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.

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