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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Why I Mentor…

The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.

Marcus Aurelius

How frequently should you change jobs? Google that one and get equal results preaching career advancing benefits of job hopping, or interview advice on how to explain your lack of loyalty. What a Goldilocks dilemma, too little or too much?

Ahh… but were it so simple! In fact, the choice is increasingly outside worker control. Technology is disrupting the employment market and for good or bad, the days of long-term, much less lifetime employment are gone. It can be mind-numbing to analyze employment data (I’ve tried!), but there are clear trends pointing to more job changes and contingent employment relationships throughout a career.

As a lifelong talent scout I’ve sat through thousands of interviews, hiring individuals for a broad range of management functions. I’ve seen more than my share of people who’ve come from jobs where the business model or industry changed, and increasingly people with shorter job durations driven by multiple rounds of business consolidation. These individuals are experiencing personal development gaps, and I believe a lack of mentorship, whether formal or informal, is to blame.

That formal mentoring is slipping has been academically documented. Practiced heavily in professional service firms with a tradition of lifetime employment, formal mentoring has often been a highly-organized affair. Yet a 2008 study of such firms by Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong and colleagues discovered an emerging generational divide. Extensive employee surveys revealed that people over the age of 40 could name mentors, but few under that age could do so. Bottom line pressures and professional work loads had eroded the practice of mentorship of younger associates.

A decline in informal mentoring is potentially more ominous. Informal, or mentoring by choice, is what most people experience in their careers. It arises from individual choice and spontaneity in an environment that allows such relationships to flourish. Time and organizational health are key nourishing ingredients because workers need to have a sense of psychological safety with their colleagues and potential mentors. Frequent reorganizations, consolidations, mergers, etc. eat away at psychological safety and promote dysfunctional levels of self-centrism. Google discovered elements of this in their quest to build perfect teams, a 3-year study on the subject concluding psychological safety was the key ingredient for superior teamwork.

Few would argue that mentorship isn’t valuable and necessary. It’s impossible to get through life without guidance, and successful people often thank the efforts of many mentors. The 2nd century roman emperor Marcus Aurelius recognized no fewer than 17 in his “Meditations”, writings considered to be among the greatest works of philosophy. His self-inventory of skills learned from each mentor has been an inspiration to generations of world leaders.

Supply and demand for mentors is high, but in a fragmented workforce the market for matching mentors to protégés is inefficient. Thankfully, innovative solutions are filling the void, one of which is a professional digital platform called Everwise. (www.geteverwise.com). A small company with a noble ambition, Everwise uses clever algorithms to match protégés with mentors, while also providing a learning platform full of useful and practical curated content. Companies buy the subscription based service and make it available for their employees, and Everwise matches the employees with mentors, typically for an initial 6-month assignment.

I’m an Everwise mentor and like my colleagues, I work on a volunteer basis. A few years back I was intrigued enough to click through a display ad on LinkedIn. I completed a detailed survey and application, and a month later commenced my first assignment. I’m now on my third assignment and am loving the challenge and the opportunity to contribute.

Mentoring is mutually beneficial, you learn as much as you give. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to experience a diversity of jobs all with the same employer, and can count numerous mentors who helped me at key stages. I encourage my colleagues to join me in mentoring. Outside of career oriented programs like Everwise, you can find a host of volunteer assignments including early stage academic and even more for disadvantaged youth. Sign up, you’ll be glad you did!