Staying close to your best customers and partners is critical to your business’ future success. This is the only way to know how and when to alter course as business conditions change. It’s like sailing: you have to tack into or against the wind, all while keeping fixed on a set destination. And there’s a lot of that going on right now. Here’s what you can do to stay connected as you sail onward.

Engage

How do you engage customers and partners when you are not able to meet face-to-face and everyone is experiencing “Zoom overload”? The answer is to build a virtual, integrated engagement model that is respectful to your customers and partners — both in terms of the quantity of time you ask of them and the quality of the messages and discussion topics you put on the table. (NOTE: you should engage customers separately from your partners; do not combine them because they have different interests, expectations, and perspectives.)

Instead of pushing aggressive selling tactics, a better approach is to engage subsets of customers or partners in helpful virtual roundtables. With Customer Advisory Board meetings, an engagement typically included a networking dinner followed by a day-long in-person meeting. That’s all changed. Beginning in May 2020 and continuing throughout 2021, companies are hosting a series of three or four (or more) one-hour (or 90-minute max) virtual roundtable discussions to take the place of a full-day in-person meeting. Each virtual roundtable addresses a single specific question. The shorter time commitment makes it easier for people to participate. And we’ve discovered that they very much want to talk, ask questions, and get guidance from their peers. Selling is not the goal; providing helpful guidance, support, and encouragement is the goal.

In fact, what has happened is that Advisory Board programs have truly become “programmatic”. Each meeting builds on the prior one. It allows discussions to flow over time. Several of my clients shared with me that their CAB members told them they are actually receiving more value from the virtual CAB series than they did from the day-long in person meeting. They told us, “I appreciate the shorter meetings and staying connected.” “I can see you are paying attention.” “You’re taking the advisory board seriously; I wish my other vendors adopted this instead of trying to sell me stuff.”

Listen

It’s not about you. Over the past year my team and I have interviewed around 60 C-suite leaders for our clients. Some common threads:

“We will be working with fewer vendors in the future because we need to streamline our supply chains.”

“How can I make the most out of what we already have? I want to learn best practices.”

“We’re adapting to the pandemic and reevaluating our priorities.”

This is not an opportunity for any vendor to pontificate or lecture. It is critical that executive leaders across your company listen to your customers and partners. You will likely not have all the answers they want. That’s okay. What’s really happening here is that they want an opportunity to share their realities, concerns, frustrations, and brainstorm possibilities.

This may feel more like a therapy session. That is actually the true value here. Your customers and partners will remember the vendors who took the time to listen and collaborate together, even if the answers are unclear. Just being there will differentiate your company from others that aren’t taking the time to listen. This is actually quite easy to do via bite-sized virtual roundtable engagements.

Align

The objective of engaging and listening is to ensure that your business is aligned with the shifting market expectations. And they are shifting big time! The future is forever different from the past. Your business has already likely pivoted because of COVID-19 implications — not only in operations (like working from home), but also in how you think about your corporate value proposition. What problems are you helping your customers (or your partners’ customers) solve? How is that problem changing?  One company executive told us that because they took the time to listen carefully to their customers, she discovered a new revenue stream. Her company is realigning itself to match the new customer needs. Powerful stuff!

Inspire

This is an opportunity for company leaders to express calm, thoughtful leadership that inspires their employees and their customers and partners. Leadership is not only what you say, but what you do. Engaging customers and partners in bite-sized, topical virtual collaborative sessions is one way to show this. Another way is to take the time to listen. And another way is to show and tell what you are doing to navigate through the storm. You don’t need to know all the answers. (They wouldn’t believe you if you did!) What your customers and partners really want is faith in you. Faith that you have a plan to navigate through the headwinds. This cannot be communicated in a single webinar or email. Their faith in you only becomes tangible through a series of touchpoints.

Reaffirm

Even though the future continues to change daily, your vision should remain steady and true. Sometimes the captain can sail with the wind; other times she has to sail against it. The captain is constantly course correcting, but the destination remains the same. Every customer or partner touchpoint allows company leaders to reaffirm their commitment to the market. These touchpoints are critical to your ability to navigate so you safely reach your customers and avoid the rocks, both the obvious ones and those laying just below the surface, that can sink your boat.

Learn how to design a virtual CAB or PAB engagement program

Recording: CAB Best Practices panel discussion, hosted by Success Coaching on February 17, 2021. 

With a specialty in Customer Advisory Boards and Partner Advisory Councils, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with 20 years of advisory board leadership experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 150 world-class advisory board meetings. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s  Advisory Board practice.  Check out more of his best practices articles and videos on his CAB Resource Center. Contact Mike