Dear Vendor: Customer Advisory Boards

Originally posted in: Dear Vendor

I’ve served on different CABs for over a decade with various vendors, and feel like I’ve seen them run well, and not so well. Here’s my advice to vendors.

Photo by AbsolutVision / Unsplash

You want to understand the Higher Education market, so naturally someone had the bright idea to start a Customer Advisory Board (CAB). But now you’re not sure who should run it, how to run it, who should be on it, what the actual purpose of it is, how to make it useful for the members and you (the vendor).

Define the CAB’s Purpose (model)

Before you start picking participants to be on the board, you need to define what the purpose of your CAB is. If you’re purely wanting feedback about features or changes just before they roll out, then you may as well just focus on A/B testing and surveys to figure out if things will be well received.

However, if you’re wanting to engage EARLY in your product development and cycle, then you’re on the right track. This early engagement is the way to build a strong relationship with the industry, helping you understand how your products will (or won’t) meet customer needs. You’ll take not-fully-formed ideas to members, and they’ll bring very real problems (and suggestions) to you in the hopes of solving real use cases.

Select your Members

Which segment of Higher Education are you wanting to engage with? After all, Higher Education is “ALL” the verticals.

You’ll want to select members with a wide array of perspectives. Private, public, small, large, liberal arts, research institutions….who can you best learn from? If your members are all well-funded, well-staffed, large private universities, you might get a very homogenous set of responses back about pricing, or staffing overhead required for your product. Maybe the broad sets of processes and policies about purchasing, legal, accessibility etc won’t be explained sufficiently either.

You’ll also want members who are ready to give feedback at the level you need it. Do you want strategic, super high-level discussions about go-to-market strategy, or are you looking for product development engagement? If you pick C-Suite participants you’ll definitely get one kind of perspective, whereas if you pick engineers and developers, you’ll hear more front-line, operational experiences. Maybe you can look for a Service Owner / Technical Manager type of participant, someone who knows enough of the technical underpinnings, while being able to straddle the strategy line too.

Historical Context Matters

Vendors typically have high turnover in customer success/relationship management roles, and so it is common for the CAB members to have worked with the vendor longer than their rotating cast of CAB leaders. Long term membership brings with it a confirmation that the relationship is likely beneficial to member and vendor. It also means that there’s enough historical, institutional knowledge on the member side to help contextualize topics that may repeat after a few years.

A humorous situation came up on one of the CABs I served on, where we learned a new promotion of the product would say “ The All New {vendor name}.” It’s funny, because a few years earlier that same vendor rolled out their promotion of “ The All New {vendor name}” but because the vendor had high internal turnover, they didn’t know the phrase had been tried before. Sure, their marketing department should have these things written down…but….apparently not. The customer members remembered though.

Engage on Controversial Topics EARLY

Vendors aren’t always going to make every customer happy. Sometimes, the changes to a product’s features (or deprecating a whole product line) can cause significant impact to its customer base. These things happen for many reasons, and customers expect that the vendor will help them through these hard transitions (after all, technology is constantly changing, and we expect to keep up).

Vendors need to engage their CAB as early as possible to understand the impact of a change, when it can still be adjusted, or at least better supported. If the vendor buries its head in the sand and doesn’t engage the CAB about impactful changes, it will destroy trust, and ultimately diminish that vendor’s standing in the community. Customers value a vendor who can work with them through tough changes, and not just leave us to figure it out on our own.

Trust. Trust. Trust.

CABs are built on trust.

Customers must trust that the vendor is truly engaged in order to better meet the needs of its customers and NOT just another sales reference. Vendors need to trust that their CAB members will provide true and accurate feedback, AND will keep confidential/early information private.

Vendors should not be scared of leaks. NDAs can be signed, but ultimately it’s an issue of trust going both ways.

Spend time effectively

Vendors need to understand…like… really understand that customers want their time spent on the CAB to be useful. Don’t treat every meeting like another one-way slide presentation of a roadmap…treat it more like an opportunity to get useful feedback.

Listen…like… really listen. We can all watch a recording of a presentation, or a slide deck that’s shared with us. The purpose of the CAB meetings is to discuss, deliberate, prioritize, strategize. So…keep that in mind when planning out the meeting agendas and cadence.

Homework!??!

Members should be expected to do a little work too, and not just show up for the free coffee (or not if it’s all remote i guess). Vendors can, and should ask the CAB members to do some internal polling of their own users, or reach out to other community members to broaden the feedback funnel.

In certain cases it would be appropriate to have the CAB members collaborate on a semi-official needs analysis/requirements gathering exercise that. can be submitted to the development and engineering teams.

Of course, if you’re going to ask for that homework to be done (in addition to their actual day jobs), then make sure it is followed up on. Don’t just submit the document/homework to the developers and forget about it; the CAB members are going to want to know what. they thought, if it was useful, and how it’s impacting their priorities moving forward.

Final Thoughts

CABs are a really useful way to get direct, blunt, helpful, productive feedback Vendors should absolutely engage in this kind of outreach if they can manage it effectively. Ultimately, no Customer Advisory Board is much better than a poorly run Customer Advisory Board.

Originally published at https://www.techupover.com on November 20, 2021.

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Cloud stuff, data, analytics; Google, Internet2 Advisory Boards & working groups. Higher Ed IT since 2002. @techupover and @usaussie on twitter

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Nick Young

Cloud stuff, data, analytics; Google, Internet2 Advisory Boards & working groups. Higher Ed IT since 2002. @techupover and @usaussie on twitter