September, 2022: Update: This article series was originally published in 2020. While in-person CAB and PAB meetings are now returning, many of the best practices applied during the pandemic are continuing. Prior to 2020, it was common for a company to host a single in-person meeting; it was considered an “event” and that was the extent of their program. With the adoption of virtual meetings, we discovered that a series of shorter meetings allowed for the conversation to continue over time. This yielded surprising benefits: inclusion of more CAB members from different time zones, more opportunities for building relationships, forming smaller CAB groups (“CAB pods”) to explore specific topics together, and more tightly linking CAB discussions to customer annual account reviews hosted by the sales team at year-end. Moving forward, the lessons found in this article are being integrated with in-person meetings.
Part 1: It’s time to re-engineer an interactive CAB journey
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the evolution of the Customer Advisory Board program.
The coronavirus and our response to it has put face-to-face Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) meetings on hold at a time when executive leaders need perspective and guidance from their most important customers. This isn’t the time to cancel or postpone these important meetings … but how can we continue these valuable conversations with sensitivity and compassion — not to mention adhering to social distancing requirements?
We’re experiencing a foundational shift in the way corporations conduct business in light of the pandemic. Adopting video platforms like Zoom, working from home, canceling in-person conferences, halting travel—these steps are literally reshaping the world. Is this a short-term fix or an indication of the future? I believe it’s both. The virus pandemic has forced companies to reconsider many habits in how they operate and sell. And, when we emerge on the other side, some of these new practices will continue because they benefit employees, customers, and the planet. They will be considered good business.
In her article, Post-COVID-19 Mega Trends, Christine Crandell lays out six mega trends that are determining how business will be conducted in our new world. These have deep implications for executive leaders as they pivot their CAB programs to help them future-proof their business. The first three of her six mega trends have deep implications on your CAB strategy and structure:
- Time will become the basis of competition.
- Authentic human connections will redefine commerce.
- Companies will organize around the customer.
- Vigilant organizations will rise, driven by purpose.
- Business models will shift from optimization and efficiency to agility and speed.
- Global supply chains will restructure around proximity and demand.
Re-engineering a company’s CAB program starts with an honest evaluation of its objectives.
Rethinking CAB objectives
CAB members often tell me that their biggest frustration is when vendors don’t take action on the advice and guidance offered. Nothing is done between CAB meetings. They are forced to conclude that the vendor was probably not listening or caring enough to take action. Why? In most cases it comes down to time, or the lack of time. Companies are busy with a myriad of tasks; once the CAB meeting concludes, they jump to the next priority. “Busyness” is an addiction that gets in the way of being meaningfully productive. If not used wisely, how we spend time hurts a company’s competitiveness (mega trend #1). What happened to follow-through? Holding a CAB meeting gets relegated to a check-box item, rather than a strategic asset that should be integrated with a company’s annual planning process.
As we exit the current pandemic crisis, will vendors take the time to adequately prepare and execute a CAB program ensuring they are operationally prepared to act on the information gathered? Will customers be willing to give their time to vendors who don’t seem to listen? Time has become our most precious asset, and the pandemic gives us pause to rethink how we all are spending our professional and personal time.
As a first step to reinventing a global CAB program and using time wisely, there are two questions that must be addressed:
- What, specifically, do you want to learn from your CAB members?
- What are you prepared to do with the information you collect?
These are weighty questions and the answers are not always obvious. Finding the answers requires careful and honest consideration about a vendor’s expectations for their CAB and themselves.
Operationalizing a new CAB with virtual objectives
Mega trends #2 (authenticity) and #3 (organizing around the customer) require vendors to rethink their entire CAB program. So much of our world is quickly becoming commoditized. This means that the only remaining differentiator is the relationship a vendor has with its customers. It’s ironic, but the truth is that a vendor’s CAB program is not about them; it’s about their customers and the problems they are trying to solve and how the vendor can help them deliver even greater value. The customer should be the center of the universe, not the product.
Traditionally, the cornerstone of any CAB program was the in-person meeting conducted once or twice per year with a dozen key customers. These strategy-level, future-focused meetings took place in a 5-star hotel (aka neutral territory). Spanning a day-and-a-half, customers would engage in a networking dinner followed by a day-long interactive agenda filled with discussion modules (not presentations). This is no longer possible, at least for the short term and perhaps will extend into 2021. To address this, vendors must tune their operational objectives to anchor their CAB program with virtual elements, not the face-to-face meeting. New objectives must be added:
- To keep strategy-level conversations going when in-person meetings aren’t an option
- To deepen understanding of advisory board members’ current and future needs, especially in times of uncertainty
- To harness new opportunities for collaboration.
Incorporating virtual tools and techniques isn’t new. The simplest examples are one-on-one customer interviews and online surveys to collect customer priorities or feature requirements. However, in the past these tools have been used to complement the face-to-face meeting centerpiece. The current pandemic requires a complete re-engineering of the program so virtual engagement is the centerpiece. And with that requirement comes obvious issues:
- Webinars are great for sharing information in a one-to-many format, but they aren’t effective for allowing interactive discussion. How do we allow productive interaction in a virtual environment?
- It’s too easy to multitask. How do we keep everyone’s attention?
- It’s hard to sit still on lengthy calls or webinars. How do we break up the discussions into action-oriented pieces?
Welcome to the new CAB interactive journey
We are now living in a new era of constant change and uncertainty. The old model of driving an annual CAB meeting with static objectives is no longer sufficient. Executives have a timely opportunity to re-envision their CAB initiative as an ongoing interactive journey with their best customers using an integrated cadenced approach of offline, online, and in-person tactics. Yesterday’s CAB model is no longer sufficient. A new creative approach of integrating offline, online, and in-person tactics is required. But it must be balanced in its structure so CAB members are not overwhelmed and time is used wisely. The benefits of this new model are profound. It will allow all participants to become aware of and respond to these changes with forethought, agility and speed versus hesitancy, panic, and fear.
For more information . . .
With a specialty in CABs, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with more than 18 years of CAB experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 100 world-class CAB meetings. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s CAB practice. Check out more of his best practices articles and videos on his CAB Resource Center. Contact Mike