How to Build a Customer Advisory Board

I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks prepping for and following up on my April call with Bronto's Customer Advisory Board. We call it the "BCAB" for short.

While prepping for this call and previous calls with the board, I did a number web searches in an effort to learn more about building and managing a customer advisory board. (Bronto has never had one and I don't have any experience with this sort of thing.)

Though the Googles yielded some helpful resources, most of the results were press releases from companies announcing the formation of their customer advisory board, re-affirming their commitment to building a customer-focused business, blah, blah, blah.

So I did what I've done many times over during my Bronto career - I gave it my best shot and learned some lessons in the process. Hence, the following end-all, be-all post about building and managing Bronto's customer advisory board.

(I'm going to skip the "what"and "why" for customer advisory boards and jump right into the "how".)

What are you trying to do?

During our initial planning phase, we wrote a brief description of what we intend our board to become:

- An opportunity for Bronto customers to provide feedback and advice on the direction of our company and our product.
- A mechanism to ensure that our product direction aligns with customer needs as well as their current and future email marketing plans.
- A venue for customers and Bronto leadership to exchange ideas on the state and direction of the email marketing industry.
- An opportunity for board members to leverage the collective experience of Bronto and their fellow board members in an effort to further their email marketing initiatives.

It was important for us that the BCAB be a win/win, for Bronto and our board members. We knew what we wanted out of the program and quickly came to the conclusion that we were more likely to get the desired outcome if we made the experience worthwhile for our participants.

With these objectives in mind, we planned our first call. Prior to the call, we sent brief surveys to all of our members that asked our members a few simple questions:

- What would make the BCAB experience successful?
- List 3 driving forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.
- List 3 restraining forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.

(I got the driving/restraining forces questions from Pragmatic Marketing.)

The survey framed not only our first call, but subsequent calls as well. I spent a lot of time processing the results and then presented them to our board members in the first call. I felt like this was an effective means to get everyone "on the same page" and to set the tone for future meetings. Plus, our board members appreciated the opportunity to hear the email marketing perspectives and challenges of their fellow members.

Choose members carefully.

We recruited a fairly diverse set of board members. They range from CEOs to Marketing Specialists, E-Commerce sites to Non-Profits, high-power users to somewhat lessor power users. It is important to note that all are Top 50 customers in terms of annualized value to Bronto - so they all have a significant stake in email marketing and, more importantly, Bronto.

Also, most of the members already knew me very well, so gaining their trust and soliciting their honest opinions proved pretty easy.

The "all kinds of customers" approach was helpful initially. We were able to get a broad perspective of "what our customers are thinking" in very short order. However, it has since been somewhat of a limiting factor. We're not able to dig in on special topics as much as I would like precisely because our membership is so diverse.

I plan to recruit a few more members and form a couple "sub-committees" to rectify this problem. We'll have more sub-committee calls and fewer "all hands" calls. I suspect that we'll get better feedback and our board members will enjoy a richer experience.

We have 10 members and have thus far conducted all of our activities via phone and web conference. It has been challenging to keep 10 participants engaged on a call, but doable. 5 to 7 make for a better phone call - hence the "sub-committees" idea.

Don't talk. Just listen.

I would be lying if I didn't say that this is the hardest part.

While it was a strong start, Bronto's first customer summit devolved into a sales/entertainment event. (This is the risk you take when you put me in front of an audience.) We (read: I) have since gotten much better at asking the right questions and then listening for the answers.

Other articles I've read about CABs suggest hiring a facilitator. I suppose this would be a pretty good idea, though I think that we've done pretty well without one. As long as you can keep listening - and keep your cool! - when your members are brutally honest and as long as you're not afraid to walk right into situations in which you know that your members will be brutally honest, then you should be fine without one.

Extend the involvement.

For me, the most valuable asset of my board is knowing that I can call any of them out of the blue to bounce around an idea or to ask for an opinion on a very specific topic.

Though you'd have to ask them to be sure, I suspect that the members enjoy the high-touch approach and the satisfaction of knowing that they play a significant role in our product development process.

Make it happen.

It goes without saying that you can't talk the talk without walking the walk. Our board needs to know that their input drives change at Bronto. Thus, we make sure to discuss only the topics that we're honestly willing to change. We then take the appropriate action based on customer feedback and our best judgment.

I like to start our board calls with a quick rundown of our recent product initiatives - particularly those that involve BCAB feedback - in order to illustrate the board's impact.

So that's a lot. Hope it helps.