Many organizations have committed to developing deeper intimacy with their most important clients by establishing customer advisory boards. The most compelling, worthwhile forms of engagement within this structure occur when board members and stakeholders from the sponsoring organization explore possibilities for helping one another realize their respective visions. In other words, they collaborate and innovate on what a shared future might offer. In this article community architect Doug Collins makes the case for supplementing the board meetings with a virtual community focused on collaborative innovation to improve the continuity of the dialogue and formation of the ideas that arise.

The Benefits of Unfettered Guidance

Many of my clients support customer advisory boards. They back programs and host forums in order to formally engage a sample of their most important clients. Organizations launch boards for a number of reasons. They want to…

  • Build rapport with their clients which transcends the sales, support, and service mode that defines the day-to-day relationship between customer and vendor
  • Gain deeper insight from the clients about where they intend to grow their business.
  • Seek their clients’ advice on their own plans for growth.

Customer advisory boards, properly positioned and executed, serve as a powerful means by which organizations can innovate with their clients. For this reason many organizations have already committed to engaging with their most important accounts by this means. In this article, I suggest ways organizations that have gone down this path can apply the latest approaches to building virtual communities for collaborative innovation to build even greater rapport with their board members.

A Day in the Life of an Advisory Board

The amount of work required to develop a customer advisory board astounds people unfamiliar with the practice. The sponsor and program team start by helping the organization come to a shared understanding on the following:

  • Who do we invite—and, as important—who do we not invite?
  • Why would the candidates participate, given the many demands on their time? (Tough question to address when recruiting an executive advisory board.)
  • What is the nature of the client’s commitment to participate? What is our commitment to them?
  • What sort of venue and agenda makes sense, given how the budget and the clock constrain our choices of time and place?
  • What does success look like six months into the program? Twelve months after launch?

The implementation phase offers no relief, as the program team finds matters both weighty and seemingly inconsequential monopolizing their time, including finalizing the agenda, coordinating travel schedules, and noting which board member’s spouse suffers from an allergy to raw shellfish.

Success breeds success. The work multiplies as the organization extends its first board by region, by channel, and by market segment.

A Not So Virtuous Circle

The overhead required to successfully manage a customer advisory board—particularly ones that span regions and segments—taxes the program team’s ability to close the loop with the clients on the critical issues they uncover once they convene. The program team devotes a lot of time and energy to ensure the participants arrive at the venue prepared to engage. One or two days later finds them happily exhausted on the plane home. They now confront a lengthy list of action items. The action items require triage and oversight. They range from the tactical “we would be crazy if we…” directives to the more strategic insights that demand careful consideration by the executive team.

Meanwhile, the advisory board members wonder what effect their dialogue and guidance will have within the vendor’s organization. The program team, for its part, must likewise attend to planning the next board meeting—perhaps with a different set of members who represent another segment or region of the organization’s client base. Creating these types of forums typically demand long lead times to reserve venues and dates on executive calendars. Figure 1 depicts the not so virtuous circle that can result.

Figure 1: advisory boards risk sacrificing continuity as they plan for the next engagement

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Enter the Virtual Community

In cases where the demands of managing the board jeopardize the very quality and continuity of engagement the organization aspires to enjoy with its members—or, in cases where the length of  time between meetings plainly causes continuity to suffer, the program team can apply virtual communities to reform the virtuous circle.

How might this approach work? Let’s explore a simple scenario, using the flow in Figure 1 as a guide.

First, consider that many of the strategically important questions that you would pose to your advisory board constitute a de facto request to innovate together. Exploring the following questions, for example, demands that the board and you recast long-standing obstacles and behaviors in new ways.

  • What critical business challenges do you face over the next couple years (where our organization might be able to provide value)?
  • How might we improve our performance relative to the parameters to which you assign the highest importance?
  • What opportunities are we not pursuing with your organization which you would challenge us to pursue?

Second, consider that, whereas getting one client executive from point A to the board meeting can cost a lot of money, the incremental cost of inviting one more person to the virtual community is minimal by comparison. The organization may at times value the perspective not only of the executive invited to participate on the board, but also their colleagues and subordinates. For example, if your board member serves as their organization’s CIO, then they (and you) may also value their CMO counterpart’s perspective when they question relates to challenges they face in building their brand in new regions. Deploying a virtual community can extend the organization’s reach to this end (Figure 2).

Figure 2: opening the conversation to more people within the client’s organization

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Third, consider the possibilities associated with linking the conversational thread that you started in the virtual community during the planning phases for the board meeting (i.e., “What are the critical questions?”) with the opportunities you now have to fully explore them as a group, on site at an attractive venue. Starting early and enabling the conversation around the critical questions to persist up until the time you engage on them helps you avoid committing the cardinal sins of advisory board engagement: asking questions for which you have already decided the answer (i.e., the sin of post facto validation) and asking questions for which the answers will always be peripheral to your strategic plan (the sin of irrelevance).

Likewise, you can continue the conversation immediately following the board meeting through the virtual community, weaving in the perspectives that the group gained during their time together. This approach effectively solves the problem advisory groups face in hosting compelling board meetings, but then gliding into a period of relative silence and, for the board members, relative ambiguity around what happens next.

Closing the Loop

In closing, while supplementing the physical, or in-person, meetings with a virtual community centered on collaborative innovation is not a requirement to run a successful customer advisory board, the approach can offer the benefits of continuity and reach: continuity in the dialogue before, during, and after the meetings; and, reach in terms of being able to involve the board member’s counterparts in particular topics as the need arises (Figure 3).

Further, basing the overall engagement on exploring to the fullest the potential that collaborative innovation brings clarity to the purpose of the board, along with the supporting agenda for the venue and the threads for the virtual counterpart. Seeking advice—ostensibly the purpose of advisory boards—requires the organization to form and to reach a shared understanding on the critical questions. Ideas flow from there.

People interested in learning more about why and when forming customer advisory boards make sense will enjoy reading The B2B Executive Playbook by Sean Geehan. I served as one of the reviewers and can attest to the quality of Sean’s insights.

Figure 3: adding the virtual community complement to a customer advisory board

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By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.