“Advisory boards provide safe harbours for executives who may be able to test-drive options before they are forced to be more definitive and assertive before a board of directors, which assesses the CEO and establishes his or her compensation.” – iveybusinessjournal.com
A customer advisory board is a highly effective method for a company to gain insights into their customer base and find innovative ways to improve their products and offerings. It is also a great way to tweak an offering before its launch through the suggestions and inputs received from the customers on the Board. All customers are users of a company’s offerings. However, a company must exercise prudence in order to choose the best customers to have on the advisory board, in order to benefit truly from a board. The primary reason, it would seem, that customers would be interested in participating on an advisory board is to ‘control’ and be able to influence the products, planning and business strategies of a company. This ensures that the products and offerings of a company primarily serve their business and needs. By ‘recruiting’ the best customers, a company would also benefit from the value-added consultative role that these customers would perform, when on the board. By putting in place a strategic plan and having clear goals for the advisory board, a company would be able to get the best customers to serve on a board and create a win-win relationship between them and the company.
Many companies do not operate such customer advisory boards; possibly, because they do not know how or are unable to fathom whom the best customers would be for them. However, as mentioned earlier, customers simply love to feel in control and feel so by offering suggestions and feedback that would define the company’s strategies and shape yet to be launched products and services. The best customers for an advisory board should be those that can influence others to use your company’s products, the end-users and other such people that would mobilise positivity for your company and the brand. It would be important and beneficial for a company to put together a list that would define how being on the advisory board would benefit its members, enabling it to ‘recruit’ the best customers – the ones that would be most likely to provide something in return for those benefits. It is not an easy task to get high profile persons to give up their valuable time to participate on the customer advisory board.
In order to influence these prominent customers – the best customers for the board – a company must carefully articulate all the possible benefits of the advisory board. Some of the key benefits for them would be primarily to be a position of authority and power while developing and creating new products – they would be able to define the functionalities of the new offerings to match their own needs and that of their business. The customers on the advisory board would be in a unique position of knowing the plans of the company along with the ‘next in line’ products and offerings. They would be able to give suggestions and get insights into how they could use the features of the products to enhance their business. In addition, such boards are excellent networking opportunities for all involved – learning from the expertise and knowledge of the other members and sharing insights in an environment that is non-combative and collaborative. Overall, all these factors lead these customers to feel in control and part of the success of the company and in turn for the profitability of their own company.
With the best customers on board, the whole atmosphere in the meetings of the Board would be highly energized and allow the members to step away from the daily operations of their business and spend time with like-minded. Such an environment enhances their ability to focus on strategies, exchange ideas, learn from the knowledge ‘in the room’ and understand the challenges that others face within the same industry and outside. Since the advisory board would have the best customers in all respects, it is a great opportunity for all – it is not often and regularly that so many industry leaders are together under one roof. The company that operates the advisory board, must ensure that it clearly elucidates all these benefits to the members – doing so will keep them on the Board and have them return for every meeting.
Of course, your company would not want to lose the best customers that are part of a board. However, the members must not feel confined and must know that they may leave the Board whenever they deem appropriate. In fact, when the customers ‘sign up’ for the Board, they should be the ones to decide the duration – giving them a say in this matter would encourage others to take an interest in this endeavour too. Companies must know that the best customers could also be highly influential and could be contributing a lot to its profitability, but no customers on the board must receive preferential treatment, as it can be annoying and stifling for others. If customers are spending their valuable time for your company, it is your duty to ensure that each member receives the same amount of respect and allowed to express their views and suggestions equally.
The best customers for an advisory board do not necessarily mean customers who are always or even currently happy with your company. Having disgruntled customers and those with complaints on the Board ensures there is a balance of opinions. The Board meetings are not occasions for the customers to be ‘singing praises’ of a company alone – an understanding of where the company lacks and who is affected, is also extremely crucial. Receiving ‘constructive criticism’ would guide a company to improve and produce offerings that would be the best in the market. As Bill Gates said: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” – and if they are willing to come together and discuss the learning opportunities, a company should be extremely grateful. As mentioned, the best customers do not necessarily have to be the ones that have the highest spend on your company or are your best brand advocates. The best customers on the advisory board would also be those that give the most insightful and relevant feedback that will help your company to improve its offerings and move forward with confident strides.
We have in the past spoken about the importance of diversity – in the workplace, among customers and other business partners. A diverse set of people on the advisory board would be the best customers set to have. Customers should be from diverse industries, company sizes and other such ‘differences’ – it would be advisable however, to avoid including customers that may be competing against each other. They would not be open in their suggestions, feedback and discussions. While alternating the members on the board, they may be included at different times. The number of members is also a vital consideration for the success of the advisory board – experts recommend a size of about 10-15 members, such that even if some do not attend the meeting, there would be adequate numbers to satisfy the meeting decorum. The best customers on the advisory board would be those who would be able to relate to each other easily – a balance of hierarchy / designations would help to maintain this balance.
‘Recruiting’ the best customers for an advisory board is not an easy task. However, such a board is highly useful and effective for any company. The suggestions and insights of the Board could help a company improve its customer service, product quality, customer and employee retention rates and dramatically improve the face of its business to achieve sustainable success.