One of the most powerful investigative and marketing activities you can do in your business is to establish a customer advisory board. This is where you gather a group of customers on a regular basis and have them help you work on your business.
A well run board can provide you with tons of information that you wouldn’t get in any other way.
Today’s guest is Steve Wershing from Entreplanning, a consulting organization that works with private business owners. One of Steve’s specialties is organizing and moderating customer advisory boards. Steve is going to help us learn why you need to have an advisory board and what some best practices for establish a board are.
Here’s some of the take aways you’ll get from today’s show:
- Why you need to have a customer advisory board.
- Why you shouldn’t be scared about getting a group of customers together to help make your business better.
- What the role of a skilled facilitator is in the operation of your customer advisory board meetings and why that facilitator shouldn’t be you.
- What steps should you take to build a great advisory board.
Narrator: Welcome to the Sustainable Business Radio Show on podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. The Sustainable Business is all about creating great outcomes.
Here’s your host, certified financial planner, student, entrepreneur and private business expert, Josh Patrick.
Josh: Today’s podcast features Steve Wershing. Steve is president of Entreplanning, a consulting organization that works with private businesses that are interested in creating extreme value. Today, we’re going to talk with Steve about client advisory boards and why you need to have one in your company. And yes, I did say “need.” Let’s get right to it and meet Steve and start learning about client advisory boards.
Hey, Steve, how are you today?
Steve: Josh, I’m great. Thanks for asking me.
Josh: My pleasure. Let’s start it off and find out what is a client advisory board? I’m going to bet a lot of listeners have never heard of it before.
Steve: Well, they may not have or they may not know what one is. A client advisory board is an ongoing, facilitated discussion with your best customers about the experience you provide to them and how you can make it better.
Josh: Why do we want to do this?
Steve: Well, most business owners work real hard to produce a good product or a good service and to do things that their customers value. But what’s funny is that very few businesses actually have a feedback loop put together so that they have an opportunity to evaluate how they’re doing. And so, most businesses evaluate how they’re doing on a transactional level. When a business has an interaction with a customer, they find out how they’re doing when they’re taking a client through the onboarding process, when they’re bringing on. They try to find out how they’re doing but what they don’t do is have a system set up so that they’re consistently going back out and saying, “How’s our service? How’s our product? How are we in relationship to our competition? What’s the most valuable part of what we do? How can we do it better? What things should we stop doing?” It’s funny but very few businesses have systems set up to consistently get that kind of feedback.
An advisory board is exactly the kind of project where you can set that up so that you can be in a consistent conversation with your client about how you’re doing, what’s bringing value to them, where they would like you to go in terms of the direction of your company or your services or your product, and giving the customers a voice in the direction and strategy of the company.
Josh: I mean, this sounds like a really interesting idea. And when I brought this up to clients I’ve often had this problem brought to my attention, “I’m scared to bring my clients together because they might say bad things.” What would you say about that?
Steve: I would say that’s a concern that I hear a lot and it’s absurd if you think about it. Your clients like you so they don’t want to say bad things about you. And in my experience, customers really want to help a business succeed, especially if they’re going to accept the invitation to participate on an advisory board. They’re going to do that because they want to contribute. They want to help.
I’ve done an awful lot of these boards now. I’ve never had a situation where people come together and complain. Even if you’ve got somebody who really has something to get off their chest, the facilitator makes the difference there. So, as long as you set up the right questions and you’ve got the right person facilitating the meeting, it’s really not something you end up having to worry about. But the point is that you’re getting into a conversation with some of your best clients about how you can do what you do better and I can’t imagine any significant downside to that.
Josh: Let’s talk about facilitators for a second because I would think that’s a really important point. (1) Do you want to have your facilitator be from the outside? (2) What sort of skills do you need to have for a facilitator?
Steve: Yeah, so one of the secrets of having a successful advisory board is having a skilled facilitator. Now, whether or not that comes from inside or outside the company is really your call. Most companies are not big enough that they have somebody who’s got good facilitation skills on the staff. If you are big enough, you can use somebody in the inside. You don’t want it to be a client-facing person. You want somebody to at least be perceived as a third party somehow, for a few reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that a customer advisory board can be a tremendous relationship building exercise for the business and for the owner of the business. And for that to happen, the owner needs to be sitting there with the client, in the conversation. The clients need to see the business person as being part of the tribe, as being part of the conversation. And so, something fundamentally changes about the dynamic when that person stands up and goes to that front of the room and starts running the meeting. But if you’re in the meeting, it’s a whole different vibe. And that’s one of the benefits of a facilitator.
But really, facilitation is a skill. You want to make sure you can keep the conversation on course. You want to make sure that you guide the conversation gently so that you’re always talking about important things and you don’t go off on tangents and you don’t end up chasing down rabbit holes and those kinds of things. And so, my own recommendation is typically to bring somebody in from the outside, mostly because you need to go on the outside to get that skill set. And partly because you want somebody to be perceived as a third party – a disinterested third party who’s not there to promote the company but there to promote the conversation and promote the feedback with facilitation skills to be able to keep the conversation on track and headed in a productive direction.
Josh: Okay, I want to build a board, what are the three or four or five steps I need to do to get a board started?
Steve: Well, the first thing I would do is to ask yourselves “What is it that you want to learn? What is it that you want guidance on?” Because depending on how diverse your customer base is and how many different products you offer and how many different services, that can have an effect on who you decide to invite. So the first thing is, find out what you want guidance and find out what you want input on. Once you have that figured out, then you want to decide who you want to invite. One of the mistakes that I see companies make sometimes is getting too diverse a group. You want a group that represents the ideal customer for whatever it is you’re asking about. You figure out what the persona is for that issue that you want guidance on or that product or service to feedback on. And then invite people who fit that persona. And from there, it goes on to agenda development. Part of what we do is help companies understand how to make that ask, how to set up the questions and those kinds of things. But once you’ve got the right people chosen—
What it really comes down to is you want the right people and the right questions. So, once you’ve got the right people, then you want to ask, “What should be on that agenda? What questions should we ask? to get the guidance that we’re looking for that will give us the insights what we need to make the improvements that will changed the customer experience.
Josh: I will assume that the right person on the board and persona development have something to do with each other, am I correct?
Steve: Absolutely, yeah. You want the people on the board to represent that ideal client, not to represent anybody who might buy from you because then you can get conflicting feedback. If you have different profiles of people that buy from your company and you bring a whole bunch of them together, those different profiles are going to look for different things and different things will be important to them. And the feedback can be really confused and muddled. And it could be really hard to tease apart what’s useful there. And so, yes, if you have personas as part of your marketing effort, you want to use that persona as a template for who you invite to the advisory board.
Josh: What exactly is a persona, because I’m sure some listeners are a little confused by that term?
Steve: A persona is a composite portrait of the ideal customer for a particular product or service offering that you have. If you consider one of your products, or a product line, or a service line, it is a hypothetical profile of the client that you most want to market that product or service to. What makes it a persona is not just describing it in demographic details but really developing a thorough description of that person including you might name it, you might give it a profession, you might give it a family situation but you want to describe it in a lot of details so that marketing people or other people who are involved in developing your product can actually imagine themselves or do research on people who are like that, who are described like that – a better sense of what they’re looking for, and how they want to consume your product, and how they’ll make the decision of whether or not to buy what you have or a competitor has or not to buy at all.
Josh: My guess is it’s pretty easy in these boards to have some bias be presented. How do you manage that and keep bias out?
Steve: Help me understand this. So, bias in regard to what?
Josh: They want to say nice things about your company. They don’t want to cause waves. It’s an honor to be on one of these boards. And at the same time, we really want honest feedback. And we don’t want to have that feedback really be tilted towards how wonderful we are. My guess is, the boards I’ve been involved with, I really want to learn what I can do differently that’ll make the client experience a whole lot better. How do you go about doing that?
Steve: It’s funny because one of the worst outcomes you can have is to have it turn into a love fest, right? It’s “Oh, you’re great. We love your company. This is the best product we ever bought. Your kids are the smartest kids we ever saw.” It feels good but it’s utterly useless so I’m with you. I think advisory boards are the ones where I get concrete stuff that I can change for the better. Now, I’ve got some value out of it. Now, I can do something that will maybe generate more sales, maybe make a more loyal customer base.
So, there are two ways. There’s a strategy and there’s kind of a technique that you can use to help keep that from happening. The first thing is – one of the secrets of having a really successful advisory board meeting is the right questions. And so, a lot of it comes down to the questions. So, for example, ask open-end questions, not closed-end questions. Closed-end questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no. So, you want to stay away from those because if you say, “Are we providing a good service? Do you find our products useful? Are you likely to continue buying these things?” Well, of course, they’re going to say yes and that’s where it ends. So, you want to use open-ended questions which are those questions that start with who, what, when, where, and how.
And so, “Of all the various things that you do with our service, what do you find is the most valuable? What do you find is the easiest part of our product to operate? If you’ve had interactions with our customer service area, what were some of the things that made you feel good and what were some of the things that you think should’ve gone better?” And so, those kinds of questions bring things out. They start discussions. People can’t just say, “Oh, we love you” because you’re asking more specific – more substantive questions that force the participants to give you some thoughtful feedback and give you kind of some of the kinds of materials that you’re looking for.
One of the big tricks is to ask open-ended questions and to construct those questions really carefully. Part of that, too, is having a facilitator who knows how far to drill. You and I both have a lot of activity in the financial advisor space. And so, if I ask a client advisory board for a financial advisor, “What do you appreciate most about your financial advisor?” A lot of times, they’ll say trust. Well, it’s up to me as the facilitator to understand that’s a dead end question because it tells us nothing. We don’t know why people trust. We don’t know what things we do that create the trust. And so, we need to know how to drill down into that. You need to have the follow-up questions like “Well, you know, it’s interesting you should bring that up. And, of course, every client of a financial advisor has to be able to trust them or else they wouldn’t be a client. So, help me understand this a little bit better. Give me an example of a time when you had an interaction with this advisor, probably early on in your relationship and when you left the office feeling “I really know I can trust this guy.” Describe to me a circumstance like that. Describe to me what happened.”
And so, the questions is a big part of it but there’s also a little trick that we do to help get things out especially when a board is relatively new. And that’s to recruit a curmudgeon onto the board. A curmudgeon would be somebody who is not necessarily a complainer but is somebody who has no compunction whatever about saying what’s on his mind regardless of whether it’s going to be polite or not, to put it bluntly. Those people can be worth their weight in gold because they will ask the questions that some other people might be uncomfortable asking. And if the sponsor and the facilitator of the meeting demonstrate that they are open to that then it helps keep the conversation going.
In fact, sometimes, we’ll set up a scenario in the first advisory board meeting to get this to happen. Here’s how the dynamic goes. We’ll recruit a curmudgeon onto the board and then I’ll ask the client, “Okay, so, give me something that he has complained about before. Give me something that he has expressed a desire to change in the past.” And I’ll ask a question specifically about that. I’m basically baiting the guy to say something critical. And then I’ve already prompted the client on what to say in response. I say, Okay, so we’re going to ask this. We’re going to get him to voice a concern. And then I’m going to dig into it a little bit. Tell me a little bit more about that. So how would you like that to work out? What would you like to see more like that? And then after a couple of minutes, I’m going to throw it over to you and here’s what I want you to say, “You know, I’m really glad you brought that up. I didn’t realize how strongly you felt about this. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to address it but what I promise you is when we sit down to have our strategy meeting next week, that’s going to be at the top of the agenda.” And then you stop talking. And I’ll move on to the next topic.
Now, what have we done there? Well, done is we’ve demonstrated to everybody “It’s okay to say that stuff and we’re going to respond positively to it and we’re going to listen and we’re going to take action on it.” You’ve just given everybody else permission to say the stuff that’s on their mind that they might otherwise be reluctant to say. And so, I love that. Whenever I start a board, I invariably start with something like that, to set up the dynamic. That’s probably the best single way to get that kind of positive bias out of the discussion.
Josh: Okay, we have just barely scratched the surface on advisory boards. I’m hoping the people who are listening say “I need more information.” How do they contact you, Steve?
Steve: Well, they can reach me at Entreplanning.com. There’s a little contact us page there. You can also download a paper on The Top 10 Reasons Why Business Owners Get Less Than They Should, When They Go to Sell. You can get something like that free, right out of the gate if you want.
Josh: This has been a great session. Thanks so much. If you need an advisory board, I can tell you from personal experience, you’re not going to get any better than Steve so give him a shout.
Thanks very much today, Steve. I appreciate it.
You’ve been listening to the Sustainable Business Podcast where we talk about what you need to do with your business if it was to be here 100 years from now. If you like what you heard and want more information, please contact me at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2 or visit us on our website at www.stage2solution.com or you can send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Josh Patrick and thanks for listening. I hope to see you soon for another edition of The Sustainable Business.