Many organizations have committed to developing deeper intimacy with their most important clients by establishing customer advisory boards. The most compelling, worthwhile forms of engagement within this structure occur when board members and stakeholders from the sponsoring organization explore possibilities for helping one another realize their respective visions. They collaborate and innovate on what a shared future might offer. This article makes the case for supplementing the board meetings with a virtual community focused on collaborative innovation to improve the continuity of the dialogue and the formation of the ideas that arise.
Many of my clients support customer advisory boards. They back programs and host forums in order to formally engage a sample of their most important clients. Organizations launch boards for a number of reasons. They want to…
Build rapport with their clients which transcends the sales, support, and service mode that defines the day-to-day relationship between customer and vendor
Gain deeper insight from the clients about where they intend to grow their business.
Seek their clients’ advice on their own plans for growth.
Customer advisory boards, properly positioned and executed, serve as a powerful means by which organizations can innovate with their clients. For this reason many organizations have already committed to engaging with their most important accounts by this means. Yet, many boards convene once or twice a year, at most. In this chapter, I suggest ways organizations that have chosen this path can apply the latest approaches to building virtual communities for collaborative innovation to build greater, more seamless rapport with their board members.
The amount of work required to develop a customer advisory board astounds people unfamiliar with the practice. The sponsor and program team start by helping the organization come to a shared understanding on the following:
Who do we invite—and, as important—who do we not invite?
Why would the candidates participate, given the many demands on their time? What can they offer to the dialogue, in turn? (Tough questions to address when recruiting an executive advisory board.)
What is the nature of the client’s commitment to participate? What is our commitment to them?
What sort of venue and agenda makes sense, given how the budget and the clock constrain choices of time and place?
What does success look like six months into the program? Twelve months after launch?
The implementation phase offers no relief, as the program team finds matters both weighty and seemingly inconsequential monopolizing their time, including finalizing the agenda, coordinating travel schedules, and noting which board member’s spouse suffers from a shellfish allergy.
Success breeds success. The work multiplies as the organization extends its first board by region, by channel, and by market segment.
The overhead required to successfully manage a customer advisory board—particularly ones that span regions and segments—taxes the program team’s ability to close the loop with the clients on the critical issues they uncover once they convene. The program team devotes a lot of time and energy to ensure the participants arrive at the venue prepared to engage. One or two days later finds them happily exhausted on the plane home. They now confront a lengthy list of action items. The action items require triage and oversight. They range from the tactical “we would be crazy if we…” directives to the more strategic insights that demand careful consideration by the executive team. Who acts on which items?
Meanwhile, the advisory board members wonder what effect their dialogue and guidance will have within the vendor’s organization. The program team, for its part, must likewise attend to planning the next board meeting—perhaps with a different set of members who represent another segment or region of the organization’s client base. Creating these types of forums typically demand long lead times to reserve venues and dates on executive calendars. Figure I3-1 depicts the not so virtuous circle that can result.
In cases where the demands of managing the board jeopardize the very quality and continuity of engagement the organization aspires to enjoy with its members—or, in cases where the length of time between meetings plainly causes continuity to suffer, the program team can apply virtual communities to reform the virtuous circle.
How might this approach work? Let’s explore a simple scenario, using the flow in Figure I 3-1 as a guide.
First, consider that many of the strategically important questions that you would pose to your advisory board constitute a de facto request to innovate together. Exploring the following questions, for example, demands that the board and you recast long-standing obstacles and behaviors in new ways.
What critical business challenges do you face over the next couple years (where our organization might be able to provide value)?
How might we improve our performance relative to the parameters to which you assign the highest importance?
What opportunities are we not pursuing with your organization which you would challenge us to pursue?
Second, consider that, whereas getting one client executive from point A to the board meeting can cost a lot of money, the incremental cost of inviting one more person to the virtual community is minimal by comparison. The organization may at times value the perspective not only of the executive invited to participate on the board, but also their colleagues and subordinates. For example, if your board member serves as their organization’s CIO, then they (and you) may also value their CMO counterpart’s perspective when the question relates to challenges they face in building their brand in new regions. Deploying a virtual community can extend the organization’s reach to this end (figure I3-2).
Third, consider the possibilities associated with linking the conversational thread that you started in the virtual community during the planning phases for the board meeting (i.e., “What are the critical questions?”) with the opportunities you now have to fully explore them as a group, on site at an attractive venue. Starting early and enabling the conversation around the critical questions to persist up until the time you engage on them helps you avoid committing the cardinal sins of advisory board engagement: asking questions for which you have already decided the answer (i.e., the sin of post facto validation) and asking questions that fall on the periphery of the central themes that define your strategic plan (i.e., the sin of irrelevance).
Likewise, you can continue the conversation immediately following the board meeting through the virtual community, weaving in the perspectives that the group gained during their time together. This approach effectively solves the problem advisory groups face in hosting compelling board meetings, but then gliding into a period of relative silence and, for the board members, relative ambiguity around what happens next.
The virtual community also serves as a commons where subordinates and designates from both the client and vendor can pursue ideas the board identified as critical to their collective future, per figure I3-2.
In closing, supplementing the physical, or in-person, meetings that serve as the focal point of most customer advisory boards with a virtual community centered on collaborative innovation offers the benefits of continuity and reach: continuity in the dialogue before, during, and after the meetings; and, reach in terms of being able to involve the board member’s counterparts in particular topics as the need arises (figure I3-3).
Further, centering the overall engagement on developing a shared future together through collaborative innovation brings clarity to the purpose of the board, along with the supporting agenda for the venue and the threads for the virtual counterpart. Seeking advice—ostensibly the purpose of advisory boards—requires the organization to form and to reach a shared understanding on the critical questions. Ideas flow from there.
People interested in learning more about why and when forming customer advisory boards make sense will enjoy reading The B2B Executive Playbook by Sean Geehan. I served as a reviewer and can attest to the quality of Sean’s insights.
Article first appeared in Innovation Architecture Book 1: A New Blueprint for Engaging People Through Collaborative Innovation, available in e-book format on Amazon and Apple.