A Zero Budget Customer Advisory Board

I’ve run customer advisory boards at big companies and loved them but I’ve generally avoided running one at a startup because of the costs.  Recently however I’ve helped a startup launch a customer advisory council with zero budget.  Here’s what we did.

The Setup: Starting With the End in Mind

First we laid out the goals for the customer advisory board.  The company in this case has a low-touch sales model and the over-arching goal of the advisory board was to establish deep executive relationships with a group of around 20 customers.  Our goals went far beyond gathering product feedback.  The goals:

  • product feedback and input on upcoming product releases
  • insight into shifts happening in the market,
  • discussing shifts in the customer buying processes
  • feedback on potential changes to pricing and bundles
  • getting customers engaged in marketing activities such as case studies, speaking engagements and other PR opportunities.

The Prep: Selecting Who to Invite

Based on what we were looking for we decided we settled on the characteristics of the customers we would like to invite:

  • fit into our target segments
  • had been an active customer for at least a year
  • did not have a major open customer support issue (to ensure the meetings didn’t become support sessions)

The Offer: Invitations and Expectation Setting

We discussed whether or not we would need to offer customers something in order to entice them into joining the board.  In the end we crafted a message that centered around our desire to work with them to understand their needs and serve them better.  The “reward” for taking part would be that their input would result in a better customer experience.  We also highlighted that they would get insight into upcoming releases before the general public and they would get to interact with the CEO and the CTO on a regular basis.  Having that level of relationship with a vendor was desirable to some customers especially those worried about potential support issues when dealing with a smaller company.  The cost of this “offer” – $0.

The Meetings – Short, Frequent, Single Customer Calls

We couldn’t afford face to face meetings and a group phone call wouldn’t work with 20 customers.  We decided to do separate calls with each customer.  The calls would be attended by the CEO, CTO, and someone from Marketing to host the call and drive the agenda.  Traditionally customer advisory boards meet a couple of times a year for one or two days.  We decided the easiest way to manage the calls and get on everyone’s calendar would be to schedule more frequent short calls. We scheduled 1 hour calls every 1-2 months for the first 6 months.  We tried to schedule the meetings back to back over a couple of days to keep the sessions feeling cohesive.

The Results – What we’ve Learned so Far

We’ve been though the first round of meetings and are about to start the second round.  We’ll have much more tangible results in a few months but here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • Customers see the value – very few customers that we invited to take part declined the invitation and those that did, said the time commitment was the biggest issue (a factor that would have been worse with a traditional advisory council where travel was involved).  Customers were interested in helping us and saw value in having a relationship with the executive team.  Several customers commented in the first meeting that they were impressed with the initiative and that it showed the company was listening to customers.
  • Single customer meetings work – Being able to dedicate time to each customer to discuss their environment/challenges meant that we could really understand the customer individually.  Compared to other group advisory council meetings I’ve run, we didn’t have the problem of having one member overly influencing the other members of the group.
  • Having a structured program and agenda helps a lot – The execs already had a lot of customer interaction, however it wasn’t happening in a structured way.  The resulting feedback was on random topics and the company didn’t always have the details of the customer environment for context.  Talking to customers in a more structured way gave the company more focused, relavent feedback
  • Zero budget is still a lot of work – Recruiting the members, setting up the meetings, determining the agenda, capturing the feedback – the meetings still required a time commitment from the marketing and exec team to make them happen.  Zero budget doesn’t mean zero effort.
  • We still want to take them to dinner – Although I’m happy with the way the meetings have been going so far, I still think that we need to work on getting some face time with these customers.  There is an industry event coming up that some of the members will attend so we will arrange a dinner.  We are also working on having the execs visit each member when it makes sense in their travel schedule.  I think we are building the foundation of a great set of relationships, meeting face to face will only enhance that.

If you enjoyed that, you should subscribe!  You can sign up for email updates, subscribe via RSS or follow me on Twitter.

46 thoughts on “A Zero Budget Customer Advisory Board”

  1. Oooh! I’m the first!

    This is something I need to implement myself. Thanks for the post.

    I’ve run Advisory Boards for customers and resellers and agree there are costs and a lot of effort involved. The one benefit of the physical meeting is what they learn from each other. They can become whinging sessions or ‘Gang up on Tim’ sessions but they can also be very productive as they bounce ideas and solutions off each other.

    Obviously this benefit was left out because of the budget constraints. Do you have any plans to call a physical meeting (or WebEx) at any time in the future and what would be the trigger point for doing so?

    Tj

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for the comment!
      I know that one of the main benefits for groups like this is that the members get to network with and learn from each other. That was one of the reasons I was hesitant to run this one the way we did. Now that I’ve seen it work though, I’m rethinking the group advisory board model. I agree that the members get a lot of value from interacting but we also got a ton of value from focusing on one customer at a time and unlike say a user group meeting, the goal of this group was to get customer insight, not to educate customers. I can certainly see value in getting the execs at the company together with the members (individually or in a group) to deepen the relationships but otherwise there’s no place for a face to face meeting. I don’t think we need one (and I’m surprised to hear myself say that).
      April

      1. Radical thought! A CAB that doesn’t meet?!

        I would expect there’s an intimacy that is developing precisely because they are one on one meetings and not group events. You’re likely to get a different kind of honesty and openness with this model. And they get to feel that much more special because of the singular attention.

        Congrats on breaking the mold. I’ll tell your client to double your fee.

  2. Hi April,
    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been thinking about running an advisory board for a while but the cost was a real stumbling block. How did you get approval to try this one? What would you have done if nobody agreed to be on the board or if the meetings had gone badly?
    I’m looking to avoid some pitfalls.
    Peter

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks for the comment. We originally had the sales reps send an email to the potential board members asking if they were interested. Our thinking was that if nobody was interested we would think of ways to sweeten the deal. As it turned out we got a good group and didn’t need to make any special offers (we were thinking about product discounts, free support, etc.). So we crossed that hurdle easily. I was nervous going into the first meetings. We made very sure to lay out the ground rules up front. We told customers we would deal with support issues in a separate call and we promised them in return that we wouldn’t sell to them. We asked them to think of themselves as “advisors” and not “customers” in the meetings. That seemed to work.
      The guys at the company were great and willing to try it out. It made it easier that we were not putting a lot of budget on the line.
      Thanks
      April

      1. Great post, April!

        I recently started doing something very similar. One thing is pretty universal when it comes to customers: They are willing to talk for as long as people are willing to listen. You can use a program like this almost indefinitely if you’re producing positive results for the customer.

        The one-on-one format actually works better for my market because most of my customers are in direct competition with each other. In fact, in some really historic cases, current customers have tried to scuttle deals in progress with evaluators in their area because they didn’t want their competitor to have the same advantage our service has to offer.

        1. Hi Tondin,
          That’s a great point about having competitors on the same board – they will clearly be much more willing to talk one on one than they would be with competitors in the room. This is a big issue when you are working in a narrow segment. The most forward thinking customers understand that technology can be a real competitive advantage so the last thing they want is the general market to know what they are doing.
          Thanks for the comment!
          April

  3. Nice post, April. I love the concept, and especially appreciate the insights you offer at the end.

    I will say, though, that I get a little twitchy when I see people writing about “zero budget” initiatives. Time isn’t free, whether it’s agency fees or opportunity costs of internal time. It appears that you (quite rightly) put a lot of time and thought into how to go about this. I applaud the concept and enjoyed the post, but “zero budget” might not be entirely accurate there.

    1. Hi Dave,
      Thanks for the comment. I have the same reaction as you do when people talk about things being “free”. In this case, the advisory board is definitely not “free.” It is accurate however in this case to say that is it “zero budget” – meaning we don’t have a dime of the marketing budget assigned to this initiative. For small companies that’s a really big deal because their available marketing dollars are so small. People’s time, although not “free” is at least available.
      You are right that even though there is no budget the board involves a load of effort. The CEO and CTO and a marketing person are spending 2 solid days in customer calls every 1/2 months, plus at least a day or 2 to prep for the calls. Marketing is also setting up the meetings, working out the agenda, etc.
      The initiative certainly isn’t “free”, it just isn’t using up any of the dollars in the marketing budget.
      April

  4. Hi

    You could also use Adobe connect to get them on one table. Works well, also for larger groups.

    Reg Andreas

  5. Hey April… great post… love the cheap, cheerful and customer centric approach.

    How do you manage the feedback loop so requests, ideas and complaints don’t get lost? Where do you capture it, and is there a collaborative space like a wiki that is accessible to everyone part of the loop, so that information is shared amongst the group?

    I find that the note taking and follow ups become part of the continued value of meeting.

    1. Hi Rob,
      That’s a good question. Right now we are recording the calls and publishing the transcripts so that anyone in the company can listen to or read them.
      The heads of the major functions (sales, support, development, marketing) have been sitting in on many of the calls to hear the feedback and take actions. Because the company is so small we don’t worry too much about how the actions move beyond those folks and so far the major actions that have come out of the calls have related to Dev and Marketing (the heads of each have been driving the council).
      As we get a larger mass of data and as the company goes we will have to get more process around information sharing but for now, the quick and dirty approach works.
      April

  6. Jennifer Truex

    Boards can be quite simple to get off the ground, even with no financial backing.

    I run a zero-budget customer advisory board of 5 people. We meet via conference call/webex every quarter. Meeting usually run no more than an hour and I use them as opportunities to a. discuss specific market problems and b. review designs for features that have come out of previous meetings. This setup works well for us, proven by the fact that actionable information comes out of each meeting.

    The small size makes the group easy to moderate, and I have made a special effort to encourage best practice sharing and offline discussions between members where possible. I also issue follow-up emails between meetings (about 1 per month) to continue to build the relationship and to keep conversation flowing between the 6 of us.

    There are plenty of customers out there who are more than happy to participate in an advisory board without pay, as long as the goals of the board match their own internal motivations. We pitch membership similar to the way that you do: an opportunity to influence the product direction, as well as a forum for learning and sharing best practices with others in the field.

    Keys to our success:
    – An outstanding moderator, who understands the industry but always remains open to the lessons she can learn from board members.
    – An environment that fosters trust between members and encourages communication and professional comaraderie.
    – An opportunity to see that previous meetings actually have influenced product decisions or designs.
    – Small groups, made up of a diverse group of people with varying expertise, which offers enough time for each member to be heard.
    – Executive support.

    I encourage anyone who has felt the “no budget” stranglehold to set aside those limitations and move forward with creating a CAB– there’s no substitute for this kind of relationship with customers.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks so much for the comment (and sorry it took so long for me to publish it, it was caught in my spam filter I have no idea why).
      Thanks for adding your experiences with your board! That’s a great point about having a good moderator. A good one can really enhance the tone of the discussion as well as keep things on track.
      April

  7. Hi April,

    Nice post. I am curious about how you “close the loop” with the panel, both individually and as a group.

    IE What comes out of the meetings that is then fed back to the advisory board. In the NPS model, I have heard to this referred as “You said, we did.” How do you communicate back (if you do) how the customers individual observations/concerns relate to those of the group, and how you as a company are acting on the intelligence gathered.

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Sam,
      Thanks for the comment and that’s a great question.
      When I ran other advisory boards at larger companies we ended every meeting with a summary of the takeaway actions and started each new meeting with an update on where we were with each of those actions. The advisory board manager owned making sure that progress was being made on the action items as well as getting status reports on where we were so that we could report back to the group. Any data we gathered (we ran some surveys) outside of the meetings we shared back with the group.
      We are doing a similar thing with this one but because the meetings are short and the focus of the meetings so far has been to get specific feedback upcoming features, marketing and positioning and getting a deeper understanding of the customer’s environment, there has been much more “you said” than there’s been “we did”. We do make sure that we start each new call with a recap of the last call and a summary of what actions have happened since the previous call. So far that’s working.
      As for sharing what we are learning with the other members of the group, I haven’t decided how we are going to handle that yet. I believe the group will find it valuable to see what we are learning across the group but we also have to be sensitive to the fact that each of the members is sharing with us very openly without worrying about us then sharing that with potential competitors and business partners. So far we’ve been sharing observations anecdotally while we are on the calls (i.e. other board members are seeing xyz, we are getting requests for abc, etc.) but we’ve not moved to share anything formally.
      As I mentioned to Rob in his comment, I suspect we will have to put more process around tracking action items and reporting on those once we get further along (and we start having more than a very small number of actions to track), I think this will also apply to sharing what we are learning with the group.
      Thanks
      April

  8. A Customer Advisory Board can provide a startup several different kinds of insight, but one of the most important is that affords them a chance to take part in a conversation among customers. I have seen small advisory groups work by telephone/skype (four to eight customers) and they have the advantage of enabling customers to negotiate with each other over feature definition and roadmap priorities. One way to help with traffic control on a conference call is to add a text chat that allows folks to add comments or “raise their hand to speak.”

    In the model you propose I worry that the startup will get bounced between the naturally occurring conflicting inputs from different customers when they would be better served to facilitate a conversation between key customers over direction.

    Obviously there is also value in private conversation with key customers, which any B2B startup should be doing as a matter of course.

    I think there is a similar value to fostering these same kinds of serious conversations between other advisory boards a startup may have: e.g. technical or business advisory boards. Allocating some time for your advisors to interact and come to a rough working consensus is a useful complement to individual conversations.

    1. Hi Sean,
      Thanks so much for the comment.
      I think you are right in that the company is going to have to sift through feedback and weigh what they hear from individuals with what they hear multiple times.
      As far as having a group get together to come to a consensus on a feature or a roadmap issue, I would be very wary of that. I think boards are a great way to go deep on customer problems, but the company has to own making decisions about the solution. We’ve asked customers for feedback on product but we’ve steered clear of any sort of “what should we do” sorts of conversations because there are so many other factors to consider (funding, talent, longer term direction) that you can’t always share with customer that will have a big impact on the product decisions you make.
      The board focuses more on getting a deeper understanding of customer problems, the market, customer environments, etc., than it is on the company’s product. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in getting product feedback in a forum like that, it’s just not what we’ve been focused on in the boards I’ve run.
      April

  9. April,

    Thank you for this article! Very informative and to the point.

    I am working with a small yet well funded startup right now, we have not launched yet. We are hoping to form a CAB to help us build the product. How do you suggest that I approach these people? I have reletionships with most of them already, they know what we are doing and all seemed to be enthusiastic about it. I am just unsure how to propose/ invite. Should i do it in a casual and verbal manner over lunch or in written invitation?

    Thank you for your help!

    1. Hi,
      Good question. I would do it formally in writing. Part of what you are looking for is a commitment of their time and so a less formal invitation isn’t going to do the trick in my opinion. What I’ve done in the past is either myself of the sales person would talk to the customer informally first and if the customer is interested, I would officially invite them and have that invitation come from the CEO. This sets the tone for the board and creates a “contract” of sorts between the customer and the CEO.
      Hope that helps
      April

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.