Customer Advisory Boards – Hints by Expert Mike Gospe

In today’s overcrowded market environment, success can be hard to achieve. A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) can offer you valuable support. This tool helps your company focusings its efforts to the problems your customers are facing.

With a CAB you can use the customers‘ voice – including their experiences and ideas – to develop competitive Solutions, that deliver a real business value. Additionally, the relationships to important customers can be strenghtened.

Customer Advisory Board - A crisp overview

Table of Contents

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

A CAB is a business-level focus group – a sounding board for your CEO and executive team to test ideas and preview business plans. This representative group of customers (ideally 8 – 12) meets once or twice a year to discuss trends and drivers affecting their business and offer advice on your company’s direction. These facilitated meetings are a great way to validate that your company vision and product direction is in sync with your customers’ evolving needs and business plans.

What you have to keep in mind to achieve the best results out of your CAB

The CAB is an important part of any business plan and is an excellent source of qualitative market research. Properly run CABs are different from every other type of customer event. Here are a few tips on how to make yours successful.

Invite only your most “strategic” customers to participate

An advisory board is made up of your most “strategic” customers – but the word “strategic” can be open to interpretation. Most often, companies think about inviting a representative from those customers who provide them with the most revenue. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if we broaden the scope of the word “strategic” you might find some hidden gems. For example, include smaller customers who are growing faster than average, or customers who are doing something unique with your products. Mix it up a bit. You’ll learn a lot from the customers sharing stories with each other. But be selective. Attendance to your CAB is not an entitlement to be handed out by a sales rep.

Don’t treat the CAB as a sales event

Often times, sales management will want to treat the CAB as a sales event. Do not let this happen. There are other formats and events for sales reps to be directly involved with their customers, demo products, and negotiate deals. The CAB is a business-level focus group designed to discuss and debate strategies. In this forum, they provide honest and direct insight and feedback on industry trends, business drivers, customer issues, and market opportunities. It is not a “customer appreciation event”. Treating the CAB as a thinly veiled sales event to a captive audience will be viewed as an unwelcome use of their time. They will not return to the next CAB meeting.

Set the right Agenda

“Death by PowerPoint” is not allowed! The agenda should not be one long product update session. So, begin with the end in mind:

  • What vital information do you want to learn during the CAB meeting?
  • What do your customers want to learn from you and from each other?

Interview your customers ahead of time to have them help you shape your agenda. And think about how you plan to use the information you collect. The CAB agenda is focused around the questions you want to ask. Be focused. Many times, companies try to force too much information into the CAB agenda. The best CAB sessions are made up of 80% facilitated discussion between the customers, with the executive team politely listening. Remember, you’re there to listen.

Invest in a facilitator

Customers often complain that CAB sessions hosted by a company executive are highly biased. They overtly drive the customers to a seemingly apparent conclusion. Using a facilitator can help create an unbiased atmosphere and a safe environment for customers to voice their views and experiences. But don’t confuse the role of facilitator with the role of CAB sponsor or subject-matter expert. A good facilitator is your partner. While they are not content experts like you, they should be familiar with your industry and your customers. More than just ensuring the meeting starts and stops on time, they guide the conversation so that every customer is able to speak and that no one customer dominates the discussion. Let them guide the discussion so you can sit back and listen.

Important: A facilitator is no expert in your field, but should be familiar with your business, your branch and your customers.

Be prepared to act on the information you collect

Although the CAB is an input and feedback session, not a decision-making body, customers will be eager to know what actions you will take based on the discussion. It is therefore imperative those executives set an agenda that is sincere and that they are willing to entertain multiple points of view. The basic research rule applies: Don’t research something that you’re not willing to change. And be prepared to update CAB members on your progress at the next meeting.

Starting a CAB – it’s about the right targets

To hold a successful CAB meeting, you should plan thoroughly, to ask the right customers the right questions. There are several targets from which you should choose one or more for your meeting. Is it the first CAB meeting of your company, you should concentrate on he following two targets:
  • Gain a better understanding of the trends, drivers, and priorities shaping your customers’ businesses, and to explore how your company can become a more valuable partner in light of these influences.
  • Validate your company’s value proposition and strategic direction, ensuring your business is in sync with your customers’ needs and expectations.

Do you and your company have more experience with Customer Advisory Boards, you can focus on the following two targets:
  • Review, assess, or brainstorm product direction and opportunities, improving solutions, interaction, and customer satisfaction.
  • Collaborate on shared business issues, thereby strengthening the relationship between your executives and these customer decision makers, and fostering peer-to-peer networking opportunities between your customers.

Important: Your CAB requires a strategic investment in time, money, and thought. If you are running to execute a CAB because it is on your companies “to do” list, then you may be missing the finer points in what you want to achieve. The objective(s) you chose will lay the ground work for who you should invite, what the agenda should look like, and what specific facilitation tools/style you want to apply. There are different business outcomes for each of the above objectives.

The right Team for you Customer Advisory Board

Besides the customers themselves there are internal stakeholders who are also important for a successful CAB. The following list shows you the roles that you require:

  • CAB Sponsor – a member of the CEOs staff who is tasked with the CAB. This is often the CMO or VP of Marketing. However, it may also be a VP of  products, strategy, customer success, or even sales depending on who has the passion, skill set, and time to sponsor the CAB as a cross-functional initiative. (Remember, it is not a “marketing event”! CABs have more to do with market research and branding than they do with any tradeshow or user group meeting.) The CAB Sponsor is the ultimate arbiter and decision maker.
  • CAB Manager – usually a director who is responsible for doing the leg work behind the scenes
  • Logistics Manager – usually an event coordinator or an operations manager.
  • Stakeholders – CEO, VP of products, VP of sales, VP of customer success, perhaps others.

Four tips for internal work and communication

The following tips will help you achieve a suitable orientation fort he CAB inside your company:

  • Formal internal interaction: Do “PR” (public relations) to promote your CAB internally. Both the CAB Sponsor and CAB Manager need to become visible cheerleaders.
  • Customer contact: Document each and every customer conversation. Capturing verbatim perspectives can be powerful ammunition to support your business case.
  • Informal interaction: Don’t go it alone; rally a core team to help you interpret the information you’ve collected.
  • Ask for advice from your facilitator for navigating internal politics: Learn from those of us who held leadership positions prior to guiding CABs. We can guide you every step of the way.

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Inviting customers

So, to begin, it is helpful to actually talk to a few customers — but not just any customer. Ideally, you want to gather some perspective from a trusted customer who you think would be an ideal CAB member. Think of them as your CAB advocates. These are knowledgeable people with a solid reputation within their company.

Request a short interview to test your vision for the value a CAB could bring them and you.

Customers for the actual CAB

I recommend building two invitation lists: a Tier 1 list containing your top 12 customer invitees and a Tier 2 list containing another dozen of people should your Tier 1 members not all be interested or available. The ideal CAB size contains 12 customers. You want people who are all peers and share similar responsibilities. Managing the invitation process carefully is crucial.

You shouldn’t invite the customers who are „easy to get“ because there is already a relationship with them. Instead, invite the customers, who are actual helpful. That are most likely members oft he executive Level, the „C-Suite“. But how do you invite senior executives you don’t yet know? For this answer, see my video:

Why your customers want to attend your Customer Advisory Board?

There are threee primary reasons why your customers have interest in attending your CAB – regardless of your business or the size of your company.

  • Your customers enjoy networking with peers. They value the opportunity to discuss topics from their branch with colleagues.
  • They want to understand your vision. Your customers like to influence your product roadmap and the direction of your company.
  • You are sincerely interested in what your customers have to say

You can find more on this topic in my following video:

Can I invite some obvious competitors?

Yes, but you must be very careful in setting proper expectations about the objective and purpose of your CAB. As long as the CAB is future-focused about issues they all care about, and on how you can help them achieve or accelerate their own success, you should be safe. Of course, there may be situation where you absolutely do not want certain competitors in the room with each other. Bottom line: the world is a small place. Chances are quite good that your CAB members may already know each other (personally, or by reputation).

The right order with a CAB

To set up a well thought-out Customer Advisory Board, you should take the steps in the right order:

  • Setting clear objectives – as mentioned above, the targets are your ground work. Only after having them clear you should think about the guest list.
  • Determining a theme and your “big question” – Think of a „superior“ question, that must be answered by the CAB. For example, that can be „For us to (continue to) be a leader in our industry AND be relevant 3 years from now, what do we need to do?“. Of course you can’t ask this question directly to your customers. Instead, you should think of „CAB-friendly questions“ that actually can be answered by your customers.
  • Inviting customers – Now ist he time, to acquire the customers. Follow the procedure from the previous section.
  • Crafting the agenda – You can find some tips and an example agenda here.
  • Building your content – The content you will need may include more than slides. You may want to consider if any prep work is needed for the customers to review prior to the meeting. Some of my clients put together a pre-reading packet. Some go further to produce a short survey for the CAB members to use with their own teams so they can represent their larger departments more effectively. And lastly, you’ll want to put together a Welcome Kit that contains a letter from your CEO, the agenda, biographies of all attendees, and other tidbits.

Documentation is everything with Customer Advisory Boards

Hastily thrown together CAB meetings produce lackluster results and can annoy customers to the point where they won’t return. CABs require an investment in time, patience, and budget to get the objectives, agendas, and membership mix just right. To do that, you need to document your business case beyond any hallway conversations or random emails.
Documenting your business case formally makes it real. It will also make it easy to grow and continue. When a CAB plan is undocumented, it becomes tribal lore. And when that person leaves the company, the CAB dies. Document it. Share it. Champion it.

I recommend you build a short business case deck with the following outline:

  • CAB Objective(s) – why a CAB initiative makes sense for us now (if it’s new), or why we need to re-envision our CAB for the future (if it has become stagnant or you have change in leadership)
  • Risks & rewards – identify the rewards you will achieve; identify the risks if you delay or fail in your CAB efforts
  • Customer sentiment – Initial customer perspective (from the interviews conducted prior tot he CAB meeting)
  • Definitions – What is a CAB, exactly? And, define the business outcomes you expect to achieve
  • Linkages to other voice-of-the-market activities – show where the CAB fits in the VOC model
  • Roles & responsibilities – identify the internal team
  • Requirements for success – indicate the resources that will be required for success (timing, budget)
  • Ask for their agreement – be explicit, “Do we have the green light to proceed?”

Case Studies: Customer Advisory Boards in German Companies

CABs are also used by some oft he Companies in Germany. One example is the munich based enterprise Personio, that uses a CAB with customers from the field of Human Resources since Personio offers software for HR management.

The company Seeburger, which offers a business integratio suite, also uses a Customer Advisory Board.

A sligtly different kind of CAB is used by the Berlin S-Bahn. Their Customer Advisory Council consists of 25 members of all ages and communities. They act as a „link between customer and companies“ in order to sustain the „long-term goal of increasing customer satisfaction“.

Mike Gospe
Mike Gospe

About Me

I bring executive leaders together with their best customers and partners to design and execute a shared vision for success.

Over the past 30 years I’ve developed and honed new models for in-person and virtual Customer Advisory Board (CAB) and Partner Advisory Board (PAB) programs, as well as CEO staff alignment workshops, and go-to-market strategic planning sessions.


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