Imagine the following scene: 8 VPs of your top customers, sitting in a casual Zoom call for an hour and a half, with a cup of coffee in their hand, sharing their use-cases and the way they interact with your system, expressing their challenges and needs, hearing your updates and sharing their feedback on them. They talk to each other, ask questions, lough, nod-their heads with agreement or chime-in with disagreement, chat on the chat box with insights and emojis. You sit there, mostly listening and obviously writing down every word they say.
Does this sound like a dream? Too good to be true?
Not at all! Happens all the time, but you have to work hard to get there!
Personally, one of my favorite things in managing customer accounts is the Customer Advisory Board (CAB). As a Customer Success executive I see it as one of the genuine votes of confidence that a group of customers can give you, especially if it is successful like the scene I described above.
I want to share with you my experience building such CABs and some of my insights about how to run them successfully.
What would be the goals of a CAB?
As you can imagine it is as simple as you may think - Getting to know your customers better, creating a stronger relationship with them, and lastly, hear their advise and insights. On the relationship part, I would say that you want the CAB to help you build a close relationship with your CAB members, almost a personal one. Something more than the standard customer-vendor relationship.
Who would you bring to be a participant in your CAB?
Try to aim for your top customers, the Enterprises, the influencers, the big names and the power-users (yes, I know, in many cases they are not the same...). If the goals of the CAB is to get advise and to bond with the customers, and you put all that resources in, you better do it with the whales.
On the same topic of choosing your CAB customers, try to choose the same type of customers. For example, the same size, the same use-case. The CAB is not just for you, it is also for the customers to speak and learn themselves, from each other. You want to make sure you enable that for them. I deliberately did not include some of my biggest customers in a CAB, because their use-case was different than most of the others and it would've been weird and sometimes confusing to mix these customers together. In such a case, you can consider opening more than one CAB (a CAB for use-case X, a CAB for use-case Y).
You want the CAB to be lively and people to be engaged. Part of it is on you, the host, and part of it is on the participants. Think about it not as a movie or a show but more like a party. You need to invite customer representatives who will be talkative and engaging. It is OK to have some participants who are quieter than others, but not everyone.
Secondly, you want your participants to be able to engage in the type of conversation you aim for. Usually visionary and high-level. You won't ask your CAB about the size of the text-box they want to see in your new feature. You want them to talk about the value they think it will bring and if they would prioritize something else. Typically you will get that from higher-level professionals such as Director or VP level.
Lastly, you want to have the same level people in the room. If you aim for the VP-level (or let's call them decision-maker level), try to have all your participants from the same level. A very heterogeneous forum can also get your conversation stuck or revolve around a few people.
Who should be part of the CAB on your end?
I always liked to have the Customer-Success group to own the CAB while all other groups can participate, take part in the discussions and get the information they seek.
The way I liked to describe it to the teams is that "The CS team hands over 1-2 hours of top customers' time to you. Each team sees the CAB from their own perspective and should take what they need out of it. Make sure you use it wisely!".
The CS team cannot act as Product Managers or Sales or Professional Services and get all the relevant insights on their behalf.
The Customer Success would be the organizers (usually one of the CS Managers would be the CAB owner) and we would have representatives from Product Management, Sales and Professional Services attend.
What is the state of mind you need to come to your CAB with?
Definitely the most important thing is Listening!
During the day-to-day you rarely have the opportunity to get your customer's decision-maker speak on high-level topics you are super-interested in. So you better listen carefully and absorb as much as you can.
Have everyone attending, sharpen their pencils and write down every word and every nuance they hear.
In my CABs I don't like to record the virtual meetings because I want the participants to feel it is a "safe space" where they can express their feedback and information openly.
In many cases the CAB participants, since they are high-level, like-minded, professionals, will even see the forum as some sort of "competition". Trying to shine in front of the fellow colleagues. Allow that to happen with the safe-space you create.
I must admit that in many cases, we've heard in a CAB things that we normally wouldn't hear from our customers, only because of that openness-amongst-colleagues atmosphere that was created.
A CAB is NOT a sales call. You can obviously talk about value and praise your product/company/operation/people, but don't focus on selling. Remember that the goals are to listen to the customer and deepen the relationship. The sales will come as a by-product from that, down the road.
What should be on the agenda?
First of all, respect the time that the CAB participants give you. It is not trivial for high-level professionals to invest 1-2 hours of their time in your CAB. Prepare interesting agenda, engaging presentations and don’t overwhelm them too much.
I always like to think of the CAB as 1-2 hours of getaway I might give them in their busy day. A place they don't need to be on their highest alert and they can speak freely and openly "amongst friends".
I always wanted to open with a customer speaker to introduce themselves and their use-case. We would do a Round Robin throughout our CAB sessions so all customers have the chance to present a few minutes of their use-case and operation to the rest of the group.
It is important to make sure that everyone understands that they present to the group and not just to you. A lot of it depends on how you present and manage the CAB.
A short roadmap presentation or a CEO overview on the company, is always a good thing to have.
A topic to discuss around a new feature, a market interest or a new emerging technology can be the main event.
Even a guest speaker is good, though you need to consider the virtual aspect of things and if the crowd would engage.
What I was mostly doing is sending a survey before every meeting with a few questions that would be interesting for us and for the group to know. The survey results themselves can be a good thing to show as part of the CAB, because it can be interesting for the the customers to know what others are thinking.
A survey is also a very good way to know, in an offline manner, what some of your leading customers think, specially around questions that you don't need hundreds or dozens of answers and you want more than one or two customers to answer. I'll give you a few examples from my experience: Which conferences do you go to? Did the economy crises effected your current budget? What is the top KPI you are measured by?
In the department of fun and games, I am not a big fan of that... I tried several times to do food-vouchers and online games, and my conclusion was that it is a lot of effort for the ROI it brings. If the forum is rather high-level professionals, they will grab their cup of coffee or lunch themselves and they gladly give up the bonding online trivia game... Better to invest in interesting and useful agenda for them.
How often should we meet?
My magic number was once a quarter virtually and to have once a year a F2F meeting.
The F2F is extremely important! You are trying to bond with these people and make it a community. F2F is what creates such bonds and not Zoom calls. Mutual experiences like "that amazing dinner" or "that thriller ball game!" or "that great scavengers hunt on Central Park" is what you are looking for.
Remember I wrote in the beginning it is hard work?! Well, it is!
Getting the customers on-board to begin with, getting internal stakeholders onboard, chasing down customers for a short 10min review of their use-case, chasing down your own Product Management for their 10min roadmap update every time, chasing down survey results, prepping the deck, managing schedules for 20 or more people, and more and more. Not to mention a F2F CAB offsite headache...
But the value you get from it - Unimaginable!
I will conclude with sharing the sensational feeling of sharing internally in the company's chat, a screenshot of that Zoom call with 8 VPs of the CAB with a cup of coffee in their hand, smiling and talking between themselves. It was one of the best chat posts I ever shared! The reactions were amazing (from people who can't be further away from the CAB, like developers or HR) and it fueled every last employee for weeks! Me too!