In the last post I talked about some reasons why you should run an advisory council.  Customer advisory councils are more work than they look.  Here are some tips on running a better customer advisory board that have worked for me.

1.  Pick members wisely – Ideally council members like your company enough to give you their time but aren’t going to spare you criticism when you need it.  Overly positive board members or ones that are just too quiet aren’t going to give you the feedback you need. Set a term for membership so that you can change members if you aren’t getting what you need.
2.  Limit customers in a meeting to a dozen (and execs from your company to half as many) – The 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).  In my experience we had to have about 20 to 30 council members to consistently get 12 to attend a face to face meeting.
3.  Use an outside moderator if you can – 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.  A 3rd party moderator also saves you from having to tell your best customer to shush up.
4.  Plan months in advance – In my experience, your team will argue over what should be on the agenda.  Leave enough planning time in advance to get consensus on what you want to get out of the meeting as well as customer feedback on the proposed agenda.  Overplan the 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?)?  Will members have special requirements for food?
5.  Key executives stay for the entire meeting – If you really want to convince customers you are listening to them then stay in the meeting and listen.  The CEO should attend for the entire meeting.
6.  Set the tone – 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 advice and suggestions.  Offer to have execs discuss customer-specific issues at a separate time.
7.  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 no more than 20% 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.
8.  Be prepared to act on the advice – Take actions, review them at the end of the meeting and then begin the next 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.
9. Ask for references, referrals, joint PR – Be prepared to shoot customer testimonal videos – not every customer will agree but try to shoot anyone you can.  Don’t be afraid to ask for case studies and come prepared with a list of joint PR and speaking opportunities that you want your customers to help you with.

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