Customer advisory boards (CAB) are not meant to be executive briefings, yet they are often treated as such to the dismay of the attending customers. Like the hammer and screwdriver in your toolbox, it’s important to apply the right tool to the right job. Here’s a summary of how to think about each of these communication forums.

Depending on your specific objective, one of these communications forums will work better than the other.  Here’s why.

 Executive briefings: Companies host executive briefings when they need to provide a business update to one of three audiences: industry analysts, financial analysts, or specific customers. These audiences are usually not mixed. The content is different in each case, but the format is the same: an executive speaks from a leadership position to tell information. The speaker is at a podium; the audience sits in tiered seats as in a conference room or hall. The conversation is one-way, with some Q&A at the end. Questions are directed at the speaker, and are usually aimed to clarify information the speaker has shared.

Executive briefings may be held via a conference call, at company headquarters, at a customer’s office location (when the executive briefing is part of an account review meeting), or at a company’s Executive Briefing Center (EBC). The EBC is designed to impress prospects and customers. This is where a company rolls out its red carpet. It’s often used to help close deals. Because the EBC is typically understood to be a sales tool, it’s inappropriate as a place to hold a CAB meeting. CAB customers do not want to be sold to.

Customer Advisory Board meetings: The CAB is a strategy-level focus group — a sounding board for your leadership team to learn from and better understand your best customers. This representative group of a dozen or so executive decision makers from some of your best customers meets in person once or twice a year to offer advice and perspective on your company’s direction, value proposition, and product and services suite.

CAB meetings are bi-directional conversations, not presentations. The dialog focuses on trends and drivers shaping the industry, not product feature updates. These are strategy discussions where customers and company executives come together to talk about the future and provide directional guidance to your company. These meetings work best when hosted at a neutral offsite location where candid input and feedback can be discussed constructively and productively. All participants sits at a U-shaped table where everyone is considered an equal.

When CABs feel like executive briefings, customers are disappointed

CAB agendas are meant to be discussions, not presentations. Because it’s relatively easy to pull content together from existing slides, that’s sometimes what happens in the final hours leading up to the CAB meeting. Those presentations leave little room for interactive conversations on topics of mutual interest. Customers attend CABs because they want to share their opinions and perspectives. They want to engage in a conversation with other customers and your executive staff. They can’t do this when the majority of the agenda is aimed at telling instead of talking.

To avoid this pitfall, give your team plenty of time to develop a relevant agenda that will engage everyone. Focus not on product updates, but on questions you are most eager to ask this set of customers. CABs provide a unique opportunity to get some meaningful answers that will help guide your company’s strategic direction. Invite the dialog. The executive briefings will take care of themselves when and where they are needed.

For specific information and best practices on building the most engaging agendas for your CAB meetings, please see The Flipchart Guide to Customer Advisory Boards, Volume 2: How to execute a world-class CAB meeting.