How COVID-19 Is Redefining the Future of Customer Advisory Boards

customer advisory board


Forget everything you thought you knew about Customer Advisory Boards (CABs). The coronavirus and our response to it have put these face-to-face meetings on hold at a time when product leaders need perspective and guidance from their most important customers. This isn’t the time to cancel or postpone these important meetings … but how can we continue these valuable conversations with sensitivity and compassion — not to mention adhering to social distancing requirements?

We’re experiencing a foundational shift in the way corporations conduct business in light of the pandemic. Adopting video platforms like Zoom, working from home, canceling in-person conferences, halting travel—these steps are literally reshaping the world. Is this a short-term fix or an indication of the future? I believe it’s both. The virus outbreak has forced businesses to reconsider many operational habits. And, when we emerge on the other side, some of these new practices will continue because they benefit employees, customers, and the planet. They will be considered good business.

Now is the perfect time for executives to rethink the purpose of the CAB program and how product leaders can benefit from incorporating virtual-engagement elements.


What Are CABs?

These executive-level strategic focus groups, conducted once or twice per year, are designed to explore the future between executives and a dozen of their best customers.

Insights gathered during these interactive meetings inspire and challenge product managers. Harnessing the power of CABs often leads to new innovations and opportunities to leapfrog the competition.


Turn Your CAB into a Virtual Community

Traditionally, advisory board programs were centered around face-to-face meetings that allow for real-time collaboration and brainstorming on shared strategic issues and priorities. While virtual interaction can’t fully replace the quality of an in-person experience, it can — and will — help maintain a lifeline with strategic customers.


Who Are Your Strategic Customers?

A strategic customer may be the one that spends the most money with you, is growing faster than the market or is doing something innovative with your product or technology.

Product leaders tasked with mapping their product roadmaps must apply these revised objectives:

  • Keep strategy-level conversations going when in-person meetings aren’t an option
  • Deepen understanding of advisory board members’ current and future needs, especially in times of uncertainty
  • Harness new opportunities for collaboration.

Incorporating virtual tools and techniques isn’t new. The simplest examples are one-on-one customer interviews and online surveys to collect customer priorities or feature requirements. However, in the past these tools have been used to complement the face-to-face meeting centerpiece. The current pandemic requires a complete re-engineering of the program so virtual engagement is the centerpiece. And with that requirement comes obvious issues:

  • Webinars are great for sharing information in a one-to-many format, but they aren’t effective for allowing interactive discussion. How do we allow productive interaction in a virtual environment?
  • It’s too easy to multitask. How do we keep everyone’s attention?
  • It’s hard to sit still on lengthy calls or webinars. How do we break up the discussions into action-oriented pieces?

The answer is to replace the face-to-face meeting as the focal point with a 6-month rollout of virtual touchpoints. And each one builds upon the prior touchpoint. The interaction unfolds over time, not in a single day.

As a product leader, you must rethink how you gather, process, and share customer research data. The answer isn’t to rush to install a new virtual event platform (that can be expensive and overkill). Instead, the practical and pragmatic approach is to inventory the well-known tools you already have. It’s the way that you orchestrate them that will be strategic and different.


The Tools in Your Arsenal

  • Member interviews (1:1)
  • Webinars (1:many)
  • Podcasts
  • Virtual roundtables (small groups, moderated)
  • Interactive video conferences (moderated)
  • Curated text and chat (e.g., private Slack channel)
  • Offline and real-time surveys and polling
  • Virtual whiteboarding interactions
  • Shared mind-mapping exercises
  • Facilitated, regional, small-group, face-to-face meetings (when travel restrictions are lifted)
  • Facilitated annual CAB meetings (if/when appropriate)


Orchestrating a Virtual CAB Program

Consider a new model being adopted by several of KickStart Alliance’s clients:

Virtual case study


In this example:

  • The company’s traditional CAB program is remodeled into a multi-faceted, virtual engagement, including an updated charter statement explaining the goals, benefits, and expectations of this new model.
  • A subset of eight CAB members was chosen for this pilot, thereby limiting variables dealing with the global customer community.
  • Member interviews are underway as of this writing, which is standard protocol for this CAB.
  • Because webinar attention span is waning, the CEO is offering a 15-minute podcast message for CAB members only.
  • Rather than hosting a full-day CAB meeting, the agenda’s discussion modules will unfold through several 50-minute virtual roundtables (VRT) between June and August. Each will center on a single question pertaining to a carefully planned discussion topic. Prior to each VRT, the host company will distribute background information and other preparation materials. Each VRT will be moderated to ensure smooth operation and balanced interaction.
  • On Sept. 15 (the day of the original in-person CAB meeting), there will be a final, moderated video conference that summarizes the learnings from the prior 6 months and concludes with the next steps.


Benefits of a Virtual CAB Program

The CAB program is a commitment to an ongoing, strategic-level dialog. Traditionally, this has come with the moderate to high expense of hosting an in-person meeting and transporting a dozen customers to a 5-star hotel for a day and a half. Moving to a virtual program and using the tools you already have reduces your costs substantially.

But, more importantly, you have the benefit of extending a lifeline to your customers. While no one knows what the future will bring, you’ve shown sincerity through your interest, compassion, and perhaps even humility. Your willingness to listen is the foundation upon which trust is built. A virtual program allows you to do this via a cadence of pulse checks that are easier for your customers to participate in, regardless of where they’re located.


The Time Is Now

The inescapable truth is that people perform at their best when there is human interaction. At the end of the day, even after lengthy analytics and evaluations, the customer’s decision to purchase or not, to partner or not, to move forward or not, is based on emotion and how they feel about the vendor. Do they have faith in the CEO’s vision, staff, product/service portfolio, and plans? It’s human psychology at work. When all else is commoditized, the customer-vendor relationship is the remaining differentiator.

It would be a mistake to shutter CAB programs until after this crisis. Use these next few months to pilot a few virtual-engagement methods. You’ll strengthen these customer relationships and discover new ways to harness the momentum of your CAB when the pandemic becomes a memory. Those companies that invest in a diversified set of collaboration-building techniques will emerge with a stronger pipeline and more confidence in their own product roadmaps.

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Mike Gospe

Mike Gospe

Mike Gospe is an advisory board strategist and professional facilitator with KickStart Alliance and has more than 18 years of CAB experience. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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