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Driving Your Customer Advisory Program in New Directions

Posted By Sherri Dorfman, CEO Stepping Stone Partners, Monday, September 07, 2009

These days it is challenging to feel in control when driving your business initiatives forward. You are actually in the driver’s seat for guiding your Customer Advisory Program in new directions.

However, before deciding on your direction, consider how the landscape has changed around you. Your customers are under more pressure to make the right choices to get the most value out of their product investments, your company offerings. You will need to stay close to your customers as they evaluate the landscape through their own business lens since this will impact their purchase and usage decisions for your products.

As you consider your customer’s perspective, you must determine how the following issues will influence your Customer Advisory Program direction:

Customer’s Long Term View: During Customer Advisory Board meetings, customers are demanding to know details about your company direction and product roadmap. They want to understand your priorities and hear about how you plan to invest in your product features and functionality over the next few years. Customers are no longer satisfied with knowing your general direction.

With intense pressure, customers need to confirm that your company is addressing their needs, not just in the short term but also down the road.

“Our customers are asking us to communicate product changes ahead of time. A lot of what we do impacts their processes and they need to be ready to receive our changes”.

Your Move: During your CAB discussions, spend more time reviewing product priorities and showing customers specifics which define your future direction. For example, you can share product feature bundles by release date, screen mock -ups of new functionality and comments from other customers which have influenced your direction.

Be careful how you are positioning this direction since the way you communicate this will impact your customer’s response. Are you saying that this roadmap is the product direction that you are moving in or that this is the direction you are considering?

You will want to listen to your customer’s feedback to validate if you are making the right long term decisions.

Customer’ Evolving Expectations: Your customers have decided to come along with you for the ride but they can leave at any time and can head directly to your competition. CAB members expect they will be the first to know about your changes and expect your company to be a thought leader, paving the innovation path.

“Customers have told us ‘we are looking to you to come up with the next big thing’. We responded during our last CAB meeting showing them new ideas which they loved but were concerned about our ability to get all of it done.”

Customers also expect you to maintain an ongoing dialogue so that you understand and can respond to their changing needs.

“In addition to learning about what customers think about future product concepts, we also get feedback on product mock- ups and on products post- launch. We continuously reach out to our CAB members to further define and refine our offerings.”

“We tend to over communicate. Sixty days out we will give them the heads up about what they’ll see and how it will benefit them. Thirty days out, we give them more details about the product changes. Our CAB members have told us ‘it is more important than ever to keep us posted, especially when the project priorities change’.”

Your Move: You will want to continuously communicate where you are going with your products and why. Obviously you cannot act on all of their ideas from recent CAB meetings since some are not feasible and others do not fit with your company direction.

One best practice is to maintain the dialogue with your customers through frequent communications instead of waiting for the next event. By developing and distributing ongoing CAB communications through email, tele-conferences and web meetings, you will keep customers engaged and motivated to contribute.

CAB Tactic Tradeoffs: With current market conditions, you may be working with a smaller travel budget for your CAB meetings. Although it is tempting to just reduce these CAB events, you will want to add non- face- to- face in their place to maintain your customer touch.

“We have dialed back our CAB meetings from two times a year during the Spring and Fall to once a year in June. We are continuing to communicate with our CAB members through webinars and tele-conference in between our face to face meetings.”

Another trend is for companies to leverage technology to stay connected with customers. With online customer communities, companies are creating value by listening to their customers 24/7 and enabling them to find each other and share experiences. Unlike CAB meetings, online communities deliver the benefit of connecting with many more customers across the world. Within the online community, areas can be set up for companies in a specific industry or within a specific functional role, which makes the online discussions more relevant for your customers. Also since these discussions can occur at any time, geography boundaries and time zones are no longer an issue.

“We are planning to launch our online panel and online forums which will give us a broader and more representative audience with thousands of customers.”

“Our customers are very interested in speaking with other companies that have already implemented a product that they just purchased to anticipate internal process changes.”

“Although our CAB members represent many different industries, we have heard there is a strong interest in enabling them to communicate with other customers in their vertical. We are creating an online community to help them connect this way and to learn about the ongoing issues within each industry”.

Your Move: As you review your CAB Plan, identify opportunities to incorporate the non-face to- face activities (i.e. tele-conferences, web meetings and online communities) to gather needed insight and validation as you move forward. Keep in mind that your team makes daily decisions. Why not check in with your customers and capture their comments to support these decisions. Then you can share these customer comments during your management meetings.

Current Customer Mix: With a shrinking product budget, your company will become more selective when evaluating and committing to product enhancements. Consider the customers that will benefit most from your product decisions and whether they are strongly represented within your current set of CAB members.

“Recently, we realized the importance of our small business customers which have been part of our small and medium business CAB. We decided to add more small businesses since their needs are much different than midsized companies. We’ve also discussed that since small business owners may not be able to take off 2 days to participate in our CAB meetings, they may be more likely to participate from their desktop in our online community activities.”

Your Move: Take a closer look at the profile of your current CAB participants. Determine if these CAB membersalign with your future direction. If you are working on more generic enhancements, you will need a broader mix of customers. However, if you plan to customize your product for a certain category of companies or a certain user within the company, you may want to refine your CAB member mix through additional program recruiting.

Collaborating on Customer Insight: As you look around your own company, chances are that different departments are also going through the budget squeeze, carefully refining their research initiatives to support their business decisions. This represents an opportunity to pool resources and collaborate on joint information gathering activities.

“Our product group needed to do more in-depth research and selected CAB members for one- on- onephone conversations to gather detailed product feedback.”

Your Move: As you meet with internal stakeholders, you will want to explore their information needs to uncover common ground. Maybe other departments can benefit from getting qualitative feedback from your CAB members and will agree to contribute budget towards one of your CAB initiatives rather than funding their own research. Another big benefit is the speed in which they can get their answers since your CAB members are interested and ready to help your company.

As you drive your CAB program forward, consider how market changes are impacting your plans for moving your program in new directions. Take time to carefully evaluate your options and desired changes to your CAB program (i.e. new online and offline tactics, new CAB members). Most importantly, take your customers along for the ride since their needs will guide your direction.

Sherri Dorfman is the founder and Chief Customer Ambassador atStepping Stone Partners, a consulting firm that helps companies make the right investment in products, services and programs that drive revenue.She offers a Customer Advisory Council Workshop to guide companies in defining or refining their Advisory Program incorporating best practices. Learn more by contacting Sherri at or visit .

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