Your customers buy from you because they find value in what you deliver. Tap this insight to get greater market share and shape your future product direction.
Large corporations form customer advisory councils (CACs) as a way to perform long-range market research. Some of the benefits include gathering feedback about customers’ needs, learning product strengths and weaknesses, and gaining insights into competitors’ offerings.
Smaller companies can also take advantage of this valuable research by forming their own CACs, which will help them develop stronger relationships with customers who, ultimately, may become brand ambassadors.
To set up a customer advisory council, follow these steps:
1. Decide on your budget and time allocation
It takes time and resources to recruit customers, hold council meetings, and effectively make use of the feedback you get. What is the level of resources you are willing and able to devote to your CAC? I suggest starting with your budget because, in a smaller company or startup, resources often determine how large your council can be and the scope of its activities.
2. Think long-term and strategic
A customer advisory council is not the same as a focus group, although they may seem similar. An advisory council is typically longer term with multiple meetings throughout the year. Your group may meet once a quarter, or multiple times over several years. A focus group is often a one-time event.
Think of an advisory council as more like an advisory board that happens to be made up of customers. The council will expect you to follow through and actually adopt some of their suggestions.
3. Write down the structure and format for CAC meetings
Outline the structure for the council in writing. How frequently will you meet? How many council members will there be? (I recommend 6 to 12 members.) Will all meetings be in person? Or will in-person meetings be supplemented by conference calls and email? How many people from your organization will attend the council meetings? Will meetings take place on your premises or offsite?
4. Ensure internal buy-in
Seek any internal buy-in. The last thing you want is to bring customers into your inner circle only to discover that not everyone in the company takes the council seriously.
5. Recruit customers to the council
In smaller companies, recruiting for an advisory council is usually done one-on-one with a phone call or email message. Avoid sending a mass letter for the initial invitation—you’re more likely to get a “yes” if you approach the customer personally.
Typically, customers are not compensated for their time on an advisory council. Service is voluntary. However, it’s customary to provide meals and make the atmosphere enjoyable. You might arrange group entertainment such as a sporting event as a thank-you for council members. And, of course, send a thank-you note after each meeting.
Give council members recognition in your company newsletter or elsewhere, too. Recognition is a form of compensation they may appreciate.
6. Hold the first meeting as an orientation
The first meeting should be in-person and focus on orienting members to the council’s purpose and their roles. Encourage questions and suggestions. Members need time to assimilate their roles and get comfortable with you and other members.
7. Create agendas for meetings
To make subsequent council meetings productive, be sure to send out an agenda in advance. Follow it. Nothing is worse than a vague meeting that meanders without purpose. Remember, council members will be judging your business based on their council interactions.
8. Provide minutes or notes as a follow-up
Capture key takeaways from the meeting in writing. Share those with council members and appropriate personnel internally.
9. Incorporate information learned
Finally, the most important part is taking what you’ve learned in CAC meetings and incorporating that knowledge into your business. Determine how and in what ways to leverage the knowledge gained. Then do it.
A CAC takes time and resources, but the benefits can help propel your business growth. It’s worth the effort.
This article was originally published on Inc.