Why aren’t you running a customer advisory council?  A customer advisory board or council is a great way to gain market insight, attain feedback on strategy and direction as well as build deep
relationships with key customers.  Here are some tips I wish someone had shared with me before I ran my first one:

1.  Pick your customers wisely – Go as senior as you can.  You want folks that are thinking strategically.  Get members that are at the same level.  They are as interested in networking with each other as they are in meeting with you.  Only have a couple of customers so far?  Work your network to get non-customers in the room.  Don’t be afraid to ask board members and investors to help you get advisers.
2.  Don’t cheap out on hotels and food – Do you want to spend a couple of nights in the Holiday Inn eating burgers?  Your customers are important and no, they don’t want fries with that.
3.  Limit the number of customers in the room to about a dozen (and execs from your company to half as many) – A customer advisory
council meeting should be an interactive session.  That’s hard to do with too many people in the room.  The fewer attendees from your company, the more likely customers will dominate the conversation.  This is a good thing.
4.  Use an outside moderator – A moderator can more easily control the room if things get off-topic and experienced moderators can draw out quiet participants to ensure the conversation isn’t monopolized by your more outspoken advisers.  You don’t want your CEO to have to tell his/her best customer to shush up.
5.  Plan months in advance – Does your executive team agree on everything?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  There will be arguments over the agenda so leave yourself some time to get consensus around what different groups hope to get out of the meeting.  Also, leave time to work out logistical details.  How will the customers get to and from the meeting?  How will you arrange the room to maximize interaction (can you get the tables in a U shape?).  There is more to plan than you think.
6.  Get customer feedback on the agenda – Make sure you are covering the topics your customers are looking to hear too.
7.  Keep key executives in the room for the entire meeting – If you really want to convince customers you are listening to them then stay in the meeting and listen.  Having your CEO attend for the entire meeting will show your customers that their advice is important.
8.  Make sure that everyone (including the customers) understands their role – Customers should be reminded to take off their “customer” hats and put on their “adviser” hats.  This isn’t a complaints session, advisers are expected to offer advise and suggestions.  Offer to have execs discuss customer-specific issues at a separate time.
9.  Listen, don’t pitch (this is NOT a sales meeting) – Keep your sales folks out of the room (except perhaps your sales executive).  For each agenda item plan to spend about 25% of the time talking and then leave the rest of the time open for discussion.  PowerPoint, if used at all, should consist of only a few slides per agenda item.
10.  Be prepared to act on the advice – Finally, show that you hear and respect the advice you are given.  Take actions, review them at the end of the meeting and then begin the next customer advisory council meeting with a review of what actions have been taken and the results.  If any customer specific issues are raised, capture them and ensure that they are followed up on immediately.

    Customer advisory councils are also a lot of fun.  How often do you and your execs get to meet with customers without trying to sell them something?  It’s a chance for everyone to learn more about the people behind the checkbooks.

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