Tips on Running High Value Customer Advisory Boards

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Todd KasenbergI recently had the privilege of interviewing Todd Kasenberg, the Principal of GuidingStar Communications and Consulting and a leading expert in the planning and execution of Customer Advisory Boards.

Todd was able to share many of the insights and best practices that he has learned over the past 10 years of running highly successful customer advisory boards. Here is a summary of our interview:

Impetus:
What are you presently doing at GuidingStar?

Todd:
I am something of a generalist – but virtually all of my work touches learning and human interactions for the purposes of building individual and organizational capacity. I do a lot of work in the digital realm, but still keep my feet firmly planted in meeting strategy – including advisory boards in the pharmaceutical, health care and high technology spaces.

Impetus:
Tell me a little about your background in the planning and implementation of customer advisory boards.

Todd:
I began work as an advisory board strategist and implementer 10 years ago, while working for a medical communications agency. In my evolution, I have focused a lot on “people strategy” – how to get groups of people to spill their collective and individual insights about challenges, opportunities and innovation. I continue to execute 8 to 10 face to face advisory boards per year – and certainly love this work, love contemplating how to build a meeting experience that will glean critical insights for my clients while creating something memorable that leaves their clients saying “Wow, that was fun; let’s do it again!”

Impetus:
It’s always awesome to do something that you love! Tell us why you find advisory boards to be so valuable.

Todd:
In the pharmaceutical industry, there are a limited number of ways to gain insight into the thinking of physicians; advisory boards in that context allow pharmaceutical staff to spend some time with key clients, building relationships, exchanging understanding about patient scenarios and the value chain that can be augmented by company resources. Often, traditional market research – whether as surveys or key informant interviews or small focus groups – just don’t get to the heart of nuanced issues, nor do they strengthen the relationship bonds between my clients and their clients or stakeholders of interest. So advisory boards serve in part as an informational agora and in part as a relationship-building platform.

Specifically, some of the advisory boards I’ve run over the past 10 years have addressed product/solution viability, value-adds for competitive business advantage, refinement of treatment paradigms in medicine, patient support program creation, publication and learning program production, development of apps and websites, and integration of silos across and within organizations.

Impetus:
Starting an advisory board for some organizations is a big leap of faith. How have you socialized the idea of advisory boards with some of your clients?

Todd:
In some verticals, there is a prevailing wind that advisory boards are an expected part of doing business. I won’t say that I always find the big vision in place of what advisory boards can achieve; in fact, too often, advisory boards are part of the marketer’s workplan, something to check off as completed for annual objectives in a performance plan. That said, in the verticals in which I have worked, I’ve been fortunate to encounter a mindset that advisory boards are of value to the enterprise. In the execution, those who were skeptical typically are converted to the relationship and transactional information value of the opportunities to engage with advisors. Those selected to be advisors are typically prominent leaders in their fields who appreciate the opportunity to contribute and are willing to help the sponsor drive business success in an ethical way that aligns with their own needs and interests.

That said, there are verticals in our society that have no history of advisory board implementation, and bringing those verticals into an awareness of the marketing, technical and process benefits of working with a group of advisors is quite challenging. For example, I spoke a few years back with a senior leader in a local NGO about bringing an advisory board approach to innovation on the issue of homelessness; the idea was quite novel, and well-received, but of course, funding needs to enable. It can be a forest for trees problem; when you are blinded by the everyday realities of problems and tight resources, an advisory board can seem like a good way to waste money. Yet – at least from my experience – they can be run quite affordably, it just takes human commitment and experience.

Impetus:
Who to invite to an advisory board is always the first question to arise. How do you help clients think this through?

Todd:
Advisory boards are crafted typically on the twin premises of ensuring you’ve got the right expertise for insight generation and that you’ve well represented the range of audiences who have an interest in the issues or challenges you wish to address. When you understand the issues and information transaction that needs to be addressed, it becomes pretty obvious, both from my client’s and my own experience, the people who need to come to the table. Quite often, when advisory board outcomes are established, brainstorming quickly identifies the key stakeholders who need to be invited. You usually do want “ambassadors” – individuals who, when future action may be required, will step up to the plate and contribute to the effort.

Impetus:
Tell us how you typically plan and execute customer advisory boards.

Todd:
Most of the advisory boards I have implemented have been group meetings conducted in a face to face scenario. Body language can be quite important in teasing out the tough/challenging information that my client’s want on the table. That said, I have executed a few programs, and worked with colleagues who have executed a few more, where a digital “advisor portal” has been in place as an enduring means to maintain communication with advisors. These take focused effort to sustain engagement; setting up a web portal for advisors, but not planning a sequence of periodic interactions, allows any momentum and interest gained to wane. I truly wish more would see the merits of a blended advisory board approach, utilizing both live and digital enablement toolsets (both synchronous and asynchronous) to create a truly rich, truly just-in-time approach to advice collection.

Impetus:
How have you typically ensured good customer engagement during advisory board meetings?

Todd:
I’m a big believer in making advisory board meetings fun, and routinely introduce kinesthetic elements to get people moving, working in small groups, and meeting each other. A well-run advisory board needs little facilitation. I’m also a big believer in creating structure, within the advisory board, that celebrates all personalities at the meeting; some want to analyze, some want to decide, some want to imagine, and it is important to create space for all. I love creative activities – and incorporate a range of wacky activities that may even include a throwback to “arts and crafts”. And I believe that every session, every component of an advisory board needs to have clearly stated outcomes, so that we actually get things accomplished. Finally – I learned to be careful with candles. I had an experience at an advisory board where candles in a vase lit something on fire – and left me puzzling, out loud, “does anyone else smell smoke?” Not exactly what you’d typically throw in to meeting facilitation!

Impetus:
Close call for sure! With all of those experiences, what are some of the key best practices you think need to be employed to make boards truly successful?

Todd:
Recruiting is a challenge – people have busy lives, and asking for a half to a full day for an advisory board meeting is a big thing. It is important to recruit early, and to have fall-back lists should your highest priority advisors be unavailable. It is really important to get logistics of the meeting just right. Travel arrangements, hotel settings, food – for the experience to be memorable, these have to be nailed.

We work from a time-based checklist that we’ve compiled over the years – to ensure logistics go just right when we are in charge of logistics. That said, logistics do go off the rails – the most notable being presenters who wish to say more than their time would afford. I take my cues from my clients about whether to cut something off when it runs over – but pretty much always have a back-up plan in my head for every scenario that would lead to time overruns.

I have found it pretty valuable to have a meeting chair from amongst the group of peers who are at the meetings. It can mean more work for me – preparing that chair, learning their preferences – but involvement of an esteemed colleague very typically leads to better results, since these can use interprofessional co-operation in recruiting and in telling their peers that an activity needs to wrap up!

And it’s just not done well if there isn’t follow-up communication, after any meeting, outlining what was explored, what was uncovered, what was decided, and what needs to be done. A post-meeting “Minutes” report targeted to the advisors themselves is pretty indispensable; they gave you their time and best effort, and often are quite interested in knowing what lies ahead.

Impetus:
What are you thoughts about an “authentic” advisory board–one that goes beyond a single meeting and includes “multiple touchpoints” throughout the year?

Todd:
Years ago, I wrote a White Paper on advisory boards in which I posited that advisory boards are really a process, not an event. (This, of course, left me with the conundrum of what to call them… something I still haven’t fully resolved.) I believe it more today than I did then. Advisors need to be retained over a period, and engaged, preferably periodically, during their agreed-upon interval. It could be a quick poll; it could be more meaningful, like reviewing market research findings and offering comment. Regardless, when you’ve got the talent and goodwill available to you, it is so in your interest to sustain the engagement, to get ongoing advice and insight.

Impetus:
Have you ever considered running virtual customer advisory boards with an online platform so “multiple touchpoints” with customers could be employed seamlessly and cost effectively?

Todd:
I believe that engagement of advisors using digital platforms can work, but typically only will when you have the tech comfort in your advisors, a clear plan for engagement, a user experience in a digital platform that is engaging and simplified, and at least one real face-to-face meeting opportunity to build the relationships with and amongst the advisors. Group work can be a big part of the advisory board experience, and technologies that will enable that can drive forward outcomes in less time. As you create periodic engagements through a virtual advisory board, you also encourage a habit of mutuality. As the sponsor of an advisory board, you are sharing newest and often critical information with the advisors, helping them in their work lives. As an advisor, you are looking out for your peers and the sponsor, sparked to share information from the ground that they just might not have detected. I’ve seen advisory boards create new algorithms for treating significant heart disease, build frameworks for innovative technologies that will enable work effectiveness, and create patient supports that dramatically improve quality of life. Outcomes of these scopes just don’t happen without commitment and enablement, and virtual advisory boards can be a significant means whereby to achieve these.

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