Create a Customer Advisory Board for Your Startup

Creating a Customer Advisory Board for Your Startup

Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken with a number of early-stage startups with impressive customer numbers but no formal customer advisory board. I strongly believe your startup should build out a CAB once you reach 75-100 customers. Others believe you should have a CAB when you have your first two dozen customers. Opinions certainly vary on when to create your CAB, but the benefits to a young company can be incalculable.

What is a Customer Advisory Board?

A Customer Advisory Board (or Customer Advisory Council) is a cross-section of customers that meets to provide feedback and input on products, services and overall company direction. Beyond that, the CAB serves several other functions. Your CAB should:

  • Surface any customer experience problems and help craft solutions.
  • Offer insight and validation of your strategic plans.
  • Provide feedback on your current offerings and forward-looking roadmap.

How do you create a Customer Advisory Board?

You start building your CAB by figuring out who will run it. This should be someone with broad knowledge about the company, its products and its customers. It’s not uncommon to see a Senior Director of Product Management, Chief Product Officer, Chief Customer Officer or similar titles running a CAB. This role might be supported by analyst or marketing roles to help create content for CAB meetings.

Supporting a CAB takes time. Getting a CAB up and running can take up to 50% of the CAB leader’s time. This percentage could increase in during the ramp-up to meetings and during post-meeting debriefs.

Once the CAB leader is selected, you’ll want to choose from a range of customers. This is challenging because you have to be aware of the competitive realities of your customer base. Recruit too many customers from one industry that compete with each other, and they’re less likely to offer feedback or highlight challenges in a group setting. Ideally, you’re looking to start with 5-10 customers without too much industry overlap.

This may be a surprise, but your customers may not be all that eager to join your board. It’s a time commitment for them that primarily benefits your product team. You’ll need to highlight the things they get in exchange, like:

  • Access to senior executives, including the CEO. (Involving the CEO is essential, particularly as your company grows. It will improve the prestige of the CAB.)
  • An opportunity to learn new best practices from peers.
  • Beta-testing new features.
  • Network with similar peers and increase their profiles within the industry.

Once you have your initial CAB candidates, you’ll want to draft a charter of sorts detailing the confidentiality expected within the CAB and between members, the types and quality of feedback desired, how frequently the group will meet and the participation requirements.

How do you keep your CAB engaged?

With your CAB members selected and charter in place, you have to create a feedback plan. The suggestions CAB members make or feedback they offer must be prioritized and each item responded to and tracked. The fastest way to get your members to lose interest is failing to provide feedback. If CAB members feel their issues aren’t getting addressed, they’ll lose interest. And you’ll lose spending time with your most important customers, getting validation and critical feedback that you couldn’t get any other way.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve created a CAB for your company and any advice you’d offer to startups on their first customer advisory board. Thanks for reading!


Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash