How a customer advisory board will change your business
When you bring up market research, two quotes are frequently used to dismiss it:
“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
– Steve Jobs in Business Week in 1998
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford
So how did two of America's smartest business people change the world without talking to customers? Well, they didn't. Pithy quotes often lack context, and here, both are speaking about the moment of The Great Idea™ – the spark that sets your team onto product development.
At FunnelCake, we believe you need a strong vision for the future grounded by the needs of your customers. We're huge fans of our customer-driven development, we put them at the centre of every decision we make. And we think you should too.
There's never enough time!
I've talked to a lot of other founders and marketing teams who say "I'm too busy executing on Strategy X."
The challenge is when we look at everything as a dollar value: every minute a developer spends talking to a customer is a minute that they aren't coding. This assumes every minute coding has equal value.
But how much time is spent debating product or marketing decisions among teams? Without customer input it can take weeks to get everyone to agree on a strategy. You end up with half your team dejected from the process. Worse, if you compromise to test multiple options your development time could double. Or your management team gets frustrated by delays that they throw out weeks of work. You end up no closer to being in market than you were before.
What's missing in this process? The voice of your customer. To include their voice we suggest a customer advisory board.
"Customers are your sanity-check when sanity has left the building."
customer advisory board (or CAB) is an arbiter for your business; they guide you towards the right decisions faster. Customers can give feedback on product features, marketing efforts, pricing strategy, and more. They're your sanity-check when sanity has left the building.
Making a CAB
Your CAB should be a proportional segment of the people you sell to and who use your product; they should give a variety of perspectives to cover 90% of your audience. In a larger business, you should consider multiple customer advisory boards for different audience segments or product lines.
Keep the size manageable for your product marketer: 5-10 companies is enough to get a variety of views and easily managed by one person.
It's not only the customer
You need a product owner for your advisory board, but they shouldn't go solo. Do you have a particularly stubborn developer or sales rep? It becomes easier to get their buy-in on decisions after bringing them to customer meetings. Hearing customer feedback firsthand helps build empathy; as they hear the same challenges repeated across your customer base, they'll start to internalize the motivations that guide your users. It completely changes your decision making process.
As we've been building our product, our CAB has been focused on product development. We have a rolling set of goals for each meeting, we cover four components: ideas, mockups, prototypes, and production tests.
We move through this process in an 8 week cycle: each CAB meeting starts with the customer testing our latest production release; then we get them to try out new prototypes with their data; we discuss mockups; then talk about ideas we're only starting to explore. By the next meeting, our ideas have moved into mockups, mockups moved into prototypes, prototypes onto production.
The customer sees the full lifecycle of the product, and we've gotten their input every step of the way. We also spend some time in our meetings to test out marketing collateral, pricing, and contracts. People love to give feedback and if they can see that it's making an impact, they're more likely to keep participating.
Get it on the calendar
We do biweekly meetings, this is great for two reasons: this follows an agile development model (which works very well for your marketing team, too). If you can't deliver on this, try monthly. The important thing is to get this on the calendar. It's a lot easier to reschedule an existing meeting than to book a new one.
Keep your meetings close together
We have Customer Day, it's one day every two weeks that consolidates our CAB meetings. For our local customers, we visit their offices. For non-locals, we hop on a conference call.
If you have seven members of your advisory board, try to keep all seven meetings in one day. This gives you one deadline to work towards every two weeks, and doesn't cause a bunch of tiny disruptions in your schedule.
Your CAB meetings will start to shape your development workflow. This keeps your team focused – you always have a customer deliverable, so you're always in a build-test loop, while still working towards your larger strategic vision.
Pay it forward
You're going to have customers that ask for smart things and ridiculous things, it's human nature. When you hear the ridiculous things, run them by your next set of customers for validation.
"Acme Co. mentioned they'd love to see this feature, would that be helpful for you?"
If it's a niche feature, set it aside. If it proves to be of value, you may have struck gold. You'll only know which one it is by asking customers.
A faster horse whisperer
Okay, so how do you get started? Identify your internal goals: scope, frequency, and your ability to execute. Who's going to manage your CAB? Who's going to be involved? Can you meet all your obligations?
Next, identify your ideal CAB members. Don't worry too much about the asking part. Your account managers might cry "They're not happy with us" or "We're asking too much of them lately." but a CAB an excellent way to build good-will with your customers. People love to get involved and it can smooth out other hiccups in your relationship if they feel you're being more transparent.
Keep the legal simple
You shouldn't need 18-page agreements for this. We used a one-page Memorandum of Understanding (but ask your legal team what you should do). You'll want to cover:
- Who's involved?
- What are your obligations?
- What are your customer's obligations?
- What does your customer get out of it (a discount, free support, love and adoration)?
- When do you start and when do you end?
- How frequently do you meet and for how long each time?
We had no product when we started. We ran our CAB for 3 months, with a requirement for one biweekly meeting. For participating our customer's received a free account and support for the duration of the CAB and a discount on their first year license fees.
How did we do?
In our first three-month customer advisory board, we were able to build our base platform, test integrations with live data, prioritize our roadmap, refine our messaging, pricing, and more. Most importantly, we built trust with our customers. While we're still in an early beta, we've converted almost everyone into a paying customer and they're participating in our content marketing efforts.
We avoided wasting our time on efforts customers wouldn't find useful. It feels like building something people find genuinely needed, which is immensely motivating.
We did this by listening, shipping, and being transparent. The customer advisory board was a hit, and we're glad to say they'll all be back for round two in September.
We're adding a few more slots for this one, so if you'd like to be part of FunnelCake's customer advisory board, give me a shout. Otherwise, sign up for our newsletter below where we'll share the best B2B marketing advice from around the web.