers.

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Branding and Positioning in the B2B World

One of the biggest differences between B2B and B2C is branding or positioning your company.  Many extremely successful marketing leaders in B2C have a difficult time making the much needed adjustments to be successful.  In my book, The B2B Executive Playbook, I referred to Michael Jordan’s dominance in basketball and being labeled “World’s Greatest Athlete.”  But, the world’s greatest athlete failed miserably when he tried professional baseball.

He may still be the greatest athlete, but he needed to apply his skills much differently to be successful in baseball.  What he also lacked was experience in baseball.  I’ve witnessed dozens of successful B2C marketing executives who have been met with the same results as Jordan did when they crossed over to B2B marketing. 

Commonly, I run into high-profile executives much like the one I worked with who came over from a major soft drink company.  He is a great individual.  He amassed all kinds of accolades and had great success at his former company as a brand leader of its flagship product. His honors included national advertising and marketing awards as well as several industry awards.  The financials were incredible too…market share gains, profitable growth, etc.  Then he jumped to a B2B and became the CMO in an industry which he had no experience.  The CEO was so excited to land him and even made him over product development as well.  He applied the B2C formula that made him a huge success at his old company.

Well, his new company had about 10,000 customers, but their top 50 customers were 50% and the top 200 were around 75% of the revenue of this $5 billion company.   He didn’t fully understand the impact of this and violated nearly every B2B success principle outlined in the book.  Most of what he did was in the name of branding, (new look, logo, tagline, positioning, etc.).  He committed millions to what made him wildly successful at his B2C Company…updated look and feel of logo, tagline, entertainment/event sponsorship and a broad ad campaign. 

The results were brutal:  sales went down, market share slid, margins tumbled, and because he also oversaw and shifted R&D dollars to marketing, their product started falling behind because they weren’t reinvesting like the competition.  In addition, many of their top customers were leaving them, signing exclusive long-term deals with the competition…never to return.  The only thing that collapsed more than the financial results during his tenure was the company morale. 

That CMO lasted three years. He has been gone for about three years now, and they still haven’t recovered from the damage that the B2C approaches caused to this great B2B Company.  It was like wearing a basketball uniform to a football game.  It was ugly. 

While there is no universal agreement on the definition of brand, the core is simply how the market views your company - your reputation.  It includes aspects like what your firm is known for, where the market believes you have value or have credibility, and your company’s personality and culture.

In the B2C world, the brand position is achieved much differently.  Let’s take the world’s most valuable brand, Coke.  I drink more Diet Cokes than I do anything else.  I have it stocked in my home fridge, in my work fridge and order it every lunch, etc…

The image of the Coke brand, for me as the customer, is contained to the advertising, the package design, others’ perceptions and my experience.  Think about it. Even if the package is damaged, in my head I assume my local grocer dropped it while putting it out on the shelf.  If it tastes bad when I order it at a restaurant, I put it on the restaurant for not have the right mix (syrup and water).  I actually do not know a single person who works for Coke! My touch points and interactions with Coke, as well as all my other brand goods, are similar to this (Crest, Nike, Sony, Tommy Bahama).

All of these B2C companies invest millions into understanding the various personas, segments, demographics, geographical nuances, etc. to determine how to position and manage these brands.  The same is true about all respected B2C CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) brands.

There are two additional elements in the other major B2C category: Retailers.  For  retailers such as Starbucks, Disney, McDonalds, Target and others, the brand is also impacted by the store (look, experience, etc.) and the people (knowledge, culture, interactions, etc.).

In the B2B world, the brand position is also established with all of the above-mentioned brand-building components.  The difference, however, is the priority and weighting these elements are assigned, as well as the impact that a very few customers can have.  And while it’s only one element, that impact can be the difference between Branding Nirvana and losing your job (CMOs have the shortest tenure of all C-level positions and functions). 

Why are the customers more important in branding a B2B?

Because in the B2B world, the people you are selling to are industry veterans and most are also subject matter experts.  Simply put, they are living what you are selling.  They live and breathe in the industry you are supplying.  When GE Aviation sells jet engines to Boeing, the people that are evaluating and making the decision are engineers that have been in the Aviation industry for 15-25 years on average.  When Harris Broadcast sells content distribution solutions to Disney, the people evaluating and making the decisions are have 15-10+ years in the media industry.  The expertise, level of complexity, layers of customer contacts and overall sophistication of the prospect is exponentially different.    

In the B2C world, in a blind taste, 90% of the population can’t tell a $10 bottle of wine from a $100 bottle.  Nor can they tell the difference from free tap water and a $5 bottled water of Fiji.   But a sophisticated and highly emotional marketing and branding program can yield premium dollars for something which the buyer honestly can’t tell the difference. 

In the B2B world, it’s just the opposite.  While they may not know your specific offering, they usually know their industry better than those who supply it and how they will uniquely apply your product, solution or service.  They will scrutinize, compare, benchmark, test, and go to third parties and associations for references and validation. 

Think about the CIO who has worked in the financial services industry for 22 years. If you have IT solutions to serve this market, your company better know his needs, priorities, his environment and requirements…and most of all, you better have peers (fellow CIOs) he can talk to about working with your firm.  If you don’t have this, a well-designed logo, powerful tagline, slick campaign, elaborate brochure or PPT presentation will not overcome the lack of credibility to support a premium position.  Too much is at risk in his world: security of the bank assets, privacy issues, government compliance, the customer experience and the CIO’s reputation and career.   In fact, in a recent meeting, CIOs rated peer input as the #1 credible and trusted source for supplier selection.

In the B2B world, the most effective way to build or reposition a strong credible brand is through your current customers.  It’s how they describe their experience working with your company; it’s what they say you successfully delivered to them (or fell short of).  And the higher level they are, they more impact they will have.

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Don't Think You Have Enough Customers to Warrant a Customer Advisory Board? Think Again!

A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) or Council, is made up of your top, most strategic customers – whether that equals 7, 12 or 20, they are the driving force of your success. Having a CAB program in place gives the leadership team the perfect forum to meet with these important decision makers.

How Many Customers Should You Have Before Forming a CAB?

We’ve delivered CAB meetings with as little as 5 customers to as many as 22 and found that the smaller groups are just as powerful as the larger ones. A good example is a $3B client of ours with 9-10 customers who account for 90% of their revenue. They typically have 5-8 members in attendance at their CAB meetings. Alternatively, another example would be a much larger $20B client with hundreds of top customers. Their CAB meetings typically have 20-25 attendees and we include breakout groups and roundtables, allowing all members an opportunity to provide feedback and share in smaller groups. These very different companies get the same benefits: robust discussions, collaboration, brainstorming and clarity on our client’s strategic direction.

Would a Customer Survey be as Effective as Holding a CAB Meeting?

Nothing really takes the place of face-to-face meetings for better understanding your customers and building relationships. So if you’re considering surveying customers as an alternative to a face-to-face meeting, just know that your results will be much different. Without a ‘live’ audience to provide context to, you’re more likely to get just a ‘snapshot’ on something more specific. You won’t benefit from the dialogue among customers that occurs at face-to-face meetings; there won’t be peer-to-peer sharing and learning; and last but not least, a survey doesn’t offer much in the way of relationship-building opportunities.

Building a CAB program and holding in-person meetings (once or twice a year) creates a “safe” environment for an open, interactive exchange of ideas. While surveys serve a purpose, don’t use them in lieu of a face-to-face meeting – use surveys for more quantitative feedback. Hold in-person CAB meetings to allow members to build on one another’s thoughts and work on solutions together. This peer exchange will also create an emotional commitment, strengthening relationships and improving retention.

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On-Line CABs Great for Users, Limited for Executives

Recently, a great question surfaced on LinkedIn about CABs: “Has anyone here implemented a successful online CAB group? If yes, how successful has it been?”

I find that online CABs can work well in certain areas, but have limited effectiveness in others.  For instance, with user groups and focus groups where you’re seeking incremental insight, online collaboration can be a great tool for getting input on feature/functionality or refining a product/service. 

On the other hand, if your CAB is more strategic in nature, and your members are the level of Senior Director or above, a face-to-face environment is more appropriate.  When seeking advice on your strategic direction, the conversations progress into deeper discussions – about business challenges and understanding your customers’ priorities, industry trends and sharing of market insights.  Face-to-face engagements build a certain degree of trust and provide a safe environment for sharing and networking, which we find results in a genuine “bonding” of the group.  Members appreciate the professional accomplishments and relish the personal relationships they develop.  Council meetings feel like “reunions” and customer members become advocates. 

Having said this, once these types of relationships and trust are built in a face to face meeting, online meetings can be effective supplement for small working groups between the face-to-face engagements. 

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Why a Customer Advisory Board is NOT the Same as a Focus Group

With the myriad customer engagement programs so popular today, Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) and Focus Groups often get “bucketed” together, yet they have clear and very different objectives.

Here's a "quick reference" chart detailing some of the key differences: 

Participant Attributes

The diagram below shows the core attributes of participants for CABs and Focus Groups, and another reason why these two programs are so different.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sample Discussion Topics

And finally, here are some sample topics most common among the two initiatives.

Customer Advisory Board

  • Strategy
  • Direction of industry
  • Organization's goals/objectives to develop alignment
  • Discussions on: what services or offerings are missing; pricing/business models; overall product roadmaps; go-to-market programs (sales, marketing); account management

Focus Group

  • Reaction to logo/tagline
  • Emotional state (look and feel)
  • Usability study
  • Behavioral patterns/processes
  • Product feature/functionality

As you plan your customer engagement programs for 2013, be sure to target the right program format for the input you are seeking.  If you want to gain a deeper understanding of your customers' business, build closer executive relationships, and gain strategic mid- to long-term market insight, a Customer Advisory Board is the answer.  If on the other hand, you need qualitative short-term feedback on a product or branding message; or opinions/perceptions on a concept, service, packaging, etc., then a Focus Group is the right program.

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How a Customer Advisory Board Can Help You Prepare for 2013

A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is a high-return, high-profile event that can heavily influence your company's competitive standing. A successful CAB provides a powerful format that turns customers into true advocates and provides executives with the information needed to align customer programs with company strategy. A formal Customer Advisory Board should be in your marketing and strategic arsenal for 2013.

A well structured Customer Advisory Board is a proven and dynamic program that helps executives and decision makers develop a deep understanding of market conditions while simultaneously building relationships with key customers. A CAB is the perfect avenue for B2B Companies that have more than 60% of their sales with their top customers to receive relevant feedback that can be used in strategic business planning. A Customer Advisory Board not only helps your organization retain your most profitable customers, a CAB will help increase revenue opportunities within your customer base.

A Customer Advisory Board creates a platform where you can leverage happy customers and drive innovation through customer co-design and collaboration. The end result is an overall market alignment in offerings, communications and strategy that will prepare your organization for profitability in 2013 and beyond.

 

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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!  

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