Rather than thinking about what you could do, think about what you have done. Where do you feel you’ve made the greatest impact out of everything you have done? The Congruity Group leader Betsy Westhafer found her forte when she realized that Customer Advisory Boards were her strongest suit. She sits with Denise Freier to tap into the undeniable power of the Customer Advisory Boards. She talks about how she started in the field and became so passionate about CABs. Learn more as Betsy shares with us the best practices for designing strategic CABs and the pitfalls to avoid in executing them.
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Customer Advisory Boards: Strengthening Strategic Relationships With Betsy Westhafer
This topic is around strategic customer advisory boards. If any of you have ever tried this, you know that it is extremely important and valuable yet can be a tricky undertaking. I am thrilled to have with us Betsy Westhafer, CEO of The Congruity Group, as this is such a relevant topic with our members nowadays. Betsy, how about a quick intro and your background?
Thanks so much for the invitation to be here, Denise. I’m so excited to be able to chat with you. My name is Betsy Westhafer. I’m the CEO of The Congruity Group, which is based in Dayton, Ohio. What we do is we help our clients engage at the strategic level with the C-Suites of their strategic accounts. We’re going to dive more into how that all works. The benefits and the ROI are huge. We love what we do because we can directly see the impact very quickly. That’s what we do.
Thank you so much for joining us. This need for the C-Suite executives to engage directly with their customers is critical nowadays. It’s always been important more than ever before based on all the significant changes to the organizations, strategies, and priorities with this pandemic going on. Customers seem to be changing so much and rapidly that you have to do more to stay connected. That connection needs to happen, not just with our SAMs but with the executive leadership teams as well. This topic is extremely important. I thought it would be good if we started by laying the baseline for all of our members. What is or is not a customer advisory board, specifically an executive customer advisory board?
Backing up before I specifically answer that question, you’re right as far as the need now. As you were saying that, a thought came across to me that everybody has said that about, “You have to stay on top of technology. It’s changing so fast.” It’s the same idea with organizational leadership and engaging with your customers. It is changing so fast because everybody’s priorities are changing. They’re trying to figure it out simultaneously. All of these changes have created that need for executive to executive relationship with customers.
Strategic customer advisory board is bringing together the C-Suites of the host company with the C-Suites of the customers to have dialogue at the forward-looking mindset at the strategic level. Some of those topics include innovation, R&D, business models, product roadmap, all of the things that executives love to talk about and are important as they’re making their decisions on how to grow the organization. You can validate those strategies. You think about how many times you have seen companies put a product or service out into the market, thinking they’re going to hit a home run with it.
They’ve spent millions of dollars to get there, and then it falls flat. My assumption is that they didn’t test it out with a smaller portion of their market at the executive level. They may have done focus groups and some marketing and messaging testing, but at the executive level, is this something that is of value to their organization? It’s a chance to validate those strategies before they get to the point where they’re out there in the market, and things aren’t going according to plan.
To your question about what it’s not, it’s not a board of directors where they have decision-making authority or fiduciary responsibility. It’s very different than a board of directors. It’s a board of advisors, and the customers are there to be advisors. They’re not there to be sold to. It’s not an event. It’s an ongoing long-term strategic initiative versus a customer event.
One of my favorite things that comes out of this is the board members become so invested in the success of the organization because these are conversations that are held under an NDA relevant conversations with peers. They get a peek behind the curtain of the strategies of key suppliers. When they get so entrenched into that level of decision-making for a key supplier, it happens where they feel like they are part of an extension of that customer’s executive team. That leads to all kinds of things that we’ll talk about later, but advocacy, efforts, and all kinds of great results. It also makes it very hard for the competition to penetrate that account.
That makes great sense, but because it’s such a strategic topic area and things you discussed under NDA, who should the suppliers be facilitating a customer advisory board?You have to stay on top of technology. Click To Tweet
This is what I love about a CAB. Although you have a point person or the quarterback for the CAB initiative, which usually falls in the marketing department, it is a cross-functional initiative. For example, when we kick off a strategic CAB, we’ll go to the SAMs and say, “Who would you nominate based on these objectives and priorities for this customer advisory board? Who would you nominate to serve on this board, so you get the SAMs engaged?”
Marketing is running the process and then moving it upward toward the executive team saying, “Executives, what do you want to talk about? What are the key insights you’re looking for? What are the questions you would want to ask these executives of our key customers?” As the initiative goes on and you’re building out the agenda, you start bringing in other parts of the organization. You ask the product team, “We want to do a product session. It’s not feature function. It’s more product roadmap,” or something like that.
You bring in the product team. Maybe you’re thinking about changing a business model, so you bring in the finance team. It’s one of the things that is so helpful for internal alignment, which is a very hot topic across the SAM community. CAB, just by default because of the way it runs, brings in all parts of the organization. The marketing team usually runs the point, but it is a cross-functional organization initiative.
Internal alignment is a challenge for us. Before we go there, I wanted to see if you would spend a bit more time talking about the benefits to the supplier organization because I am sure this is a tricky and difficult exercise to go through. What value is it to the supplier’s organization to do this?
It’s not tricky or hard if you have the right process methodology and the expertise to run a CAB. There is some inherent risk because you’re bringing together these very important customers together with your executive team. For all the obvious reasons, it has to go right. If you don’t have the expertise to do that, it can be tricky, daunting, and filled with risk. We’ve been doing this for so many years and see how the process can work. It doesn’t have to be that hard. To your question about the benefits, we talked about validating the strategies for the host company and building those deep trusting relationships with key customers. It’s not a sales event. The impact on revenue is substantial.
One of the things that I have come across that was so exciting to us was the research done by Noel Capon and Christoph Senn. I’m in love with this research that they did. Noel, I believe, is a SAMA board member. They identified the five levels of engagement that they see in executives going from the hands-off guy that says, “It’s not my problem. That’s the sales guy,” all the way to what they refer to as a growth champion. What they did further was to associate compound annual growth revenue to that level of engagement.
Those numbers tell the whole story. The more engaged the executives are with the customers, the higher that compound annual growth is going to be. From a perspective of an executive, it’s being able to point to that and say, “This is why you want to do this. This is a huge benefit.” They weren’t speaking specifically about CABs, but they were talking about executive engagement. What we provide is the foundation, process, and consistency to have that executive engaged with the customers. I thought that research was so outstanding. It’s not nice to have. It is a have to have, and we provide that structure for it.
That research was at Columbia University. It had an impact on the ways that our members are engaging with their customers. I’m interested in, is there still a need for a net promoter score or other customer feedback tools? Would you do this in addition to that?
There is. The reason why is you’re looking for different things with different tools. What we’re looking for in an executive CAB is different than what you’re looking for in an MPS. There are so many different terms. There’s customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, customer journey, all these different customer things that measure different things.
They’re all very important, but what we’re talking about is different than that. It is what we believe has the highest level of impact moving forward. Some of those tools that you mentioned are lag measures. What we’re talking about is looking much further down the road with the insights from the customers at the executive level. There’s room for many of those tools. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
It seems extremely valuable to the supplier. What about the members of the advisory board themselves? Do they get benefits? Does this benefit extend to your other customers?
We get that question a lot because the CAB members are not paid to be there. The reason why is we don’t want it to be a financial incentive to their participation because that might cause them to withhold information. It might cause them to feel funny about the conversations because they’re getting paid to be there. There are a lot of reasons why we advocate for not paying them. In order for these very busy executives to spend 2 or 3 days offsite, a lot of times on a plane, to participate in an advisory board for a supplier, you have to create that value for them that has nothing to do with a monetary benefit.
What we find to be the most valuable to the members is peer-to-peer engagement, being able to be in a room full of people that are struggling with the same things, investigating the same things, and oftentimes in the same industry, looking at those challenges. Having the ability to have those peers together is highly valuable to them. Having access to the leadership team of a key partner is important to them and building those relationships at that high level with the executives of the host company.
Another big value is being able to have some influence over the strategic decisions that the host company is going to be making and being able to put that insight and input into their decision-making because that helps align both organizations. If they’re having these conversations and saying, “What would really benefit us is if you did this, or if you considered this,” that benefit to having that influence is valuable to the members. The other piece that we always coach our clients on is it doesn’t stop at that meeting.
The benefit has to be that the members don’t feel like they’ve wasted their time in attending. That communication piece is important. After the meeting, communicating with the board members, “Here’s what we heard you say. Here’s what we’re considering.” Even if we were going to defer that to Q4 next year, that’s fine. You can say that, but at least they know that their input was heard, validated, and acted upon. That’s highly valuable to those members as well.
It helped set the context when you said getting together for 2 to 3 days. It’s not a two-hour meeting over the telephone, necessarily. Although it might be virtual, it’s clearly an in-depth discussion. You mentioned aligning the organization. It’s been a challenge for SAMA, SAM, and our SAMA members all the time, this internal alignment, having your own company, being able to break down silos, and coming together for the customer. How do you see this helping in that challenge of alignment?Create value that has nothing to do with a monetary benefit. Click To Tweet
The alignment piece is one of the things that we get excited about because it’s very hard to argue with feedback directly from the customer when everybody, or at least the people in the meeting and on the very near periphery, are hearing it in the same context at the same time with the same peers in the room. All of that feedback that’s coming around or coming out from the CAB meeting is hard to argue with because this is your customers telling you, “This is what we need moving forward.”
As I mentioned in the agenda planning, the key to that alignment piece is pulling people in from different parts of the organization, but even further is that communication afterward, not just back to the board members but to the organization itself. We had an example. We had a technology services company. That was a client that asked us to do a debrief with their emerging leaders about what we heard in the CAB. They asked us to do it, so it wasn’t filtered through the lens of the internal team, “Here’s what happened. Here’s our partner who helps us with this CAB, giving you the information that was heard.”
It’s objective, not filled with any kind of political agenda or anything like that. It’s this unbiased report back. There were 700 people on that call that we got to say, “Here’s what happened.” Plus, that makes them feel more a part of the CAB initiative because there are many layers removed from being in the room, but they’re getting the information they need to do their jobs better and have a greater impact on the customers. The alignment piece happens before, during, and after the meeting, but it does absolutely help.
There are a lot of marketing initiatives that you can do to help with the alignment, a CAB newsletter going out internally. These are confidential conversations. You’re not saying anything that can’t be shared throughout the organization, but there’s enough there. You’re not attributing anything to a particular customer or anything like that.
Here at a high level is what we’re hearing and sharing that throughout the organization, an update from the CEO saying, “Here’s what’s up next on the CAB agenda. We’re going to be pulling in product and whatever the case may be.” Engaging the organization globally around the CAB initiative helps drive that alignment around what ultimately is the feedback from the highest levels of the customer.
Do the members of the board have any trouble with sharing with other members being there? Are there competitors there? I’m sure that it’s intended to be confidential, but are there any concerns that have come up?
We do not have competitors in the room. We have had a situation where one of our clients did not absorb that coaching from us. They said, “No. We have these two people we want both on the board. We want to check with them to see if they would mind.” Both of them said, “No, that’s fine.” What happened in the board meeting was one of them stepped out for a brief moment, and the other one said, “Now I can speak freely,” which is the worst thing. You don’t want to have that happen. You don’t want anybody to feel that. They finally understood why we coached so heavily on not having competitors.
The answer to that question is we do rolling terms. When we have a board assembled, we ask them, “Do you want to serve for 12, 18 or 24 months?” You have a core group always, but you have people rolling off after that first twelve months. Say you have two competitors that you want both of them to serve. You invite the first one in, give them a twelve-month term, and then bring the other competitor in. You’re getting both of their feedback, just not at the same time. The other thing is we do not record the meetings.
A lot of times, if those meetings are recorded, it will hold people back as well. We’ve had this happen one time, and it did not work well, which is why we recommend against it. We don’t allow people to phone in. Take a side virtual now because there will be an end to all virtual meetings. We are doing virtual CABs, and they’re very effective, but we don’t allow someone to call into an offsite meeting, “It’s disruptive. The technology’s wonky.”
The other reason is we want them there to engage the meetings after, like dinners, hanging out in the bar, and going out and seeing some local sites. At the end of the day, those things are so incredibly valuable for the relationship development that gets lost if somebody’s phoning it in. Those are some of the guidelines that we pass along to alleviate any of those concerns,
About how often does the advisory board meet during a year?
It’s a minimum of twice to get that momentum and comradery. I was talking to someone about this before. All of our current clients are doing three meetings per year. Some of them are virtual. It also depends on the budget because we recommend going offsite for a couple of reasons. You want to give them a good experience, nice location, warm weather in February, that kind of thing.
The other reason is it sends a powerful message to the customers that this is so important that the executive team from the host company is willing to get out of their office, be undistracted by the world around them, and focus on what you have to say. It’s a powerful message to go offsite. That then leads to budget issues and stuff, depending on how big of the experience you’re trying to create. It’s anywhere from 2 to 3 times a year. We also do some optional calls in between those meetings. For example, a lot of times, we’ll have a board member, and we’ll ask them to present something they’re doing that would be valuable for the rest of the board members to hear.
Maybe a 20 to 25-minute presentation, Q&A, and an optional board meeting will do. If it’s not anything confidential, we can record and send those out. Generally speaking, we don’t do the recordings on those either. It’s a continuous engagement, but we try to minimize how much actual time. We try to pack a lot of bang-in for the time buck.
This sounds wonderful to pursue. If one of our readers out there is saying, “I want to do this,” how do they begin to get that business case put together and take that forward to their companies?
It’s about not its tactics so much as what would this mean for our organization if we did this. We’ve talked about internal alignment, strategy validation, relationship building, and how it supports the efforts of the SAMs because it’s going to lead to account growth and account retention. It’s going to allow for deeper relationships, not just SAM to customer, but company to company, executive to executive, all the way down. It supports the efforts of the SAMs. We help our clients do that as we’re putting our proposals together, “Here’s what’s going to resonate with your executive team to try to get this be approved.” It’s about the business value that it brings to the executive team in meeting their objectives.Customers are changing so much so rapidly that you have to do more to stay connected. Click To Tweet
Who typically makes the decision in a company to make sure this happens the right way? Is that up at the C-Suite level that this needs executive support?
Generally, yes. It depends on how large the organization is. A lot of times, it’s at a business unit level. I also wanted to point out that we’ve had clients that have multiple boards. For example, they have 3 verticals, 4 geographies, they mix and match, and they get this global perspective. They have multiple boards. Depending on what that looks like depends on who the decision-maker is. Oftentimes the CMO is the decision-maker, and sometimes the CEO. Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s another client. It was the chief commercial officer. He headed up sales and marketing. He was the ultimate decision-maker. It depends on the structure of the organization.
It seems like a very good process to put in place and be structured. Do companies tend to do this internally, or is it better to have more of an external facilitator do this?
We have a bias toward this because it’s what we do. Many of our clients come to us after they have tried to do it themselves. I tell people it is a critical initiative that has to go flawlessly because these are high-stakes customers with high-stakes internal stakeholders. It has to go well. To be able to do that by squeezing it into your day job when you have all these other responsibilities and lack of experience in doing these is challenging. This is our day job. It’s all we do. We don’t even do any other consulting work. We only do executive-level CABs.
In order to have it be world-class and minimize any damage that can be done to relationships if it doesn’t go well, both internal and customer relationships, our advice is to get a third party to manage this that has the experience. The other thing is a third party won’t have that internal bias. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just a natural bias, but the way you phrase a question may be leading, or the way you do the report back may serve your purposes. I don’t think anybody does that with malice or purposefully, or at least I’d like to think that, but we don’t have that. As a third party, it’s more objective feedback.
We’re getting close to the end here. I’m loving this conversation. One last question. How does the host company know they’re successful? Are there key things that they should be looking at to know that they are making the right progress?
One of the things we do when we set up the charter is at the very beginning of the initiative, we build out a charter and decide what are those metrics of success for the CAB so that we can monitor to make sure we are being successful. Some of those may include account retention of the CAB members, account value, and growth. We measure the value that the board members get from the meetings. We do that after each meeting to say, “Was this valuable to you? Was this a good use of your time?”
We look at those metrics because if it’s going to be valuable to the customers, by default, it’s going to be valuable to the host company. We look at how many of them engage in additional advocacy efforts, how many of the insights from the CAB have been actioned, and what that led to. Some of them are very quantitative. Some of them are a little more qualitative. We decide on those ROI metrics and success metrics ahead of time to know what we’re driving toward, evaluate it after each year, and make sure that we’re on point.
I love telling this story. We had a client that had a strategic advisory board. It was their second meeting of the board and one particular CEO’s first meeting. He had missed the first meeting. He was coming to the second board meeting as a first-timer. He was taking it all in. This is a CEO of a very visible retail brand that everybody’s heard of. At the end of the meeting, before we had even left the boardroom, everybody was in the boardroom, collecting their stuff and saying their goodbyes.
The chief commercial officer came up to me and said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened.” I said, “What?” This particular CEO said, “Before this meeting, I was ready to kick you guys to the curb. We’ve already been talking to your competitors. We have not been happy. We couldn’t see how this partnership could continue working. I was ready to kick you to the curb, but I wanted to give you one last shot by coming to this meeting.” He said, “Now I see where you’re heading with your strategy, how that strategy aligns with mine, and how it’s going to help me grow my business.” He said, “Our contract is up with you a year from now. Let’s not wait. Let’s renegotiate it now, make it a three-year deal, and throw on all of our international business while we’re at it.”
He then went on to refer our client to another company over in the UK. That company became a client and has emerged to be a top twenty account for our client. You think about that ROI. The chief commercial officer said to us, “As far as I’m concerned, the first two meetings have paid for the next ten year’s worth of CABs.” When you think about ROI, those things can and do happen pretty quickly to recognize that ROI for such an initiative.
I love that story. It is certainly relevant to all of our strategic relationships to get that binding relationship with a client. That is amazing. Betsy, thank you so much. This has been extremely helpful and insightful. I appreciate your time. I know there’s more information out there. In addition, I know you’ve got a new book coming out there. I encourage our readers to check your website to make sure that they have an opportunity to get that new book, which will specifically be around executive support and value co-creation, another topic that is so relevant to our SAMs. Betsy, thanks again for joining us. To our readers, thank you for reading.
Thank you so much, Denise. I’m so happy to be here.
- The Congruity Group
- ProphetAbility: The Revealing Story of Why Companies Succeed, Fail, or Bounce Back
About Betsy Westhafer
Co-author of #1 Best Seller (and 7 days as #1 Amazon Hot New Release) “ProphetAbility, The Revealing Story of Why Companies Succeed, Fail, or Bounce Back.” Co-host of the podcast, “REALLY Know Your Customer.” Launched CongruityConnect – an AI-driven Digital Advisory Board platform.