A Framework for Your First B2B SaaS Customer Advisory Board

If you’re reading this, chances are you have considered launching a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) at your startup, but for some reason talked yourself out of it. “Our customers aren’t ready,” is the most common excuse I hear. In most cases, that reason couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, I’m speaking from experience when I say: you need to start your CAB this year. And I’m going to help you.

Why should you start a CAB ASAP? I love this post from Andy Farquharson about account growth. As a marketer, you should read this and be able to draw a conclusive line between launching a CAB program and its effect on revenue.

“No doubt you’ve heard the saying before, “It costs more to win new customers than it does to grow revenue from your existing customers”,” writes Andy. He includes this graphic.

It costs more to win new customers than it does to grow revenue from your existing customers

If you do anything differently with your event marketing budget this year, use a slice to help grow sales to your existing customers by launching your first CAB.

Let’s dive in.

Write the Rules. Drive the Strategy.

Define your team. I cannot stress enough how important it is that marketing run lead on your CAB efforts. You need someone that is customer-centric but can also run logistics and bring executives, customer success, product, and product marketing together in order to shape the CAB goals. This person is also going to need to know how to recruit customers and work with creative. A well rounded marketing person is your best bet. When setting aside project hours expect 40 hours of prep work. If it’s two days, expect 80 hours. I have logged my hours, they always decline with each CAB I do – but the first one was a total learning experience and it showed in my hours.

Figure out Budget. If you’re a startup you can get away with a killer CAB for $22k. But I have spent up to $55k to take it to the next level. You need a venue, catering, swag, T&E, signage (optional), and you should splurge on a dinner experience. Find something unique. A memorable dinner experience can help customers connect on a personal level and build lasting relationships with each other. I recommend using Kapow to plan this part. Give them a celebrity chef, live music at the end, or some fun activity. Grab baseball tickets and special access at the ballpark — most teams offer something fun and memorable.

Establish Goals. If you have no idea where to start, I created a free deck that includes what your CAB goals should be. You can adjust based on your industry, but these are pretty standard. As far as attendance goes, you may decide to have a 15 person CAB versus the more traditional 10. Maybe you let each invited customer bring one person from their team. Perhaps you need to run two CABs because your personas and use cases vary. The format is flexible and totally up to you.

Employ the 80/20 Rule. This means the customer gets to speak 80% of the time, and your company gets to speak 20% of the time. If you go much beyond that 20%, your customer may think you’re pushing an agenda and you’ll lose trust. In your invite, be clear that your goal is to listen to them and then practice what you preach onsite. Employ a moderator to keep things on-task and moving.

Get Your Spreadsheet on. Or whatever project management tool you use. I use Asana now, and it’s simply the best. I can assign subtasks that send auto-reminders on deadlines to the rest of the team so we don’t miss a beat. But, if you haven’t deployed a project management software, you’ll be living in spreadsheet land. There are so many meetings and logistics to plan. But have no fear – I have provided you my old one from my pre-Asana days. It’s ugly, but it will get you started.

Decide Who to Invite. Work with sales and customer success leadership here. Usually you start with your top billed customers. Assess their renewal dates, location, and general sentiment toward your brand. Don’t be afraid to invite angry customers. This is your executive team’s chance to win their hearts and minds. Start a spreadsheet with suggestions, share with customer success managers and account executives. Let them write notes, cross off the wrong attendees, add the right ones. Get final say from your CRO, COO, and CEO on who is attending. Once it’s finalized, don’t change it! You are the customer advocate now, so make sure you fight for the integrity of your board.

Go! You’ve got a plan. You ran the slides past your CEO and you have the venue, budget, etc. Have your first meeting with key stakeholders, get the greenlight and start inviting attendees. You just need to leap at this program and you cannot be shy. And the biggest flag you can fly? Sales is not invited. You will always have that one rep that tells you why it’s so important they are there because their “deal” is so big. It doesn’t matter. This is not a sales event. Just say no! I usually compromise and invite them to the happy hour or dinner activity post meeting, so they can enjoy the social part with their account.

Nail the Logistics

No matter how strategic you want to be in your marketing career there are always logistics to take care of. You must consider the customer experience at your CAB, which is why your customer marketing team should manage it. They are best suited to bring both strengths to the table: strategy and logistics. Whether you love or hate logistics, you can run, you can hide, but you still need to consider the following:

CEO Driven Invites. Send all invites from your CEO. This could be written and sent on fancy paper with an intriguing gift in the mail (be careful of those enterprise compliance rules), it could be a simple but thoughtful text email, you could send from Marketo/Hubspot/Eloqua/Pardot or something intimate like PaperlessPost. The medium doesn’t matter, but the delivery must come from your CEO. I cannot stress this enough, you have to up-level all communication.

Venue. Work with a vendor. Outsource this. Place your focus on strategy and content, not the venue. But don’t be boring and choose a hotel conference room. Pick something unique. In SF I hosted a CAB at Hotel Zetta in their Playroom. I brought in a photobooth (sooo 2015, check out the GIF booth!), photographer, and there were about 17 different kinds of games. Get food trucks, a taco bar, mimosas, whatever it takes. If you have secretly been planning your wedding on Pinterest for 5 years, this is where you can bring all those creative ideas to wow your customers. Don’t let them think you’re boring.

Swag. Most likely you have invited decision makers – director level and above. Step your swag game up. I’ve done Beats by Dre, Napa wines with personalized glasses, Patagonia vests, and “vacation in a bag” swag stuffed full of things you would need for the beach. Again, don’t be boring. Wow them. Work with your creative director to come up with something on brand, often tech forward, and definitely useful.

Like they say, every event is a “snowflake,” all different in their own way. Hopefully this simple framework gives you the outline to get started!