Do You Know What Your Customers Really Think?

We in the Internet industry have infectious enthusiasm for our businesses, and it’s easy to get caught up in driving toward the next goal. Being so intent on where we’re going can make it difficult to step back and see ourselves as our customers do and see the changes our customers need us to make.

One way to make sure do this is to hold frequent meetings with your best customers so they can tell you how to improve your business. Customer user groups are well-known for their role in garnering customer knowledge about how to improve products, as well as other aspects of a company. Today, the speed of the Internet industry makes this technique an especially valuable way to quickly research how to keep your company on track.

Frequently, good customers will take the time to tell us how to improve products. But customers can also help us make better decisions when we include them in the planning process.

It can be very time-consuming to contact a group of customers and have in-depth conversations with each individual. A great way to quickly learn from customers is to have a customer advisory board (CAB) a small group of valued and trusted customers who meet periodically.

Some companies have very informal advisory boards that can be pulled together with an email to the group asking a single question. Other companies use a formal structure for advisory boards, with election of officers and procedures for voting on recommendations and communicating with the vendor. Whether it’s formal or informal, customers who make frequent purchases are great to have on a customer advisory board because they are knowledgeable about the industry and have an affinity for your products.

Putting together an informal customer board can be as simple as just sending an email to selected customers asking for their advice. For instance, I received an email recently from a marketing executive who periodically asks a small group of people familiar with his products for specific advice. It takes only a few minutes for each of us to answer a question or rank the options he provides, so it’s easy to respond. If we weren’t familiar with his products, or if he asked us to complete a detailed questionnaire, I’m sure he wouldn’t receive an average of 90 percent participation.

And, of course, advisory boards don’t always have to be groups of customers. I periodically invite marketing executives in Los Angeles to gather for informal lunches so they can meet each other and share marketing tips.

Some companies have formal advisory boards that have officers, regular meetings, and a formal communications process to exchange information with the company. For instance, PeopleSoft combines an advisory board meeting with an annual conference, and has different officers each year.

Adobe, the creator of the PostScript printer language, has wanted its PDF technology to be at the core of the commercial printing industry and is using an advisory board to help accomplish its goal.

Three types of topics that can be covered at customer advisory board meetings are:

  • Marketing advertising concepts, distribution channels, seasonal promotions, new uses for existing products, new industries that can use the company’s products, information about competitors

  • Product Priority of features to add, uses of products, integration with other products from the company and with products from other companies
  • Customer Service training materials, technical support

It’s important to keep advisory board meetings focused on a limited number of topics so the group has sufficient time to explore the agenda items in depth. For example, the types of questions asked of an advisory board could include:

  • Which new product features being considered should be implemented first?

  • Is the upcoming version of the company’s web site easier to use than the current site?
  • Does a magazine ad accurately express the company’s personality and clearly express benefits?
  • Which industry conferences are target companies most likely to attend and why?

By tying membership in the advisory board to factors other than current sales, it’s possible to target those likely to be highly profitable customers by including them in your advisory board. In addition, new customers with significant sales potential can help a company learn more about how prospects gather information and make decisions. Existing customers who already make large purchases are better able to help with product and customer service issues.

Why do customers join advisory boards? There are several reasons, but the most common one is that they can have early influence on the planning process for products they use and depend upon. They appreciate being asked for their opinion about potential changes because it gives them a sense of ownership in the decision-making process. Other benefits include being able to network with peers at other companies, increasing their value to their employer.

At the same time, customers selected to be on an advisory board have an opportunity to learn about your plans before their competition does. This gives them more time to adjust their business to take advantage of the changes. And it means that both you and your customers can benefit from their participating on your customer advisory board.

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