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Top 8 Customer Advisory Board Management Challenges (and How to Overcome Them)

Customer advisory boards (CABs) continue to prove their worth in gathering feedback on company strategies, collecting input for product roadmaps and deepening relationships with key customers. But successful CABs are no cake walk. In fact, while many companies want the proven benefits of such robust customer engagement initiatives, they often struggle in establishing, managing and maintaining their CAB programs.
Pragmatic Marketing recently hosted a webinar on the essentials needed to manage strong CAB programs with Adobe and Ignite Advisory Group, a consultancy that helps companies establish and optimize their CAB programs. The topic of managing customer advisory programs touched a nerve with the audience, as evidenced by the registration of more than 2,000 people and the hundreds of questions we received. Ignite’s Gavin Nathan addressed the top 10 CAB FAQs in a follow-up podcast. During the webinar, we polled attendees on the top challenges CAB managers and executive sponsors face initiating or managing their CAB programs. Here are the results:
While certain company factions may recognize the benefits of having a well-run customer engagement program, everyone isn’t always on board with the idea. This is often due to a myriad of understandings (or misunderstandings) about what a CAB is and what it can and should do for a company. It’s not a focus group or a sales engagement opportunity. But the challenges may go deeper, due to budget restraints, internal politics, disagreement on company strategic direction, or management’s unwillingness to fully commit to a formal CAB program. Ignite advises companies to gain executive buy-in before starting a CAB program, and then sharing responsibility for its success with various stakeholders. In other words, fully commit to doing a CAB well or don’t do one at all.
Initiating the business case to start a CAB often goes hand-in-hand with gathering initial executive buy-in, but it is also part of aligning the need for customer engagement and managing expectations. Building the case to create a CAB starts with understanding what CABs are (and what they are not), their benefits and the time and resources necessary to implement a well-run program. Building the case to start a CAB lies in gaining a consensus on the need to address issues—like the need to better engage with top customers or the need to gain customer input on product development and strategy—and agreement that the CAB will be the ideal way to solve them.
Recruiting top executives from key customers is a challenge for many CAB managers. This is often due to positioning the CAB as a one-way, vendor-focused engagement where the customer executive sees the program as a glorified sales engagement. Successful CAB programs are established with common challenges, interests and objectives in mind, and a sincere desire to solve shared challenges. A compelling CAB charter addresses these issues in writing, detailing what the CAB program is about and the required commitment. When the appropriate executives are targeted and the intent is clearly communicated, the majority of customers will accept their invitations.

Sometimes, CAB programs are started as yet another program thrown onto already-overburdened marketing or product management teams, with little thought to incremental resources, personnel, budget or training. It’s no wonder that such haphazard programs fall short of goals or fail completely. To be successful, a CAB must begin with a firm commitment and goals, and adequate resources and timelines that allow the program to succeed and prosper.

Agendas that are vendor focused—for example, those that include canned company investor presentations, product features and demos, and low-level tactical support issues—will be of little value to executive customers. CABs are not user group meetings, technology fairs or support forums. Meeting content should address high-level, strategic challenges shared by all participants, and a plan to determine common solutions that benefit all. But don’t assume you know what’s on the mind of your customers. We advise interviewing each CAB member to understand their pain points, then aggregating those struggles into an agenda with the most important and engaging topics for all participants.
For some companies, CAB meetings will come and go, and achieve little. Without a formal action plan to summarize the insights and prioritize, most meeting opportunities and potential deliverables will be forgotten by the time the next meeting rolls around. If CAB members feel that nothing is being accomplished with their input, they will become unhappy with their CAB experience and lose interest. Successful CAB programs capture and prioritize top member input, define outcomes and deliverables, assign leaders and timelines, and provide regular updates on these outcomes and benefits to CAB members.
Companies may start a robust CAB program—and even hold a successful meeting—but then do little until plans ramp up for the next meeting. In the interim, CAB members (and internal stakeholders) may forget about shared outcomes and deliverables, resulting in a program that loses steam. Successful CAB programs instill ongoing communications programs between in-person meetings to keep members engaged and gain their input. Regular conference calls and webinars help confirm product input prioritization, address strategic challenges, and provide a platform to collect member input to questions from the host-company.
8. MEASURING CAB IMPACT AND ROI (35 PERCENT): Measuring the ROI for a CAB program was the top challenge expressed by webinar attendees. When facing budget scrutiny, anyone unprepared to share concrete successes may risk losing their CAB programs, even if those programs are successful. The key is to establish tangible goals from the onset, and track those goals as the program evolves. Key metrics to track in measuring ROI include: CAB member revenue; renewals and referrals; potential new markets addressed and incremental revenue uncovered due to CAB input; development process savings due to feature input and prioritization; and marketing opportunities such as customer testimonials, case studies, speaking slots, articles, thought leadership and social media postings.
Running a robust CAB program requires a shared understanding of goals and expectations, and a commitment to provide the necessary budget, resources and time. While these top CAB management challenges represent the most frequent program hurdles, there are many more. But no challenge is insurmountable when the host company and the CAB manager are committed to overcoming it.

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