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Product Management and Customer Advisory Boards

One technique for validating your strategy and roadmap is a customer advisory board—a small group of customers who discuss how their challenges align with your plans.

Bring a small group of representative customers together and share a set of problems or initiatives you're considering for your roadmap. Your goal is not quantitative—it's not about numbers; your goal is qualitative—it's about insight. Get customers to tell stories about the problems you're looking to solve.

Members of a customer advisory board should be chosen carefully, based on the persona and segment that you're trying to understand. The CAB is not for loud customers or prospects or anyone appointed by sales ("If you buy today, I'll get you onto the customer advisory board!" NO!).

Customer advisory members are curated based on their ability to provide insight into what you're trying to learn.

The advisory board helps you prioritize

There are always more ideas than resources. Always more to do than can be done. That’s why product managers are always focused on prioritization. Given your limited resources, which of the many ideas are the few to pursue?

Share your ideas with the advisory board and get their recommendations on which would most benefit their implementations.

The method I use is to have the customer advisory rate using the IDEAS/E method:

  • I for Impact. What is the impact of this problem or pain on their (that is, the customer's) businesses?

  • D for Dissatisfaction. How dissatisfied are they with the current scenario or workaround?

  • E for Evidence. How many of your customer’s customers encounter this problem?

  • A for Advantage. What advantage or gain will a solution deliver to the customer?

  • S for Strategic Alignment, the extent to which this idea aligns with current or future organizational strategy. It counter-balances strategic items over items with smaller effort.

  • E for Effort to deliver. What effort would be involved in rolling a solution out to the customer's users?

You can use a formula to get a final result (I * D * E * A * S / E) but you’re really looking to learn from the discussions more than getting a numeric value. Your goal in a customer advisory is to learn, so you (and your colleagues) should be speaking less than half the time.

(By the way, avoid sales pitches and general company updates. Stay focused on the needs of your customer advisors and the product strategy.)

I held a CAB with some Fortune 100 companies. The sessions were going really well but, at every break, the salespeople came in to woo "their" customers… until one of the customers kicked them out. He said, "We're not here to be entertained. We're here to guide your product strategy."

A great product manager spends time with customers (and potential customers) every week—without a sales or support objective. A customer visit with a salesperson is a sales call, not a discovery meeting. You simply won't get insights on product direction when you're selling. If you’re on a sales call, listen to sell. If you’re on a discovery call, listen to learn.

Few organizations have trouble finding clients for the advisory program. In fact, you probably have more than you can incorporate.

What do they get?

They get to guide your roadmap and usually get early access to new products. Think of these customers as development partners.

What do you get?

You get guidance as well as references. You get a dozen customers you can contact at any time for feedback. You get quotes to use in sales enablement.

Members of an advisory board understand that you are a business, and their advice on how to steer the product will result in value to both your company and theirs—after all, they need the product and want it to survive for years to come. You’re in this together.

A customer advisory board is a great way to get key customers to engage with one another and explore ideas as a group.

Read Customer Discovery: A Field Guide for tips on interviewing customers.


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