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A Customer Advisory Board (“CAB”) can be an invaluable resource for startups, but many CEOs struggle with putting together the right structure and group of advisors.
That’s why we spoke to Mike McKee on how he leveraged CABs as CEO of ObserveIT. Under his tenure, ObserveIT more than doubled in size from 80 to 180 employees and was ultimately acquired for $225 million by Proofpoint in 2019.
“They were our secret weapon,” says McKee. “I can’t tell you the number of times customers volunteered to do reference calls after a CAB without even being asked. We never quantified the number of people that did follow-on purchases within six months of the CAB, but I feel like it was well over 50% — it was NUTS.”
Focus on your highest-value customers
An important distinction, highlighted by Peter Fader and Sarah Toms in The Customer-Centricity Playbook, is that customer-centricity is not about tailoring your products and services to your entire customer base. Instead, it’s about aligning your acquisition, development, and retention initiatives towards your best customers.
As such, the primary objective of a CAB is to better serve your highest-value customers and ultimately attract more just like them. More tactical goals will depend on your company, but could include influencing product roadmap, refining pre and post-sales processes, or evaluating expansion of addressable market.
Quality > Quantity
At ObserveIT, McKee hosted CABs twice a year in both the US and Europe. Each consisted of six hours of content and an evening event. You’ll want to host in September / October if you want time to influence year-end sales, or February / March for mid-year.
“In the six hours, the fewer PowerPoint slides, the better. You want more interactive things like polls to get people actively listening and participating,” he says.
Always keep the invite list small and targeted. Attendees should fit your ideal customer profile as much as possible. They should also have an appropriate level of technical and business expertise.
“There’s lots of people in technology that are too high-level. They know the buzzwords and the high-level value. Not useful,” notes McKee. “Then there are people that — quoting one of our sales engineers — love the ‘nerd knobs.’ They just want to go deep technically. That’s not helpful either because they’ll go down rabbit holes.”
McKee recommends limiting the group to 15 (but okay to go even smaller), and splitting by vertical after that point. This allows for the agenda to be more focused on facilitated discussion rather than sharing business or product updates.
“Thirty people is not a CAB. Thirty people is a presentation. You’re just not going to get the richness of the discussion, feedback, or suggestions for the future.”
Product runs the show
Product management has the most skin in the game, and thus they should be running the CAB. Notably, sales should be sitting out.
“From a company perspective, we wanted as many people to listen in up to the point where the customers felt like they’re getting swarmed,” he says. “I would go around and introduce every single person from our side, and let the customers know their role and that they’re not in sales.”
While the entire company clearly can’t be present, CABs are the most impactful when takeaways are shared broadly with employees after each meeting.
“We’d have major themes and a quote associated with each theme from what we heard over the course of the day, and we always had a summary slide with poll results,” McKee notes. “But I feel like people really love stories. Instead of having just three themes, we could have had top 10 quotes. I think the company would have really enjoyed that.”
Give them a reason to come back
At ObserveIT, McKee had a Board of Advisors that, from an involvement perspective, sat somewhere in between the management team and Board of Directors. A seat at this table, which came with more formal recognition and financial incentives, represented a “carrot” for CAB attendees. But McKee emphasizes that the main reason for attending CABs should be an enjoyable and productive experience for attendees.
“Be generous to prime the pump while being aware that you’re setting precedence,” he says. “As we switched from paying for the plane ticket and hotel accommodation to just paying for the bagels and a fun night out, people kept coming. That’s a good sign.”
In addition to free snacks, participants benefit from building relevant connections amongst themselves and exchanging ideas in an intimate, high-trust environment.
“We would try to bring in a speaker of interest halfway through the day — someone that didn’t have anything to do with our company, but an industry speaker. This was really well received,” says McKee. “I think about some of the international ones where we didn’t do that and it felt kind of empty. This adds another flavor, and another way to get people thinking.”
Measure the impact
From reference calls to follow-on purchases, many of the positive outcomes of CABs weren’t quantified. Still, it’s a good idea to survey and track the impact of each meeting.
“Between surveys, follow-on sales, references calls and customer return rate, you can get a pretty good sense of whether they’re making a difference or not,” says McKee. “For the return rate, I’d look at how much consistency we have from one CAB to the next, and how much people want to come back. Fifty percent is a pretty good number in my mind — each customer comes back once a year, and you’ve got a nice flow and turnover.”
Building a customer-centric organization requires a deep understanding of your high-value customers. Customer Advisory Boards are a great tool that can be mutually beneficial to both sides.
“I want customers to do it because they are passionate about the product and they need it for their environment,” says McKee. “Their reward is that they’re going to look smarter at their organization because the product we have is doing a great job.”
This article is part of the Forgepoint Field Guide, an interview series focused on early-stage company building.
Questions or comments? Drop me a line at [email protected].
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