Guide to Being a Strong Customer Advisory Board Executive Sponsor

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We talk to many customer advisory board (CAB) managers who contact us about their challenges. And while the hurdles they face are often common and shared by their CAB manager colleagues, those who may be struggling more deeply with their programs seem to face a similar challenge: an ineffective executive sponsor.

To be effective, a CAB program must have executive buy-in. To achieve this requires a strong and engaged executive sponsor that will lead and oversee the program, and defend its customer advisory board charter and program managers when scrutinized by his/her colleagues. But what does it take to be a resilient executive sponsor? Here are four places to start:

1. Commit to doing a CAB well – or don’t do one at all. CAB managers often tell us their programs are run as side projects to their myriad other “day job” duties, are given little budget, or have lukewarm executive commitment – even with a “wait and see” approach to witnessing the value before investing their full support. A strong executive sponsor must garner the full support of her executive committee before initiating the program, and be prepared to invest the resources, time, headcount, and budget to execute a successful program. When it comes to customer advisory boards, dipping the proverbial “toe in the water” will not lead to success; jumping in with a full commitment will be required to achieve excellence. If a full commitment is not in the cards, as we sometimes advise, don’t start a CAB program.

2. Be honest about the CAB mission and goals. Many companies start customer advisory board programs claiming they’d like to incorporate the voice of its customers into their plans, but then pull back when it’s time to “open the kimono” on their own corporate challenges and roadblocks. Some companies fear that showing uncertainty in their strategic plans exhibits a sign of weakness to customers. We at Ignite believe strong companies are open to their shortcomings, challenges and market questions, and that CABs are ideal programs to help address such issues. The mission and goals of your program should be set directly and honestly from the start: what is your company looking to get out of the program and learn from its members? Once this is determined and agreed to, a charter document should be created putting these aspects in writing, and shared with the CAB members.

3. Don’t get hung up on logistical details. A common complaint by CAB managers is the degree to which their executive members get caught up in the minutiae of event logistics. Hotel rooms. Food. Music. Social activities. Seating charts. This is not where executive guidance – or nth level review — is needed. Executives should trust their expert event planning staff or vendors to do their jobs, and not push important strategic review, discussions or approvals to the back burner to focus on perusing hors-d’oeuvre menus. Strong executive sponsors steer their colleagues or CEOs away from these tangent discussions during CAB review/status meetings and stick to the needed high-level program guidance and feedback.

4. Provide air cover to your CAB team. The CAB executive sponsor should, with the support of her CAB team, plan to provide her executive committee regular updates on the CAB program. Show the program’s progress and successes, and objectively share any shortcomings and plans to improve. During face-to-face meetings with members, be ready to back up decisions previously made, rein in executives who may be “going rogue,” and don’t publicly throw your CAB team under the bus should anything fall less than outstanding. Remember, as the executive sponsor, it is YOU who is responsible for the success of your CAB program and team.

Indeed, it is often the commitment, support and professionalism of the executive sponsor that will determine the success or failure of a customer advisory board initiative. Investing the time and dedication will not only ensure the success of your program, but the job satisfaction (and mental health) of your CAB management team.

Rob Jensen
Rob Jensen has spent over 20 years in marketing, communications and business development leadership positions with leading enterprise business-to-business (B2B) software and technology companies. Throughout his career, Rob has successfully overseen groups that generated global awareness, increased lead generation and enabled sales teams for EMC/Captiva, Kofax, Anacomp, TRW, HNC Software and AudaExplore. In addition, Rob has specialized in initiating, managing and facilitating customer and partner advisory board programs for several of these companies in the U.S. and abroad.

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