guest blogger product management

Establishing Customer Advisory Boards for Product Managers

Guest Post by: Lee Atkins (Mentee, Session 7, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Jordan Bergtraum]

Truly understanding your customers and finding ways to improve your product is an overwhelmingly daunting task. Customer discovery is key to informing product strategy and there is a mountain of techniques and methods available for conducting customer discovery. One method that Product Managers are turning too is the Customer Advisory Board.

A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is a strategic source of feedback from people that have already purchased your product or may in the future. It allows you to tap into the most influential customers.

Benefits

Market knowledge

Get input on market direction, market forces and market trends. Understand the market through the scope of your customers. Members are excellent at identifying industry and segment challenges.

Customer needs

Understand your customers pains, gains and jobs so that you can map your value proposition to this. Identify needs that are not yet met and use this to inform your product roadmap. Get early feedback on UX efforts and how they attempt to solve customer needs.

New Idea Generation

Your best ideas often come from the insights you gain from your customers. The CAB means you can get the best ideas right from the horse’s mouth. Ensure you encourage discussions that elicit NEW ideas and effective solutions to these ideas.

Validation

The CAB is a great forum to get early validation that you are tackling the right problem and that your idea services an unmet need. You should continuously share product designs with members and seek deep feedback. They will help you validate if your design is likely to solve the problem.

Prioritization

Prioritizing ideas and initiatives is a constant balancing act. Get validation of your priorities by asking members how they feel about your roadmap and it’s prioritization. Use offline surveys to ask your wider customer base what’s important to them and discuss this with members. Your board will help you decide what ideas will get done and in what order but equally important is they will help you decide what ideas WON’T get done.

Alignment

Align your vision and product strategy with the strategic direction of your customers business.

The CAB offers benefits during all phases of the product development life cycle. Align your go to market strategy with your customers expectation and get insights on pricing and marketing.

Setting it up

Charter: draw up a charter that defines your own objectives and measures of success. This doesn’t need to be shared. Just ensure that you are continuously measuring your efforts and improving it where and when you can.

Get buy in: …from everyone internal to your business. Send an email advising of the plan to create an advisory board and outline the benefits to the customer and your business. Enlist help from colleagues in nominating CAB members. Customer success managers are often the best source of great candidates. To help them identify candidates let them know what makes a good CAB member;

  • Market knowledge.
  • Engaged with the product.
  • Openness to providing honest feedback.
  • Big picture thinker.
  • Willingness to give their time.

Ask them what they think makes the nomination a good fit, the market they belong too and their role.

Ensure your members represent the widest spectrum of your market. Consider your various market segment sizes. Do you have representation across small, mid and large/corporate markets? Do your nominations represent all core industries that your product servers? If you have several value propositions are your nominations representative of each one? Keep in mind that your CAB should only be so big. There’s normally a sweet spot somewhere between 8 and 16. You may not be able to get complete representation across every market segment your business serves so focus on the market that is highest value to the business.

Invite members: Once you have a shortlist, get customer success managers to introduce the idea to the customer first. They own the relationship and will appreciate the opportunity. Then call each member and explain what’s involved:

  • Share your objectives.
  • Be transparent about what you’ll do with the feedback – will it be shared with sales and marketing. Will it be anonymous.
  • Sell them on the benefits – potential influence on product and strategy, advanced knowledge of upcoming features and products, previews and early adoption opportunities, networking and knowledge sharing with peers.
  • Not locked in. It’s voluntary and members are free to leave.

Arrange the meeting: Agree on a shared date and time each x weeks for the meeting. Customers are busy so asking them to spare some time (that also works for all members) can be difficult. Ask for times that nominated members can’t do, not what they can do. You’ll get more options this way. Cadence is important. The recurrence should work for your customers and also for your own business. Too often and you risk having no new ground to cover. Not often enough and you risk your members becoming disengaged and you’ll miss out on feedback opportunities.

Announce the board: announce the CAB and introduce all members. Confirm the date of the first meeting and promise a release date for the agenda.

Tips for success

Keep tabs: Record sessions so you don’t have to feverishly take notes. This allows you to engage in conversation and actually moderate the meeting. Get permission first of course. Use a shared slide deck to guide the meeting but also as a tool for live note taking. This will demonstrate to members if you understand their input and give them an option to tell you that you have understood it incorrectly.

Focus on the big picture: Control the conversation so that you and your members focus on big ideas with big potential (and big risk). Steer away from conversations about things that don’t move the needle. A CAB is not the forum to discuss the addition of a field to a form or a change to the position of button on the page.

Don’t sell: Focus on listening and gaining valuable insights. Validating your ideas is the objective not direct sales. Note that CAB’s often have a benefit on sales but this is not the objective of the board.

Encourage sharing: allow CAB members to share experiences and knowledge with you and your peers. Provide a safe place for networking. Make room in the agenda for this. You’ll learn tons.

Welcome opposition: Encourage constructive criticism. These opinions can generate great discussion amongst members. The most valuable members are those that are not afraid to suggest when something is opposed to their beliefs.

Show successes: Show members how their feedback has influenced your plans. Share your successes with them.

A few things to note:

  • CAB members often represent high value and happy customers, or possibly your largest customers. Therefore their feedback is highly influential. Ensure the feedback is aligned with your objectives and goals. When processing the feedback from your sessions, review your business strategy and product strategy. Does the feedback align with your strategy? If not it could mean that feedback is not relevant to your business at this time but it could mean there is room to review your strategies. Discuss this with internal stakeholders to see if this is something you need to explore further.
  • Feature requests are inevitable. Members will want to influence product direction. Learn to say no to requests that don’t align with your direction in a way that doesn’t alienate board members.
    • “That’s an interesting idea. Can I follow up with you individually on that offline?” 
    • “Good idea, and we have considered that in the past but we found there was not enough broad interest in the idea across our customers.”
  • CAB’s are time consuming. You’ll need to ensure you can manage the time and effort in order to get the most out of it and in order to meet your objectives.
    • Create a clear and focused agenda in advance of each meeting and share it with the group. This will keep you and your members on track during the meeting.
    • Give each item on the agenda the attention is deserves but be wary of time. You don’t want to get so deep into your first agenda item only to find out you’ve spent the first 55min on it. In advance of the meeting give each agenda item a rough time limit. It’s just a guide and remember that you can follow things up offline or table for the next meeting.
    • Schedule time following the meeting to analyze the feedback you get and a schedule of tasks for action.
About Lee Atkins

Lee-AtkinsAs a Product Manager, I embed myself embed myself at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. I encourage teams to embrace experimentation and lean processes to understand our customer’s most important and unmet needs. These efforts are aimed at delivering high-value solutions that customers love.


More About The Product Mentor

TPM-Short3-Logo4The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…

Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.

Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…

  • Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
  • Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
  • Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
  • Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community

Sign up to be a Mentor today & join an elite group of product management leaders!

Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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