Advisory boards are incredibly useful to get insight in a meaningful way from a relatively small group of people, who act as a proxy for your broader customer base/target market. When done right, they are of very strategic value, can create momentum, and provide you with a set of trusted advisors who will tell it to you straight. Having run a variety of advisory boards for companies over the last 20 years or so, I’ve distilled my learnings into 7 key points. Follow these and you’ll end up having a very successful Customer Advisory Board (CAB).
Secret #1: Make it Purpose-Built
A customer advisory board can serve many different purposes, so be thoughtful about what you want it to be before starting to recruit for it. For example, a technical, feature-oriented CAB is very different from one focused on strategic direction...and you would want a different profile of persons for each.
Start with the most important problem you need to solve:
- Do you need customer validation and feedback on your direction, strategic roadmap, and investments?
- Do you need help in identifying how best to sell to your target customer more successfully?
- Are you looking for product-specific feedback to help you prioritize your roadmap?
- Are you trying to figure out what integrations to build to round out your solution?
I would strongly suggest that your first advisory board (SPOILER ALERT: You may want to have several! See Secret #6 below.) be focused on how best to sell to your target buyer/customer.
For example, when I first started at Box to start the enterprise business, I pretty quickly determined that our ideal buyer was the CIO. Yet CIOs are hard to reach, typically use their peers to validate technology choices, and are tough customers. This was at the beginning of the Cloud Software era, and CIOs were very skeptical of the security of cloud technology. So I decided our first CAB (in this case, CIO Advisory Board) would be entirely composed of forward-thinking CIOs who would be early adopters of cloud. Not only could they guide our strategic direction for our product, but they could also serve as a proxy for all the other CIOs we were hoping to sell to.
Secret #2: Recruit the Right People (and the right number)
Much like I described above, you want to match the profile of the CAB members to the purpose of the CAB. Focus on people who will be open-minded and who will be invested in you. Maybe most important, choose those who will give you honest feedback. Too often, I see companies form a CAB purely of high-profile individuals, thinking if they’re associated with the company, it will by default attract other customers. I would argue that your first priority should not be about what the public thinks about your advisory board...it should go back to the North star – the purpose of the CAB, which is to help you and your peers solve some hard problems. It’s fine to recruit a few high-profile individuals, but prioritize those who will give you the best insights.
What’s the right number of people to have on your CAB? We all know it’s very hard to have meaningful dialog in a group of 20+ people. I think discussions are best when there are about 10-12 people, so limit your CAB membership to 15 people, knowing you won’t get all of them at every meeting.
Secret #3: Make it a win-win
Your advisory board members won’t just show up out of the goodness of their hearts...they have too much work to do. So make sure that they are getting as much value out of the CAB as you and your team are. How you do that depends on the profile of the members, and what will serve them best. But here are a few ideas and how I handled this with the Box CIO Advisory Board.
For the CIOs, there were two specific things that were valuable to them that we could provide:
- A look into the product roadmap and the ability to help us prioritize when features were released. These CIOs were relying on our products to serve their employee base, so knowing what was coming and being able to influence that was worth a lot. It was our job to balance their input with the demands of the overall customer base, but usually, the CIOs were an excellent proxy for what all companies would want as they more deeply adopted our products.
- The ability to network and problem-solve with each other. As I mentioned early on, CIOs are very peer-oriented. They trust each other more than they trust vendors or analysts, and they know they’ll get real, honest feedback on technology options. They are also dealing with common issues/challenges, so give them the time to benefit from one another (and you’ll learn a bunch in these conversations too!).
I always asked the members in advance of one of our meetings for their top priorities and challenges, then reserved at least an hour of discussion for one or more of these topics. I might have facilitated to a degree, but mostly that was time for them to talk and learn from each other.
Be thoughtful about what will work for your advisors. I would argue that you will get far more value from your CAB if they get value too. A win-win is just what it sounds like, and your members will be indebted to you for recognizing (and delivering!) what they want.
Secret #4: Make it a Strategic Priority
Too many people see CABs as a tactical move to “get something” from their customers. I think that’s completely backward. You need to treat this as a strategic initiative that has a top priority for you and your team members who will be part of the meetings. Your advisors will immediately sense that they and the CAB are not important if you are in and out of the meetings, your executives are not participating, you or your peers are on your phones or computers during discussions, etc. COMMIT to making this a valuable forum for yourself and your advisors, and you will reap the rewards.
This has implications for planning too. In order to prioritize the meetings, all people involved (the organizers, the advisors, the executives, etc.) need to be able to carve out time to be fully present. This means planning ahead. I always laid out my meeting dates for the CAB at least 2 months in advance, with an agenda published about a month in advance. If the agenda is compelling and you (over time) build trust with your CAB, your advisors will make time for you.
Secret #5: Make Them Believers
I’ve seen many companies set up advisory boards as a way to generate lead flow, primarily looking to advisors to make introductions to other companies in exchange for compensation of some kind (cash or equity or both). In my opinion, lead generation is the prime skill of your marketing team, and you’re better off directing that money to your marketing budget.
If you create the right advisory board, delivering mutual value and fostering meaningful discussion, your advisors will naturally become believers. They will have influenced the product to be the best it can be; they will have helped you identify how to align your efforts with market needs, and they will become your biggest advocates because they believe in you, the company, and the product. NOT because they’re being paid.
Secret #6: Consider Having Many Advisory Boards
While one CAB is plenty to manage and delivers a ton of value, you may want to have several as you get bigger, each having its own purpose (see Secret #1). By the end of my time at Box, we had about 10 advisory boards. I don’t suggest you have that many unless you have the people and energy to invest in them. In our case, they each served a unique purpose, gave us a unique set of insights, and were sponsored by a different executive within Box.
We had the CIO Advisory Board, managed by me, of course. The CIOs were, not surprisingly, from larger companies, which typically have an Enterprise buying pattern. But we also sold to a lot of small companies that bought quite differently. We found the uses of our products were different too. So we set up an SMB Advisory Board to help us with those questions/issues. This one was led by our head of SMB Sales.
In order to get better input on new capabilities we were developing, most of which had deep technical implications (e.g., customer-managed encryption keys), we formed a Product Advisory Board, staffed by the users and administrators of our products, and led by our head of product.
As mentioned earlier, the cloud at this time was still seen as a risky solution and potentially not as secure as on-premises options. We had a lot of objections to overcome with CISOs in particular, and really needed guidance on what kinds of information to share, how to overcome those objections, etc. So we formed a Security Advisory Board, led by our CISO.
And finally, as we matured, we were selling into several specific industries, each of which had unique use cases. While our product was horizontal in nature, the integrations varied from industry to industry, and the way we described how our products were used was very different. For example, drafting and aggregating all the content to produce a TV show or movie in the Media & Entertainment industry was vastly different than managing the blueprints and specs for the Engineering and Construction industry.
And it turns out that companies in those industries really wanted to learn from each other (just like the CIOs did). So we formed several separate Industry Advisory Boards, led by an industry specialist from our team who formerly worked in that industry.
Secret #7: Name an Executive Sponsor for each CAB
It’s really important that each CAB have an executive sponsor who will build the relationships, recruit the right members, drive the valuable dialog in each meeting, and build trust with the advisors. One person cannot do this for more than one advisory board, so be thoughtful about who that sponsor should be.
The role of the sponsor is to drive all aspects of the CAB (except logistics like scheduling the meetings, securing a meeting location, catering, etc.). This needs to be a very high priority for the sponsor, and a part of their roles and responsibilities. Ideally, you should have someone to drive all the CABs, working with the sponsors to ensure meetings are happening, are high quality, and are mutually beneficial to the company and the advisors, etc. With many CABs, it’s easy for them to get disjointed or vary in their quality and value. That was part of my job at Box, even though I was the sponsor for only one CAB.
Obviously, the more the purpose of the CAB aligns with the sponsor’s role and objectives, the more invested they will be, and the better the outcomes for all involved.
So there you have it – 7 secrets to creating a great Customer Advisory Board (or several!). Invest in, prioritize, and value your CAB, and the rewards will be invaluable.