Virtual Customer Advisory Board Meetings: Six Must-Do Steps for Conducting Engaging Breakout Sessions

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Customer Advisory Board (CAB) managers who oversee successful programs know the value of stimulating member breakout sessions. After all, these are often the most engaging, insightful, fun and well-reviewed aspects of any CAB meeting. And even though almost all CAB meetings are now taking place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this doesn’t mean you should scrap breakouts. Quite the contrary: with everyone participating virtually, breakouts are even more critical to keep your members stimulated, engaged and contributing their best ideas to your company’s strategies and offerings.

As such, here are six “must-do” steps for conducting engaging breakout sessions:

1. Plan for breakouts: Every engagement with your CAB members, whether in-person or virtual, should contain some time dedicated to brainstorming, ranking, or capturing ideas and suggestions from your customers. That means planning for this by creating questions you really need help in answering, help in prioritizing your budget, getting their opinion into the tradeoffs you’re currently weighing, features and capabilities you are considering adding to your solutions, etc. Establish significant time in your meeting agenda for these sessions, convey why you are conducting each session, and communicate desired outcomes and how member input will be implemented. On the flip side, if your next CAB meeting consists of only a series of PowerPoint slides (or screen shots—yikes!) with time for Q&A at the end, your meeting will almost certainly be boring, garner minimal participation, and will likely have members not attending your next one.

2. Leverage technologies: In addition to your online meeting platform (e.g. Zoom, WebEx, Go-to-Meeting, Zoho, Skype, etc.) there are additional collaborative technologies you can use to engage members live during the virtual meeting. Consider using a shared Google Docs or Microsoft One Drive to allow members to contribute their ideas directly into the meeting document of record, or have the meeting note-taker capture ideas and input in real-time for members to see, adjust or prioritize as necessary. Other technologies, such as Mural, allow participants to actually move content, write their own ideas or post virtual “sticky notes” within the meeting content. Get participants virtually moving, contributing and participating!

3. Break-up the group: As it may be hard to hear and capture the ideas of all your members participating at once via phone or computer (which may include between 12 and 18 members), consider breaking up the assembly into 2-3 smaller groups and placing them in virtual “rooms” for conducting engaging brainstorming or prioritization sessions. You can break them out in a number of ways, such as by industry vertical, products in use, regions, new customers, etc. You’ll want to have the groups and breakout rooms set up well in advance, and each with a skilled facilitator and note-taker, so, again, advance planning is key.

4. Invest in preparation: Each breakout session should have clear instructions, including the participants, roles, time needed, results communication, as well as the list of, say, features to be ranked or ideas needed to be captured. That means investing the time to prepare and practice with each of your company participants to ensure everyone is clear on the exercise and their duties. As I’ve witnessed first-hand, breakouts that do not adequately prepare lead to confusion, wasted time and frustrated company executives and (even worse) CAB members themselves.

5. Leverage expert facilitators: Conducting engaging breakout sessions is not easily achieved and best results are almost always realized through the use of skilled, experienced meeting facilitators. These professionals will ensure the preparation steps are completed, manage the actual breakout sessions themselves, ensure the outcomes and goals are reached, keep the overall meeting on-track for optimal success. Professional third parties also lend an impartiality to the breakouts for honest results, as well as an air of sophistication and prestige to your overall program.

6. Capture, commit, report, and repeat: Results of virtual breakouts should not disappear at the conclusion of the meeting – they should be meticulously captured, evaluated, prioritized and committed to by the host company. Resulting actions should then be communicated back to members, and progress and status reported back in subsequent meetings. Additional input gained in later meetings must also be managed in the same way to ensure input does not get lost or drop off radars.

Virtual breakouts should be a key part of any CAB engagement, especially these days. When members visually see their ideas taking shape and captured in front of them, they become even more stimulated, engaged and invested in your CAB program – and your company’s success.

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