The Secret Life of Customer Advisory Boards

solutionIf you were the VP of Marketing of an Atlanta-based technology firm three years ago, chances are you were not having fun.

Jill, the VP, was working diligently in her office one day when the CEO walked in to pay a visit. The CEO, Don, proudly announced that he was ready to fund a customer advisory board (CAB). The company just recently received a hefty VC financial boost, and the CAB would help them grow faster.

Or so he hoped.

Don hand-picked the members he wanted to invite—over 30 individuals—and Jill had no say in the group nominees. Over a two year period, the CAB experienced sixty % turnover. Group members were tired being used primarily as a test bed for new innovations. The CAB disbanded with little fanfare.

When I recently interviewed more than 30 B2B companies with CAB experiences, similar debacles were reported more often than you would think.

What is a CAB?

If you are considering building a CAB program for your organization, tread carefully. Begin first with understanding its true purpose.

A CAB is defined as an ongoing customer membership program. Ideally, it contains fewer than 16 members. Well designed programs help B2B companies:

  • Refine and validate strategic plans.
  • Radically improve customer service.
  • Uncover new product and service opportunities and ideas.
  • Deepen customer relationships.
  • Provide value added, confidential discussion forums for customers and industry allies.

Here is what a CAB is NOT. It is not a collection of hand-picked friends and diehard fans who will perpetuate groupthink.

The Purpose of a Customer Advisory Board

Customer advisory boards differ from focus groups, impersonal satisfaction surveys or celebratory recognition events. They are infinitely better than relying exclusively on your sales team to report second hand information. Most importantly, they serve to create a long-term, collaborative container for deepening your customer relationships and community impact.

While researching companies who deploy CABs, we found that their sponsor companies had several common traits:

  • They are sincerely growth-oriented.
  • They believe in gathering unfiltered feedback to refine their future plans and services.
  • They are passionate about developing trusted advisor relationships with senior decision makers and industry influencers—and making a difference.
  • They need to adapt quickly to industry and regulatory shifts to ensure continuity.
  • They are action-oriented, and are willing to implement actions that advisors recommend.

If these traits describe your firm, you may just be well-positioned to build a strong CAB program. In our next article, we will discuss nine strategies to design an effective Customer Advisory Board and myriad examples of companies with high performing boards.

Until then, keep your office door closed and your CEO distracted.

[Photo courtesy of]

Copyright 2011, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

Lisa Nirell is the Chief Energy Officer of EnergizeGrowth®. She helps companies increase their wealth, improve their performance and attract great clients. Since 1983, Lisa has worked with Trend Micro, Zappos, BMC Software, Microsoft, IBM, and hundreds of entrepreneurs in nine countries. Lisa is also an award-winning expert speaker, business columnist and the author of "EnergizeGrowth® NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company." To download your five complimentary educational bonuses and sample chapter, visit and register for EnergizeNews.

Add New Comment


  • Doug Collins


    I enjoy your narrative and thoughtful perspective.

    Would value your view on 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, per the
    following article.




  • Lisa Nirell

    In your experience, what are the biggest shifts you have seen in how companies facilitate and lead advisory boards since you began?

    I look forward to hearing your perspective.

    Please join my community and let's stay connected:

    Cheers, Lisa

  • Lisa Nirell

    Good to see you here! I am looking forward to reading your posts, and how Dell has leveraged their Advisory Panels.

    I am amazed at the ROI some tech and consulting firms are reporting and attributing to their CABs.

    Thank you for contributing.

  • David Gardner

    Hello, Lisa...agree with the sentiments you expressed above. Your readers may be interested in 2 Fast Company posts I've written as a member of Dell's Customer Advisory Panel:

    I review progress as a result of Dell's Customer Advisory Panel in the second article. It's all about the journey with a CAP, it's not merely an event. If a company isn't seriously interested in listening, learning and taking action, a CAP would undermine relationships with customers. Dave Gardner

  • Shawn Frey


    Thanks for the article. I've been running CAB's since 2003. Your research is spot on. Ideally when I set up a CAB from scratch I like no more than 7 members. I like the group to develop into a group of friends sharing stories over breakfast. This can take years to develop, that's why it is so important to pick the right members with the help of an objective facilitaor... not just the sales people, sales manager, and CEO.

    Done right, a CAB can greatly add to your companies overall health and customer loyalty.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on the subject. Really enjoyed reading the article.