What To Do When Customer Advisory Board Members Ask To Send a Substitute

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Occasionally, customer advisory board (CAB) managers will receive a request from a CAB member to substitute another representative from their company to take their place at an upcoming meeting. Along with the recommended response come questions that should be considered by the CAB manager to ensure their program is on track, and so such a request doesn’t happen again.

First off, if any CAB member makes such a substitution request, the communicated answer (politely and professionally of course) should be “no.” Substitutions (typically for lower-level associates) not only likely violates the commitment made by your customer (more below), but sends a bad message to your other CAB members that such delegates are acceptable (in which case they might consider this in the future as well). Thus, allowing such replacements can only weaken your CAB program.

But, just as importantly, such a request should initiate some self-examination of your program. After all, the reason behind why your member would want to send a substitute may be an indicator that your CAB program may be struggling, and that other members may be thinking the same. As such, here are eight questions to ask:

1. Do members understand their commitment to your CAB? Hopefully, when you launched your CAB, you created and communicated a charter document that fully details your program goals and your requested member participation expectations. By getting members to understand and adhere to these at the beginning, they will (hopefully) remember these and honor their commitments.

2. Is your CAB a collection of peers? Sometimes, when we are approached by companies with a struggling CAB program, it is because their membership is a “mix” of executives and lower-level product users. Such programs usually fail to serve both audiences, often leading to attrition — and delegate requests. Your CAB membership should consist entirely of peers who share the same level, title or role at their companies.

3. Is your meeting agenda host company-centric? If your CAB meeting agenda is dominated with product developments, corporate updates or (shudder) sales pitches from your own company, then your members will quickly become bored and disengaged. Your agendas should be driven by your members with topics they want to discuss and the shared challenges they need help in addressing by engaging with you and (more importantly) their peers.

4. Is your content tactically focused? Here too, if your CAB meeting content is tactical and user-focused (e.g. your product screen shots and demos), you are likely getting too “into the weeds” for higher-level executives, who may not even be the user of your product anyway. Keep the “feeds and speeds” content for your user group, and focus CAB meetings on strategic, higher-value insights shared by your executive members.

5. Are you meeting too often? Sometimes, you just might be asking too much of your CAB members by meeting too often. If you’re holding monthly calls to “update” your members on new product features, patches or bug fixes, this is likely the case. Best practice is to meet (in-person and virtually) with your members twice a year (quarterly at most), and always with strategic topics addressing shared challenges. And again, your meeting frequency should be communicated in your CAB program charter.

6. Are you meeting at the wrong time of the year? You also might be requesting to meet at a time that is particularly bad for your members, such as year- or quarter-end. To find the best dates to gather your members, ask them!

7. Did something change for your member? With companies reorganizing, merging or being acquired, and people constantly on the move via promotions or switching jobs (or even companies), your CAB member may simply be changing roles. If this is the case, inquire as to whether their replacement has been identified, and (privately) evaluate whether this person would make a good addition to your CAB program.

8. Is your CAB member just too busy? We all know that things can (and do) change within companies, often with little notice or out of your own control (see “Coronavirus”). If your member seems to be perpetually swamped, unresponsive or a no-show at meetings, then it may be in both of your best interests to excuse the person from your meeting and CAB program entirely, and find a replacement through ongoing member recruitment.

CAB member delegate requests are never good, and can be an indication your program is in need of some improvements. If so, use the opportunity to refocus, ensure you are delivering on your charter, and committing to delivering the right content for your CAB membership.

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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