Go ahead… disrupt your business, ask your customers to help!

It should come as no surprise that when businesses stop listening to their customers, they lose focus, make wrong decisions, and ultimately fail. Occasionally companies discover the gap and make timely course corrections, but often they forge ahead blindly and only in reflection realize the disconnect. In most cases, failure was not an unwillingness to listen, but a gap between intentions and reality; thinking they knew what customers wanted, but not having channels in place for intimate, honest conversations.
With digital technology disrupting businesses at an unprecedented rate, being customer centric today requires not only emotionally satisfying experiences, but on-going dialogue to stay ahead of shifts in needs, preferences and tastes. For B2C companies this means investing in digital market research, social media listening and data mining. For B2B companies, especially those with large strategic clients, customer advisory boards are the critical forum.

I manage a customer advisory board and I’ve learned that it’s easy to make wrong assumptions about future demand using traditional account practices. In theory, large account management models seek to achieve trusted, strategic relationships that maximize revenue retention and upselling. In practice, most account managers are too deep in a cadence of action/reaction activities, and overestimate the depth of their relationships. Even with the best intentions, account managers lack both the forum and time to probe their clients, and even less to educate their own executives.

Advisory boards overcome account management silos by connecting clients directly to the executive team, with sufficient time and in an appropriate forum to reflect on and mine the critical insights needed to form strategy. Ironically, at a minimum they achieve account management goals for revenue retention and upselling, delivering an automatic ROI. But the big payoff comes from the deeper understanding of client needs that enable better decision making.

An “aha” moment for me occurred in my first board meeting, when one member started using the pronoun “we”, and was referring to the collective interests of all company stakeholders, rather than his company or his fellow board members. Other board members echoed the sentiment, and it was clear we’d passed an inflection point and now had a team fully invested in the future success of the company. Today I believe getting to “we” might be one of the most important metrics in customer advisory board management.

Using customer advisory boards to help drive strategy takes effort. Getting to “we” is a good start, as is designing and leading conversations that are 80% board members and 20% company executives, with properly formulated options for decision making. It’s also a balancing act, as you need to provide sufficient information to create intimacy and trust, without getting too deep that the board shifts from strategic to tactical and executives become reactionary. The board can’t and shouldn’t know everything.

For companies that haven’t yet formed customer advisory boards, an effective way to start is to work with subject matter experts. A firm I recommend is Ignite Advisory Group, (www.igniteag.com). They specialize purely in customer advisory boards, that’s all they do. Partner Gavin Nathan was instrumental in getting me started in the field and is an excellent resource. Change is inevitable, and sometimes you must disrupt your own business to remain relevant. If you’re in the B2B space, I recommend you establish a customer advisory board!

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