A successful customer advisory board (CAB) program involves much more than yearly in-person meetings. In fact, one key to a strong CAB program is keeping the conversation going between face-to-face gatherings, so that meeting outcomes, action items and work streams will not lose momentum. More important, such engagements can reinforce the impact of member ideas and suggestions, and communicate progress implementing them.
Interim conference calls are important to conduct with CAB members during the months between in-person meetings. These virtual meetings—since they will inevitably include online presentations—are ideal for tying off loose ends from the previous meeting. These may include answering questions that require more investigation, providing strategic company updates since the last meeting (background on acquisitions, partnerships, or other news), and updates on company actions taken because of member desires or suggestions.
While CAB program follow-up and company updates are good topics for interim calls, on their own they’re not enough to generate a substantive call agenda. There has to be some meat for the members to consider and discuss. This is an ideal opportunity, for example, to run by some fork-in-the-road strategic issue your company is grappling with. This could be a strategic item, such as investment in a new product or partnership; or something more product-focused, such as prioritizing features on your development roadmap. Don’t be afraid if you don’t have all the answers or if plans are not fully formed. After all, CABs are ideal for collecting customer input into corporate issues, planning, and challenges.
Remember, your CAB program is not just about you; you must provide topics that are of interest to all your members. This could include information about the latest security/data breaches, or new regulations and how this impacts them (and their customers), and what action they should take for their mutual benefit.
While virtual meetings inevitably involve less time and effort to prepare for than face-to-face meetings, they should be well-managed to create the desired results and satisfy CAB member participants.
Here are 12 tips for creating successful conference calls to keep the momentum going on customer engagement.
- Plan for the call as you would a face-to-face meeting. Preparing for the virtual meeting should not be taken lightly; this is no time to slack off on preparations for an engaging meeting. It should be organized similarly to an in-person meeting, with a robust, member-driven agenda; a list of possible or desired outcomes; a line-up of engaging session leaders; review of all meeting materials; and expert facilitation to ensure all participants are heard during the call.
Similar to a face-to-face engagement, you will need to assign a scribe to capture meeting notes and create a detailed report that includes a summary of the material conveyed, member comments, feedback and desires, and resulting action items for the host company to review and prioritize.
- Facilitate member-driven content. This conference call is not the time to fall back on presenting canned company PowerPoint presentations. Instead, virtual meeting agendas should naturally follow previous member engagements, continuing topics and discussions that may beg for updates or deeper dives not afforded at the in-person meeting. Member surveys taken at the conclusion of the latest in-person meeting can be a great source for uncovering additional desired content. Finally, CAB members can be interviewed or surveyed between meetings to determine whether there are new subjects they would like to address with fellow members.
- Review all current members. The interim call presents an ideal opportunity to present a full picture of your entire CAB membership. During the call, share an up-to-date list of all CAB members in your program—those who accepted the conference call invitation and those who were unable to participate for whatever reason. This will be even more important to new CAB members who may not have met the rest of the group yet.
- Include participation guidelines. Share the same meeting participation ground rules that you would at an in-person meeting to ensure everyone knows how and when to contribute their feedback. In addition, including the Chatham House Rule (participants may use the information they receive but should not disclose the identity or affiliation of the speaker or any other participant) will establish that the call is a safe environment in which to present honest feedback.
Failure to convey call-participation guidelines may result in members feeling unsure of when or how they are supposed to jump in, or lead to minimal discussion. This can be a virtual-meeting killer. Make sure participants are encouraged to talk and participate!
- Convey the CAB program timeline. Show your call participants where this conversation fits in the overall CAB program timeline, and when and where the next meeting will take place. This allows members to save the date on their calendars and ensures their attendance during the next meeting or call.
- Communicate previous meeting reports and provide updates to action items. Speaking of previous meetings, it’s a best-practice to refresh members on key findings of the most recent engagement and action items your company has committed to as a result. The previous meeting’s report should have been circulated to the members already, and the interim conference call presents an ideal opportunity to review this briefly with the members. It’s crucial to show updates and progress on the action items taken as a result of the last meeting. CAB members will love seeing that their insights and recommendations led to action and change. The reverse is also true: They will be disappointed if they don’t see any impact from their input.
- Convey the desired outcomes. Let CAB members know what you hope to learn or accomplish on the call, then review this at the call’s conclusion to let them know whether the desired outcome was achieved. Also, let members know that you will create a formal report of the virtual meeting to distribute afterward.
- Keep a pipeline of topics. In preparing for your virtual meeting, you are no doubt prioritizing topics of the utmost interest to members. But, if your program is managed well, you may actually have too many subjects to discuss on a single call. Be sure to track topics you will not have time to address in a content “treasure box” and add new topics that are brought up on the call to cover in future engagements.
- Watch your timing: not too long, not too short. The length of your virtual meeting should be determined by the call agenda and driven by content. While it should not take all day, it should not take 30 minutes, either. Your content should contain enough meat to warrant a deep discussion and gather input from all participants. We find that a good call length is about two hours, plus or minus 30 minutes (depending on content and overall program maturity or progress).
- Include customer speakers. As with face-to-face meetings, your call should not consist exclusively of speakers from your company sharing PowerPoints. Ask and encourage members to participate in the virtual meeting by providing updates or outcomes to recent challenges they may have described during the last meeting, especially those that support the current topic of discussion.
- Send materials in advance. If virtual participants are viewing the meeting materials for the first time, they may not be able to review, digest, ponder and provide the immediate feedback you are looking for. In addition, they may want to review certain aspects (such as product feature roadmaps) with other team members within their companies to collect a wider array of feedback and communicate this during the virtual meeting.
Sending any pre-reading materials, such as news articles, whitepapers, or reports, can help members better understand industry topics, dynamics or challenges, and prepare their perspectives on subjects. Sending meeting materials well in advance—at least a week—will give members an opportunity to review them and prepare feedback.
- Ensure maximum participation. It is not impossible to get full member participation on a conference call, but it may take some follow-up. CAB managers might have to send multiple email invitations to those who don’t respond to the initial invitation or follow up with a phone call. Even better, have their account manager—who owns the relationship—follow up.
Send calendar invitations to everyone with the participation info (conference call number) and place the full meeting presentation and other materials in the invitation. Don’t make members go back and hunt for this in their cluttered inboxes. Finally, have the CAB executive sponsor, or even the company CEO, send a reminder a couple of days before the virtual meeting. Be sure to express the importance of the engagement and the relevance of the subject matter and highlight key topics and why member participation is important. This should help ensure maximum participation and minimize last-minute drop-outs due to conflicts.
These interim conference calls are a crucial part of a robust CAB program. As such, investing in the necessary steps to create an engaging virtual meeting will not only make the discussion lively and insightful but also ensure your program’s momentum throughout the year.