What is a customer advisory board?

Broadly speaking, a customer advisory board (or CAB, also called a customer advisory council, client advisory board or sometimes a product advisory board) is a group of existing customers who are brought together on a regular basis to advise the company on their experience as customers, their changing priorities and strategic goals. Within SaaS, customer advisory boards are used to interact directly with customers to understand their experience with the SaaS product, providing feedback that can inform the product roadmap and other strategic decisions. In this post, we’ll discuss the benefits of customer advisory boards, when you should form your first CAB, and 8 best practices that you should follow to get the most from your CAB.


Why do you need a customer advisory board?

Customer advisory boards provide a direct and personal link to a representative group of your customers. At a high level, a well-run customer advisory board can help you understand what your customers care most about, so that you can align your priorities with theirs. A customer advisory board can also provide guidance around how to position and talk about your solution, and how it aligns to you customers’ goals. As you face important strategic decisions around what direction your company should go in, customer advisory boards can provide valuable input.

Customer advisory boards can also help with more specific feedback around your product roadmap. They can help you decide what product areas to prioritize and focus on, as well as providing specific feedback that will help you iterate and improve features before you release them to your full customer base.

Customer advisory boards can help strengthen relationships with your most important customers. Many customers really appreciate being a part of a customer advisory board. Their participation makes them feel deeply valued and increases their loyalty to your business. This increased loyalty makes customer advisory board members more likely to become ambassadors for your brand, strengthening your reputation, offering to serve as references for potential new customers and even referring business. Because of their deep involvement, they’re far less likely to churn and are more likely to buy into your higher tiered offerings. All of which increases revenue growth and decreases churn.


When should you form your customer advisory board?

The short answer is, probably earlier than you might think. You should form your first customer advisory board before you release your product into the market. So even if your first customer advisory board isn’t comprised of actual paying customers, it’s never too early to get feedback from those who represent the types of customers that you’re targeting. In addition to providing valuable early input on your minimum viable product, they can serve as advocates who can provide you with introductions and referrals to your first paying customers. Over time, as your business grows, you may change the makeup of your customer advisory board or form additional customer advisory boards.


8 best practices for running an effective Customer Advisory Board

Even if the benefits of a customer advisory board are clear, it can be challenging to figure out how to manage the process. Here are 8 best practices that you can use to get your up and running with a high impact customer advisory board.


1. Set CAB goals 

While there are many ways that a Customer Advisory Board can benefit your product, you should be explicit about what you want to accomplish, so that you focus on the right things. It’s important to first align across your different teams on the goals of the CAB. For example, maybe you want to understand the unique goals and pain points of your highest paying customers, and how these differ from the rest of your customer base. Once you set these high level goals and objectives, you’ll have a better understanding of what types of customers you want to invite to your CAB.


2. Identify CAB cohorts and invite customers

Depending on your goals, you may want to form more than one Customer Advisory Board. You might choose to form different CABs for different market segments, such as scale-up startups, mid-market, and enterprise customers. Another approach would be to form different CAB cohorts based on topical areas, such as product value, messaging or integrations. Once you know what CAB cohorts you want to form, you can begin inviting customers. Make sure to be clear about your objectives for the Customer Advisory Board. And most importantly, make sure that the customer that you invite understand the value that they will get from participating.


3. Create an agenda for your CAB meeting

Building on the goals identified above, develop a focused agenda for your customer advisory board sessions. The purpose of the agenda is to provide structure for your sessions and to ensure that you accomplish your goals, not to make the session feel rigid and scripted. You want to hear your customers talk about their pain, objectives and your product in their own words. That said, here are some example areas that your agenda might include:

  • Individual introductions
  • Their companies’ goals, particularly as they relate to use of your product
  • Day to day pain and challenges of their role
  • Their view of the competition vis a vis your product
  • Feedback on your product roadmap and potential new features
  • Prioritization of the above features
  • Other product and feature enhancements not covered in the roadmap
  • Challenges that they face in using your product

4. Run in-person CAB sessions 

Yes, you can do some of this virtually (especially during these strange times of quarantine), but there’s no substitute for face to face sessions. The stronger relationships that you build in those face to face sessions will make subsequent virtual sessions more effective.

For your in-person Customer Advisory Board sessions, assign a clear owner on your team who makes sure that the agenda is tight and the day is well structured. Keep things on schedule and capture important insights. Do it in a way that everyone can see (whiteboard, storyboard), so that you can be sure that everyone’s input was correctly captured. Ask engaging followup questions and make sure that everyone participates. If you spent most of your session was spent talking at your customers, with little participation from them, you won’t learn much and your customers will probably feel that your time was wasted. So above all else, make sure that you really engage your customers.


5. Ask the right questions

So with that in mind, what are some of the questions that will really engage your customers? Your questions should be built around your goals and agenda. Make them open ended at first, and use follow up questions to get more specific. Here are some examples:

  • What are your goals this year?
  • How we can help you achieve those goals?
  • How do you like to learn about product updates?
  • Do you feel well equipped to succeed on our platform?
  • What new features or capabilities would you like to see?
  • What other tools do you use? How could they better integrate? Are there some that you would like to see combined?
  • How are we doing in supporting you?
  • Where are the gaps in our support? Where do you need more help?
  • What doesn’t work as well as it should?


6. Use technology to engage your VIP users

While in-persons sessions are a widely used approach for customer advisory boards, why limit yourself to engaging with your Customer Advisory Board a few times a year? You can use technology to engage your CAB or VIP users by creating customer councils right in your product experience. Segment your users into different cohorts, for example one or more CAB groups, high paying customers, new customers etc. You can then target these cohorts right in your app to deliver previews of new features and gauge responses, send surveys and more.

7. Take action on feedback

Using the approaches outlined above, you should now have a wealth of feedback from your Customer Advisory Board. And this feedback is incredibly powerful, but only if you do something about it! To make the most of the feedback that you collect through your Customer Advisory Board, as well as other sources and channels, you need an effective feedback management process

There’s a lot more to feedback management than we can over in this post, but a good system will manage the entire process from feedback collection, to validation and prioritization of feedback, to communicating and educating your customers about the product improvements that you’ve made.


8. Announce product updates to your customers

Turning your feedback into real product improvements not only makes your product stronger, it strengthens your relationship with your Customer Advisory Board, as well as the rest of your customer base. 

To make sure that your customers know that you’ve acted on their feedback, use product announcements to thank those customers for their input. And leverage tools like feature fit index to engage with your customers once those new features are released. Feature fit index will quickly help you understand whether your latest product improvement hit the mark, or if more iterations are needed to deliver real value to your customers.

Customers who believe that their input and needs are being heard and acted on are happier customers, and much more likely to stay with you for the long run.

Use Customer Advisory Boards to Guide Your Roadmap

Customer advisory boards are an invaluable resource as you grow your business. They not only help you make critical decisions to make sure your product roadmap is aligned with your customers’ needs, they’ll help ensure that your entire strategic roadmap is aligned to deliver the most value to your customers. A close partnership with your customer advisory board will significantly increase your chances of growing a successful business. 

Does your company have a customer advisory board? What are some of the most important impacts that they’ve had? We’d love to hear from you.