A Customer Advisory Board is a group of customers who meet on a regular basis to share insights and advice with the organization responsible for the product or service they are using. Members are usually high-level executives that can provide in-depth market insight, although practitioners that use the product on a regular basis are sometimes included as well.

Customer advisory boards are a powerful resource for product teams, who can tap into the expertise, experiences and opinions of their best customers on a regular basis in a forum free from the typical sales pressure and customer support issues often accompanying customer interactions.

When done well, product leaders can spark a dialogue between members and then sit back and listen to their observations, thoughts and varying perspectives on the issues and challenges customers face, as well as how they’re tackling them. Creating and fostering these more personal and intimate relationships, product teams can learn real-world lessons from real-world customers and have a sounding board for potential strategic directions they’re considering for their products.

When assembled properly and well nurtured, customer advisory boards can be an invaluable resource for companies regardless of their size and maturity. But taking a haphazard approach to their makeup and failing to properly nurture and maintain them will not only fail to yield useful information for product teams, it might even damage important customer relationships and tarnish the company’s reputation.

7 steps to a successful customer advisory board

Creating a successful customer advisory board takes a lot more consideration and planning than randomly selecting a few customers from your CRM and having a conference call. Here are seven things to keep in mind when creating your board:

The right companies

First you must select the right combination of customers. They should complement each other well and provide an accurate representation of your actual (or ideal) customer base. Factors to consider when selecting these companies include:

  • Industry
  • Company size
  • Geography
  • Which product(s) or capabilities they use

With this information, you can do one of two things: you can assemble a single customer advisory board that represents a cross-section of your entire customer base OR you can create multiple customer advisory boards by grouping similar companies together.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Obviously a single board is much easier to manage and attend to and members may discover similarities while learning from other companies despite their surface-level differences. However there is a risk of the larger companies drowning out the smaller ones or there being so much variation that members don’t feel they have enough in common, hampering the emergence of proper dynamics.

Splitting up into cohorts with similar interests and circumstances can result in deeper discussions and more meaningful value for participants. The downsides can be that the conversations get a little too specific, not to mention the overhead of facilitating and attending all those different customer advisory board meetings.

The right people

Beyond selecting companies to participate in a customer advisory board, product teams also must select the specific individuals representing those companies. You should assign a slot on the customer advisory board to a specific person and not just anyone from a given customer.

There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that people are not interchangeable and customer advisory board membership should be reserved for individuals that are effusive, outgoing and invested in the success of your product. Just as important is the continuity and familiarity that comes from having the same people participate regularly; it will be far easier for these folks to feel comfortable openly discussing their internal processes and experiences when they feel a personal bond with others on the board instead of feeling like it’s a new, random collection of customers every time.

It’s also essential that members are aligned with your ultimate product vision. If they are not invested in the product and company growing, evolving and expanding then they may not be particularly supportive of efforts that don’t directly benefit their specific usage of the product. You want boosters and cheerleaders, not people solely interested in their own interests.

Another tactic some teams use is to have both executives and practitioners from the same company participate in customer advisory board activities.

“In the morning, the combined perspectives of the Executives and Practitioners made for a unique and fruitful discussion. Both levels of the organization were interested to hear the perspective of the other and created a great balance between strategic vision and everyday execution,” says Puja Ramani of Gainsight. “During the afternoon’s Practitioner track, our Product Managers and Engineers were able to get into the weeds with our Gainsight power users. The Executive’s afternoon session provided feedback to Gainsight’s leadership on the overall direction and strategy of the business.”

The right cadence

Just like Goldilocks, you want to find just the right frequency for tapping your customer advisory board. If you don’t do it enough (or at all) then they’ll wonder why they bothered signing up and question your commitment to the process. Over-schedule and members may feel it is an unreasonable burden and decline to participate or reduce their activity.

In-person quarterly events are often the sweet spot for customer advisory board get togethers. Your team can be supplement these with monthly calls or online surveys on particular topics, but bringing everyone together has a number of benefits.

First of all, you’re far more likely to get their undivided attention if they know they’re committing an afternoon, a day or even two days for this purpose. They’ve hopefully cleared their calendar and set expectations so they can really devote the time to you and your product.

Additionally, face-to-face interactions are far more likely to generate open and honest feedback and conversations. It’s much easier to be comfortable when you’re in the same room than when you’re just a bunch of disembodied voices on a conference call.

Finally, in-person meetings mean networking and offline conversations beneficial for the members themselves. One of the perks of being an advisory board member is getting to talk shop with other professionals, make connections and gather new ideas, and that just doesn’t happen when you’re not all in the same place.

The right vibe

Customer advisory boards are only useful if members are honest with you and frank with each other. While it’s a great forum for strengthening customer relationships, the ultimate goal is brutally honest feedback and input to the product team.

“You want people who are going to give you candid feedback—tell you when something is dumb. And you need to help them do this, because people don’t always want to,” says Peter Kazanjy, co-founder of TalentBin. “Make it clear to them that if they don’t tell you when your ideas are dumb, you’re going to build something dumb, there won’t be any more tacos or margaritas, and everyone will be sad.”

To facilitate this type of dialogue, product teams should really emphasize this goal to board members and set the appropriate tone. It also ties back to selecting the right people; if you don’t think potential members are going to be as open and honest as you’d like, don’t settle for them just because they’re interested and agreeable. A little up-front pickiness can be the difference between a roster that looks good on paper and a group with the right dynamic.

Transparency

Customer advisory board members are asked to share their experiences with the product, their business practices, their thoughts on where the industry is going, and their opinions. Product teams are asking a lot of these people, and asking them to do it in a forum that may include competitors or strangers they wouldn’t ordinarily be so open with.

But to squeeze those truth nuggets out of your members, you must be equally open in your interactions. This means sharing plans, results, ideas and notions that would ordinarily be considered strictly internal information. While obviously no specific customer data should be exposed, pretty much everything else should be on the table if it’s helpful to fueling the discussions and gathering honest feedback.

This applies to the product roadmap as well. It’s a chance to get input on things beyond the public version of your roadmap and get a reality check on how well plans match up with the market. Early access to alphas, betas and even screenshots are also par for the course when it comes to members peeking behind the curtain and getting a first look at what lies ahead.

Respecting their time and interests

Customer advisory board members are sacrificing time and energy to help your product succeed, so that should be top of mind when creating agendas and selecting topics for meetings. Tapping the customer advisory board should be limited to subject matter where you really do need a panel of industry experts and power users where other feedback collection methods (such as surveys and usability tests) won’t suffice.

The topics should also resonate with the board. Asking them in advance what things they might like to cover can create a good mix of what the product team thinks they want and what’s top of mind for real-world customers. Plus the pre-meeting survey gets the information collection out of the way in advance so the in-person sessions can be more productive.

Follow through

The only thing more annoying than someone asking for your opinion is when they don’t actually take your advice. While not every piece of customer advisory board input will turn into something tangible, members want to know product teams are actually listening to them, and there’s no better way to illustrate your attentiveness than following through and following up.

“Members will lose interest in your CAC if they don’t see any impact from their ideas for improving your company and their experience with it,” says Eyal Danon of Ignite Advisory Group, adding “don’t feel like you have to jump at all member input and ideas provided; there will be some that are just too expensive or resource-consuming to make the list. In fact, it’s OK to tell members why you can’t move on a particular suggestion, as being business executives themselves, they will no doubt understand.”

All aboard the customer advisory board

There’s no time like the present to get a customer advisory board started. Regardless of what stage your company is in, as long as you have users there are candidates to populate a board and untapped potential in leveraging their insights to improve your product planning process.

The only caveat is if you aren’t able to follow through. Once you send invitations and communicate your expectations, it’s on the product team to maintain regular contact and hold events as promised. Otherwise you risk burning those relationships and shaking the confidence in some of your biggest fans.

But when it’s done right, a customer advisory board not only gives you a trusted circle of reliable advisors. It also provides an army of evangelists that can be tapped for customer references, co-presenters at industry events and case study subjects. When they feel like they’re part of the team they’ll be more than happy to do what they can to help the product succeed.