A Customer Advisory Board Can Be a Secret Weapon for Your Business. Here’s How to Build One.

Going directly to your customers can provide invaluable outside feedback that will inform your company’s strategy in the future. But what’s in it for your board members?
Emily Carrion headshot
Emily Carrion
Expert Contributor
September 30, 2020
Updated: October 1, 2020
Emily Carrion headshot
Emily Carrion
Expert Contributor
September 30, 2020
Updated: October 1, 2020

Whether you’re looking to boost retention, raise your brand profile, foster executive relationships or all of the above, building out your customer advisory board can help you achieve your business goals more easily.

Going directly to your customers can provide invaluable outside feedback that will inform your company’s strategy in the future. But what’s in it for your board members? How do you convince these busy leaders to participate?

If your product power users aren’t the executive decision makers, then you know how challenging it can be to secure an executive sponsor for renewals and upsell or to lock in a customer keynote speaker or to find an executive-level referral. On the flip side, if you’ve cultivated strong relationships with customer executives, you can expect to see incredible benefits of these valuable relationships.

When I was the head of marketing at Apptentive, I helped build an executive customer advisory board to grow and develop our executive-level customer relationships. In this piece, I’ll share the tactical details of how to build a thriving customer advisory board — and some of the surprising benefits it can offer your organization.

A customer advisory board requires significant effort, but the payoff is immense. Here are a few questions that will determine if you’re ready:

  • Do you have the support of your CEO?
  • Do you have buy-in from customer success, product, engineering, marketing, and sales teams?
  • Can you get a few executive champions from customer organizations?
  • Do you have a project owner?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all of the above, let’s get started.

Related readingThese 7 Behaviors May Predict Your Company’s Odds of Survival

 

Determine the Criteria

Our main criteria was to pick companies who were customer-obsessed (since Apptentive’s core company value was #CustomerLove). Seattle is the home of many customer-obsessed companies like Starbucks, T-Mobile and Nordstrom, and most of those companies were our customers. A local advisory board of companies with similar values ensured that each member would benefit from learning from a group of peers.

We also wanted to ensure there were no competitors involved, because youre far less likely to share openly with a competitor in the room — and we were committed to creating a candid meeting environment. We chose just one airline customer, one food-and-beverage customer and one computer software customer.

You should first define the profile of your ideal customer advisory board member. How senior are they? Are they knowledgeable about your product? Are they a leader in the industry?

Next, consider the type of company where your prospective board member works. Does the size or industry matter? What values are most important? And a few logistics to consider: Does location or time zone matter? How often do you want to meet? What’s the required commitment?

 

What’s in It for Them?

This is not a section to gloss over. If the benefits are clear, the right people will want to join your advisory board and will be active participants.Your prospective board members will ask themselves some questions before joining:

  • Who else is in the group? Are they at my level or higher? Are they people I admire and want to know?
  • Will this help me be better at my job?
  • Will I get early access to cutting edge insights, research or technology?
  • Will this help me get promoted or get my next job?
  • What is the time commitment?
  • Will I be compensated for my time?
  • Is the location and time convenient for my schedule?
  • Do I like the people hosting this?

Particularly if you’re creating an advisory board filled with senior leaders, their time is extremely limited and valuable. It’s your job to make this compelling for them.

Here was our formula at Apptentive:

  1. Access to people: We gave members access to their equally senior peers at respected companies who they could share secrets with. This was our main driver. Anchor members also had personal relationships with Apptentive teammates (and they liked us).
  2. Access to ideas and information: Customer experience was a new field when we launched our advisory board. We provided access to research, technology and industry learnings from their peers.
  3. Access to great food: People don’t come for the food, but if they had always wanted to try the food at the restaurant you host the event at, it may push them over the edge to show up.

Other companies use models where they make their advisory board feel exclusive. They may entice attendance with a star guest (someone famous in the industry or a celebrity) to draw people to attend.

Other companies offer compensation — perhaps monetary or with equity or stock — to some members. And some companies are able to leverage their official board members (who are typically compensated with equity) to be the draw for customer advisory board members.

 

Invite Your Prospective Members

Once you decide your criteria, format and time commitment, the next step is to formally invite people. At Apptentive, we first worked with our customer success and sales teams to identify the companies where we already had strong executive-level relationships.

Next, we invited anchor members. Our CEO, Robi Ganguly, has amazing relationships with key executives at target companies. These people were then the draw for executives we didn’t know quite as well.

Robi shared the advisory board’s vision, our selected anchor members and the promise of a great meal, and 12 visionary leaders agreed to join. We would eventually grow the board to 20 members, intentionally limiting it to build trust.

 

Set the Agenda

Your company is laser-focused on solving a major problem for your customers. At Apptentive, we were obsessed with providing customer insights at scale because we believed that when companies listen to their customers, they can build better products, better services and better companies.

Meanwhile, your customers are focused on their business, and using your product and the problem you solve for them is just one of their many priorities. But you are an expert in your area, and you can help your customers become experts by attending your customer advisory board meeting.

Here are some questions that can identify topics for your agenda:

  • What trends are you seeing in your customer data?
  • What do your best customers do to achieve outsized results?
  • Have they figured out a new use case?
  • What trends do you see fast approaching, and why will those trends be a big deal for your customers?

Based on the answers to these questions, run some topics by your anchor advisory board members to see what lands.We broke up our agenda into five parts:

  • Informal networking and getting food (20 minutes): Apptentive teammates were intentional about introducing board members to each other and starting conversations.
  • Quick ground rules and intros (5 minutes): We used the Chatham House Rule, which means participants are free to share the information and learnings from the group, but may not share the identity or affiliation of the person who shared.
  • Customer stories (10 minutes): We chose a customer to share an outsized result they were seeing or a new use case for leveraging customer feedback.
  • Industry-related discussion (40 minutes).
  • Company or product announcements (15 minutes): We ran our product roadmap by the board and solicited feedback on certain features and asked for suggestions for specific initiatives like our Customer Love Summit.

If hosting a virtual advisory board meeting, consider a virtual icebreaker to match members up with each other members during the networking time. Then try two or three 10-minute breakouts in place of the industry-related discussion so people have an opportunity to really talk to each other.

 

Nail Down the Logistics

The first meeting sets the tone for all future meetings, so it’s important to get this right. I recommend having at least 12 committed people to start, as I’ve found only 60 to 70 percent of RSVPs show up for in-person events due to last-minute conflicts. You need at least six to eight people to show up. Carefully consider the ratio of teammates to board members. The board members should ideally feel like the room is full of their peers more than executives from your company.

If meeting in person, pick a desirable location. If meeting virtually, choose an on-brand virtual background and invest in great lighting and sound. Consider the location and time that will work best for most people. Mornings are often very tough for parents, but on the flip side, people who RSVP are less likely to miss it, because they haven’t gone to the office yet.

Ask about food allergies and preferences ahead of time. Have a stand-out meal at a desirable restaurant. If meeting in person, I prefer a buffet so people have more opportunities to talk to more people. If virtual, send people a special local spread arriving a few hours before the meeting.

The invitation should include all essential details beforehand, like the date, time, map, conference-call link and agenda. Call people ahead of time; if guests verbally agree to coming, they are less likely to back out.

Prep with your teammates ahead of time. Each person should know their role and responsibilities at the event, be able to recognize all VIPs and be prepared for the parts of the agenda they are leading.

If the event is in-person:

  • Pick a private room that’s easy to find, and prioritize sound quality. Place team members along the route, or personally escort members to the room and show them where the lavatories are located.
  • Provide wearable name tags and table tents with names. This is a social-proof reminder to attendees of why they are glad to have joined.
  • If having a buffet, someone on your team needs to lead the pack and get food first. That gives a green light for others to do the same.
  • End on time or early to show that you respect members’ time.
  • Leave them with a memorable gift. I’m a big fan of consumables and shareables like cookies.

If the event is virtual:

  • Ruthlessly test all teammates’ internet connection, audio and visuals. Log on at least 20 minutes ahead of time.
  • Select a brand-appropriate conference call background for all teammates. Play appropriate music to set the vibe.
  • Begin within two minutes of the advertised start-time, but make it easy for late comers to join and know what’s happening.
  • Use breakout rooms to allow members to talk to their peers and have their voices heard. This is an exponentially better experience than having one talking head the entire meeting.
  • End on time or early.

  

Ride the Momentum

Hosting your customers in one room — and seeing the energy that powerhouse leaders bring — is electrifying. The key is to ride this momentum.

Afterward, the four Apptentive leaders who attended the meeting performed a quick sync about what we each learned and reminded ourselves of the confidentiality ground rules.

We then had an all-hands immediately following the advisory board meeting to showcase trends and share the energy we were feeling with the team. Each participant offered their takeaways with the team, and there was time for questions.

In the next leadership team meeting, we adjusted the product roadmap based on these customer insights. We put together a short document with takeaways and key learnings that we then shared with the rest of the advisory board members to generate some FOMO with those who missed. We also shared with our board of directors.

  

Key Takeaways

As you build your board, make sure to:

  • Ask the right questions as you define your criteria for members.
  • Leverage your executive connections to invite anchor members.
  • Be sure to provide a ton of value to your members while also gaining important feedback for your product and company.
  • Apply customer insights to make your product even better.

Our executive-level customer advisory board took a lot of work and commitment to build, but the insights and strategies we gleaned were a game changer for both our product and customer experience.

Are you ready to build your customer advisory board? Follow the advice above, and you’ll be well on your way to a better future for your company.

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