Customer Advisory Boards: A Complete Overview

Updated: Aug 5

In this article, we try to answer the most common questions, readers ask about Customer Advisory boards also known as Customer Committees. This article is taken from our upcoming book: "Customer Journeys"

This post is an excerpt from my new book 'Customer Journeys: Why Every Startup Needs a Customer Advisory Board". Buy it on Amazon today


Chances are, your startup is among the thousands that are launched every day with the goal of providing goods and services directly to consumers: The so-called business-to-consumer (B2C) sector. Makes sense, this is a section of the market that is really hot right now for reasons we have touched on a bit and globalization as a whole. Even startups now, with the power of social media and favorable trade agreements can sell their products to a global audience. 


There has certainly been a paradigm shift in the way we as consumers evaluate and purchase goods and services. A change that has occurred over the last twenty years or so. I remember when I launched my first eCommerce startup in 2003. Back then, the idea of folks shopping online seemed like such a far-out-there concept.



With these new opportunities come challenges. Companies now find themselves in the often-challenging position of having to build products and services that appeal to their audiences wherever they may be.


What may be desirable in Atlanta,  may not receive the same level of product-market fit in South Africa. Sure, we all want the same things: entertainment,  good food, convenience, and so on.


Some in certain cultural circles must have slightly different ways of consuming what you have to offer. Companies Like KFC and Starbucks have had to curate their menu offerings based on the countries in which they operate. As you broaden your reach and move to sell your stuff in other countries, cities, States, etc. It is important that you are aware of the various variations that exist within your (potential) customer base.


Lost in translation

We all, as business folk, love it when we see our products and services in the hands of folks we wouldn't have imagined would be into our stuff. It's like hearing your Grandma rapping along to a T.I track or finding out that Elizabeth Warren is a big fan of the show Ballers, on HBO.


We typically have many questions, along with the feeling that we have built something that others, outside of our typical customer base find useful, interesting, entertaining, and so on. Any business person immediately starts to see their product in a whole new way once this happens.


We start to think of new ways to connect with our newly-discovered customer base. At this point, we must move to connect with these folks where they are. And this will involve having to adapt the language around our Sales and Marketing campaigns to suit the needs of our new audience.


This is a great idea. What you will want to do, however, is to try to connect with folks in that particular country or region to help navigate some of the pitfalls you will certainly encounter as you move to market to these folks. There are many platforms online, including social media, via which you can try to get the guidance you need to help you avoid any embarrassing and even costly potential cultural and language barriers.


Cancellation request

Language is just one of the many issues you will surely face if you were to neglect to be mindful of the cultural and social idiosyncrasies of folks around the world. Without the guidance of a customer board - one for each geography you operate in - you are sure to face calls for you to "get it right". You may even find yourself in the unenviable position of folks calling for your services to be discontinued or canceled. These types of scenarios can get to be a huge PR nightmare, especially once they become a social media (trending) topic.


Case in point

Many companies have had to learn the hard lesson that just because an ad or a marketing campaign worked well domestically, does not mean it will translate well overseas.


Dolce & Gabbana

The Luxury fashion brand recently shared a series of social media ads in which a Chinese woman was depicted taking directions via male voiceover as she attempted to eat Italian cuisine with a pair of chopsticks.


The Ad was immediately met with pushback from the Chinese audience, which, mind you is the fashion house’s largest customer base. Even the Chinese government weighed in on the debate, urging the retailer to be mindful of the various cultural and social sensitivities that exist in the countries they do business.


There were even calls across the world for the brand to be boycotted entirely. This mishap is one that could have been avoided if the brand had convened a customer board sensitive to the way of life of the Chinese in China.


There are many lessons that smaller outfits like mine have learned by studying the moves of bigger firms. As entrepreneurs, we must sometimes learn from the mistakes of our larger competitors and follow the moves they make to avoid any future issues. Having a formal or informal Customer Advisory Board could be the soliton to this type of issue and many others.




BREAKING THINGS DOWN:


Breaking things down: So, what exactly is a customer advisory board (CAB)?

A customer Advisory Board or Customer board is basically a designated group of key customers a company invites to meetings and product brainstorming sessions to help the company position or develop the features and benefits of their products to meet the needs of their core demographic(s). These groups are known in certain circles ad Customer Councils.


Depending on the type of business or industry within which you operate, or are developing a Startup concept, there are many positive reasons, especially in the early days of your company to start to put a Customer Board together.


Many firms around the world go to seek the advice of their Customer boards at various stages of the company’s product development activities and for many reasons including:


- To help shape their sales and marketing campaigns.


- To help develop unique (useful) features for an upcoming product or service


- To seek advice on how to improve upon an underperforming product offering


- To find brand advocates


- To gain insights and procure valuable market intelligence



What are some of the upsides of having a CAB?

Many well-known brands have for years looked to their Customer advisory boards for guidance on many projects. Companies like Salesforce and Target have for years used Customer Advisory Boards to help shape their products and services as well as their policies and practices as it relates to their customers.


Among the many benefits that companies report they gain via the use of Customer boards, the following rank the highest:


Helping guide the Company’s strategic direction

Having an active Customer Board could be just the thing your company or startup needs to help you shape the direction you want your organization to take and what you want your overall brand and product strategy to be.


There are times when as an entrepreneur, you will be unsure of the direction in which you want your firm to go. A new neighborhood bar, for example, may want to have a small group of folks from the neighborhood it can bounce ideas off of. These folks can help the bar figure out which types of beverages to offer that will meet the unique needs of the members of the community.


When choosing folks for your board, be sure to invite folks whose backgrounds and/or identities are relevant to your company’s mission.


Helping shape the product roadmap

Customer boards - active customer boards - are a great resource to help firms ascertain how customers actually use their products. One of the things that might come as a surprise to you as you continue to build your firm is that customers or end-users will not always use your products the way you envisioned.


In the tech space, we often spend months building features that in the end, customers care nothing about. These types of misses can be a major time suck for your firm.


Your CAB can help you avoid wasting your precious time and money this way and help you develop products and services that matter to your audience.


Increased Customer loyalty

According to the findings in research conducted by, consumer consulting firm, Ignite Advisory Group, Business-to-business companies that have Customer councils see an average of 9% more in new business from Customer Advisory board members, their associates, and their overall customer base.


Another benefit reported is the conversion of various CAB members into loyal brand advocates. Companies like Survey Monkey and Constant Contact have been able to create a large following of brand evangelists through the use of Customer Advisory boards and other methods.



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