Driving innovation with customer input
Dawn and I wrapped up 2017 in style in sunny San Diego attending the Inside 3D Printing conference. We caught up with old friends, met some cool new people and returned home inspired and excited for the future of the 3D printing industry.
In addition to learning about ever-cheaper, faster and better consumer 3D printers, laser metal deposition and women in 3D printing, we were turned on to an intriguing research tool being employed by innovative B2B technology companies: the customer advisory board.
Conference presenter, Inc. columnist and 3D printing aficionado Tracy Leigh Hazzard extolled the value of the customer advisory board in a recent article. More agile than in-depth market research while yielding more meaningful data than focus groups, the customer advisory board is paying dividends in the tech world.
So what is a customer advisory board?
While the marketing industry is notoriously guilty of coming up with new names for the same old stuff, the difference between customer advisory boards and focus groups is more than semantic. Both are groups of deliberately selected people invited to provide feedback to a company, but the similarities end there.
A customer advisory board (CAB) is a group of existing customers that meet regularly with your executive team in a structured session (facilitated by a third party partner) to provide input that will influence your strategic direction. A cursory search reveals a wealth of CAB specialists and thought leadership. If you have an existing relationship with a research or marketing firm, they may also be able to facilitate a CAB.
The prevailing thought is that companies can not effectively conduct their own CAB. In Hazzard's opinion, DIY is DOA. Without an objective third party facilitating, you'll suffer from being too close to the topic and your results will be inevitably skewed.
Here's an overview of what goes into running an effective customer advisory board:
No pay to play
While you may choose to cover lodging, transportation, wining and dining — customers are not paid to participate in a CAB. Your best customers will be motivated not by compensation, but by their desire to contribute to the innovation of your product. They will benefit in the long run from having had a seat at the table.
Look for ways to make these meetings more fruitful and less taxing to your customers. CABs can be facilitated at user conferences, trade shows or during the slower points of your industry's fiscal cycle. They're best conducted in-person, though some teleconferencing could work.
Strategy over features
The customer advisory board is not intended to assess product features or simply validate decisions you've already made. Rather, the CAB is a golden opportunity to engage valued clients as strategic partners, dive deeply into how your products might help or hinder them, and discover what new technology they're seeking.
Seek input, not decisions
Your CAB should be designed to solicit blue-sky input on the direction of your product development, marketing and sales strategies.
CABs are not about customers choosing between product A and product B, nor are they intended to yield decisions on features or new products. CABs are designed to collect first-hand insight that will influence your innovation on a holistic level.
Select a theme for the year
CABs can be held annually, biannually or quarterly, and it's useful to establish a theme for your fiscal year. The theme for your year can tie into your product development, marketing and sales strategies. A theme provides focus and direction, but it's important to keep it broad, inspirational and inclusive. For example: How innovative AgTech will improve farmers' lives in the coming decade, or How jewelers can use 3D printing to transform the industry.
More than data
Customer advisory boards have benefits beyond just the valuable customer feedback. When everything clicks, CABs can bring your internal departments more closely together and strengthen sales and marketing alignment.
In addition to strengthening internal alignment, customer advisory boards have a powerful side effect: building brand love. When your best customers know you value their input and use it to drive innovation, they become powerful brand advocates with a vested interest in your success.
A CAB is not a sales event
While your sales team should most definitely be involved, your customer advisory board is not a sales session. It is a unique opportunity for your sales team — along with your marketing, product and executive teams — to interact with customers in an open, honest, non-sales environment.
While your sales team will certainly come to the table with a strong understanding of your customers' loves, needs and pain points, the CAB provides a unique opportunity to gain new insight by way of a real-time discourse between customers and your entire executive team.
Your product development and marketing teams will undoubtedly benefit from this customer face time, too. The teams who typically have less direct interaction with customers tend to benefit the most from these sessions.
Stick to the agenda
While it's important to run your customer advisory board as an open exchange of ideas, sticking to an agenda will help prevent it from devolving into a complaint session. Ideally no less than two hours and no more than a half-day, your CAB agenda will likely cover the following:
- All parties introduce themselves and describe their roles
- Overview of current product lineup
- Overview of product development plans
- Open-ended conversation
- Session summary and next steps
Is a customer advisory board right for your brand?
The customer advisory board may be more or less helpful depending on where your company sits along the continua of customer engagement, product development and brand strategy.
If your brand positioning and unique selling proposition are not clearly articulated or there are serious customer satisfaction issues that you're not yet in a position to address, it's a better investment to focus on those first before convening a CAB.
For brands with a good cross section of happy customers and a dedication to inclusive innovation, the CAB is an idea that warrants consideration.
The foundation for a successful CAB includes:
- A representative group of happy customers willing to participate
- A trusted third party partner to facilitate
- Consensus among the executive team to explore this approach
- Willingness and ability to implement customer feedback in a meaningful and timely way
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
— (attributed to) Henry Ford
The innovator's challenge
Clearly, I'm a big fan of the customer advisory board — and while the term and format are new to me, the underlying principles are anything but. The CAB is built on time-tested branding practices: have meaningful, measured conversations with your customers, ask great questions, listen, and let that conversation inspire your product development, sales and marketing strategies.
I know the idea of customer input as a driver of innovation faces opposition within the walls of some tech companies. The above quote, attributed (but not definitively credited) to Henry Ford, sums up the challenge some have with soliciting customer input.
Contrarian opinions on the CAB invariably cite some form of the Ford perspective: how can the customer know what they want if we haven't invented it yet?
Customer advisory boards should not be seen as something that stifles the innovator's creativity — just the opposite. The CAB is not about customers telling you what they want — it's about having an open-ended conversation wherein they share what they love about your brand, and together you uncover any challenges they have that you may be able to solve.
A powerful addition
While customer advisory boards can pay big dividends, research strategies — like marketing strategies — are best comprised of a variety of appropriate touchpoints. There is a time and place for most research tactics. Customer interviews, online surveys, A/B testing, observational research and demographic research all have their place in the mix.
While customer advisory boards can be a valuable part of your research mix, no informal research can take the place of formal, scientific market research. When conditions demand and budgets support deep market research, a full-time, dedicated research partner is the way to go.
Look for a partner that not only has research chops, but also understands your industry. Finding the right research partner is similar to finding a marketing company. Before issuing an RFP, ask around and interview a few candidates. Our go-to research pros are the fine folks at Corona Insights.
Go get your CAB on!
Brands are in the hands of consumers, now more than ever. The most effective marketing is an ongoing, two-way conversation with your customers. While brands can't (and shouldn't) control the conversation, they can moderate it. The customer advisory board is a great way to make the most of your customer conversations, drive innovation and build brand love.
CABs utilize the collective aspect of focus groups, the real-time qualitative data of customer interviews and the big-picture thinking of annual strategic planning sessions.
The CAB may or may not change the trajectory of your product development, but it will undoubtedly improve it — and build powerful brand advocates in the process.
About Toolbox Creative:
Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it — converting tech talk into brand love and connecting tech companies with their customers.
We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technologies can change the world.
Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase their brand equity and grab market share.