Under Advisement: Customer Advisory Boards Keep Your Finger on Customers’ Pulse

Does your business launch new products, or enhance existing products, based solely on
the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of your product development and marketing
teams? While these talented, intelligent people may be very good at their jobs, they are
typically not the primary users of your business’ products or services. Consequently,
their ideas are may be more theoretical rather than based on reality.

However, reality is as close as your customers. All you need to do is ask them. Many
companies survey their customers on a periodic basis, and this provides them with an
overview of customer opinion. However, if you really want to create and enhance
products and services with your top customers in mind, you may want to take the time
to create a Customer Advisory Board (CAB).

What exactly is a Customer Advisory Board?

CABs may take on any number of shapes, sizes, and roles, depending on the business,
its product or service, and the nature of its customer base. For example, I am currently
on my second term as a member of the CAB for Constant Contact®, a web-based email
marketing application service. The members are a cross-section of about a dozen
people in small businesses who are regular users of Constant Contact’s product as a
means of connecting with their own customers. We meet as a group a couple of times
per year, and the company has set up a chat room for our use, so that we can bounce
ideas around via the web.

On the other hand, years ago, I was a director at Thomson & Thomson, a global
trademark research firm, where the vast majority of our customers were attorneys.
Most of these individuals could not make the commitment to a formal term
of advising our company, so we took the approach of periodically hosting luncheons in
major cities, and inviting top-tier clients in those cities for a two-hour discussion of their
product needs, or a demonstration of new products or services that we planned to
launch.

But CABs should not be limited to large and mid-sized businesses. Every business that
has customers should consider creating some sort of Customer Advisory Board.

What does a Customer Advisory Board Do?

My primary roles as part of Constant Contact’s CAB are to participate in conference
calls concerning product enhancements and new product development, as well as to
conduct online usability testing for the prototypes of these enhancements and new
products. Along with the other board members, I provide my honest feedback and
suggestions. We are encouraged to think out of the box for things that would help us in
our email marketing efforts.

Whereas, with the periodic regional meetings that my former employer hosted, it was
beneficial not only to have the customers speak with us, but to interact with each
other. We were able to get a bird’s-eye view, and firm understanding of how customers
used our products, the circumstances where they worked versus where they fell short,
and whether the new products we were developing were actually going to
fly. Customers tend to be quite forthcoming and candid when among their peers.

What are the benefits of a Customer Advisory Board?

Quite simply, CABs keep the business’ finger on the pulse of the customer. “We must
continuously remember that we are poor surrogates for a customer,” says Constant
Contact CEO Gail Goodman. “We will drift from our focus without customer
input.” Product Manager Nicole Mace says that Constant Contact has made “a longterm
commitment to its CAB, as it has had a huge impact on product development and
the direction of new products.”

From the customer view, I can say that it is very satisfying to see a business solicit
feedback and suggestions from its clients, and then actually put those suggestions into
play. And this is where the rubber meets the road. Businesses such as Constant
Contact and Thomson & Thomson get deserved credit for creating and utilizing
CABs. However, few things will turn customers off more than having a business solicit
their input, and then ignore it. Part of the price businesses pay to reap the benefits of a
CAB is the responsibility to acknowledge use of the feedback, and, when necessary,
explain why some suggestions cannot be realized.

In many businesses, a single vocal and influential customer can cause products to be
created, enhanced, or dropped. However, the lone loud voice does not always speak
for the benefit of the entire customer base. For this reason, a Customer Advisory Board
serves as a sounding board for such suggestions, to ensure that they serve the needs of
many. By giving customers access to your business’ new ideas, as well as to other
customers who use the same products, you are planting seeds of customer loyalty that
will bloom for years to come.

— Charles Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2006 / All Rights Reserved

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