How to get your customers involved in software development

Set up a customer advisory board

Companies that sell software solutions to enterprise customers should consider creating a customer advisory board (CAB). In many situations the CAB is the result of a properly functioning user group. Users elect a committee to act on their behalf to influence the direction of the product development. If you sell software to businesses and don’t have a CAB you may be missing out on a great opportunity to engage at both a personal and very strategic level with your customers.

Customer_led

A CAB typically consists of a forum of selected senior executives that meet regularly to discuss common industry challenges. The CAB is facilitated by the software vendor; but in most cases it is run by the customers who ideally elect a chairperson and set the agenda. In practice the CAB always needs the vendor to play quite an active role, or it won’t happen.   The reason for existence of the CAB is (on the surface) the software product itself, but in practice there are many other tangible and intangible benefits for both the customer and vendor alike.

I have previously written on the importance to consultants of building software products that create a diversified revenue stream and drive new consulting projects. What is also important is that a software product will provide you with a continued reason to gain access to decision makers in your customers.

Most CIO’s understand the value of participating on the advisory board of their most significant software vendors.

These include:

  1. Professional networking and exposure to industry trends.
  2. Sharing of best practices and learning in a non-competitive context.
  3. Building a deeper relationship with the vendor executives.
  4. Gain strategic insights and understanding of the vendors initiatives.
  5. Influence development priorities and drive value from their investment.

From a software vendor perspective, a CAB also holds many benefits, such as:

  1. Regular interaction with customer executives that creates an opportunity to build deeper and more personal relationships.
  2. Understanding the customer experience of your solution at a strategic / executive level.
  3. Understanding of industry trends that will impact on your development roadmap.
  4. Enabling pro-active initiatives to solve common problems.

A software vendor should see the setting up of a CAB as a strategic initiative that really needs to be done well.  It goes far beyond just marketing to the core of good strategic account management.

Over the years I have been involved in many CAB’s; both from a client perspective and the software vendors perspective. Some CAB’s have worked extremely well, others have not been particularly valuable.

Here are some best practices I have gathered over time that you might want to consider when setting up / running a CAB for your own product:

  1. A CAB must not be a marketing or sales forum or you will not attract the right level of participant.
  2. Exclusivity is important. This implies a smaller audience of hand selected industry representatives from your clients,  preferably at executive (C) level. It takes hard work to get executives together and you as the vendor need to be prepared to invest in this process and take responsibility to get participation.
  3. Sharing of practical experience with your product need to be prioritised, but avoid discussing end user issues and detailed features.
  4. Focus is critical. Do not try to have a CAB around multiple products. There must be a real product focus and an industry focus.
  5. Your top decision makers must participate. In every instance where I have travelled to CAB’s held by software vendors around the world, the very busy CEO made the effort to meet us. If the vendor CEO is not committed this is a strong signal to the customers that there is something amiss with the vendor.
  6. The meetings must be well facilitated, encouraging debate around any topic; the vendor should never get too defensive and should remain open to any criticism.
  7. Set the agenda short and relevant. Executives typically cannot spend time in long events. Try to include an informal dinner or something similar to encourage relationship building.
  8. Don’t mix up the role of the CAB with the role of a user group – both have different and complimentary roles to play in your relationship building efforts.  The CAB is typically for executives, the user group for end users.
  9. Don’t mix up sales with strategic relationship building.  The two are arguably mutually exclusive and any effort to hard sell product to members of a CAB will usually not go down well.

A well executed CAB is an unique opportunity for software companies to develop and nurture strategic relationships with your customers. If you don’t have one in place yet, or if you have tried and it did not work well; perhaps now is the time to revisit the underlying raison d’être and start afresh.

If you are considering setting up a CAB or have some experiences to share I’d enjoy hearing from you.