What came first, the CAB or the executive relationship?

In recent months I’ve been surprised to hear of companies choosing to forego a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) program because they don’t have a relationship with the key executives they want to invite. Obviously, CABs work exceptionally well when those key executive-to-executive relationships are already in place. Yet when those relationships do not yet exist, especially because those relationships do not yet exist, the CAB is one of the very best programs to initiate. CABs are about relationships. When all else fades to becoming a commodity, the relationship with your customers will be the only remaining differentiator. But, how do you invite senior decision makers you do not yet know?

As a marketer, none of us want to plan a party and then have no one show up. This is a deep seated fear that most of us have. It’s natural. Now, get over it. Success is completely in your grasp. Here are three best practices to guide you when courting CAB invitees.

1. Believe in the self-fulfilling CAB prophecy
Great CABs don’t just happen. They come about because the executives and CAB managers who run them know they will be successful, even when there are many details to address. Senior executives invest their time and energy to invite the right level folks. CAB managers plan months ahead to develop a relevant agenda. CAB sponsors exude excitement and commitment in their interaction with the staff. Get excited about the meeting and be confident in your team’s ability to work the details. Belief leads to confidence, and it’s easy for customers to sense the confidence.  It’s all in your attitude: this is a big deal, an invitation-only meeting for only an elite group of customer leaders. And thus, it will be easier to get them excited and secure their attendance.

2. The invitation must come from the CEO (or executive sponsor) not a first line manager
The secret to achieving an affirmative RSVP from a customer executive is in one-on-one communication — from your executive to theirs. Avoid taking the short cut of having a first line manager or sales rep extend the invitation. It sends the wrong message, and the customer executive will find an excuse to delegate their attendance. To be sure, CAB managers may ghostwrite the invitation, but set up a unique email address for the CEO that the CAB manager can manage. Perception is reality: If it comes from the office of the CEO, it must be important. And the invitation is very important, unique, and special.

3. Build an agenda customer executives care about
The center of the CAB universe needs to be your customers, not your product. That may seem counter-intuitive. However, the companies that have the most successful CAB meetings have one thing in common: dedication to building the most relevant and meaningful agenda based on the intersection of their customers’ business priorities and the value their company can provide them. The most effective agendas start with the customer, their pain points, their business challenges, and their vision of their future. In other words, avoid agendas focused on product updates. Many companies start working on the agenda between three and six months prior to the CAB date. Allow time to carefully consider the strategic questions you are most interested in asking. And if you aren’t sure, consider interviewing customers to learn what strategic topics they would like to include in the agenda. Also, avoid finalizing the agenda only days before the meeting; customers will be able to easily tell the agenda was rushed.  Lastly, as a rule of thumb: follow the 80/20 rule where the agenda allows customers speak 80% of the time, and you do 80% of the listening.

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