Adapted from an article originally published by the author in Inc. Magazine.
You know that many startups fail to take advantage of one of the best kept secrets of product management and company strategy, the customer council. If you’re invested in a growing company that does not yet have a customer council, you may want to encourage the founders to create one. Here is how to operate one and some important traps for the unwary that you can use as a framework when you talk to your CEOs about the concept.
How to Operate a Customer Council
Everyone’s time is valuable, especially the senior people at valued customers, so keep the meeting tight – make sure it is well-planned, starts on time, and sticks to an agenda. Wherever possible, get advance feedback on the agenda from at least a sampling of the invitees.
Face to face meetings are the best because video conferences are so much less engaging (if they work at all), but video or telephone conference calls are still better than nothing. Ideally the meeting will take place at the company’s offices so that customers get a feel for the culture and a small number of your key players can participate, but it is important that you have a comfortable and professional space that is conducive to good interaction over several hours.
You can consider ending with a more social dinner, but it is expensive and not absolutely necessary. If you span other traditional meal times, certainly offer some sustenance – an army marches on its stomach.
To extract the most from everyone’s time, a dedicated moderator can be hugely valuable. Not only will a good moderator keep the discussion on topic and useful, he or she can extract input from the quieter types in the room and also better control the more dominant voices. Make sure the moderator is strong and competent, and keep in mind that he or she might have to be firm, so, to avoid future awkwardness you may want to advise that the company avoid putting the main customer-facing sales person in the moderator role.
The building blocks of a good agenda include company updates; thoughts on product vision; ideas implemented from the previous council meetings; structured input from customers on a couple topics such as product, market, technology, trends, and competition; some highly interactive brainstorming time for stimulating creative ideas; and networking time for participants to connect with each other. Set an agenda that keeps the pace brisk, has an order that keeps it fresh by varying activity type, and does not have large blocks which could induce “death by PowerPoint.”
There may be costs to ensuring a good group, such as reimbursing travel expenses and paying for some food. If the company does not have an appropriate conference room, they may have to rent a space for the meeting. And the company may have to pay for a good moderator if an appropriately-skilled volunteer does not exist within the company. For resource-constrained startups, these expenses can be painful. But ultimately they are worth it - a properly-designed and well-orchestrated council meeting can provide value to the company that is many times the cost of conducting it. I am aware of one case when, to the surprise of the hosts, on their way out the door, a customer casually said they had not been planning to renew their large annual license prior to being invited to the customer council, but what they saw and heard changed their mind. That is money well-spent.
Traps for the Unwary
Your CEO should impress upon prospective members that this is a serious commitment of their time and that they are expected to attend meetings - continuity is important. However, that level of commitment applies to the CEO as well – make sure that key people consistently attend and pay attention. No fiddling with smartphones, no ducking out for routine calls, no backbench chatter. Expect customers to give their respect and plan to pay it back by demonstrating respect for them.
The moderator should take notes on the whiteboard or tripod. The founders should be held accountable for actions agreed to at the meeting and should plan on reporting how they have implemented input from past sessions. If they don’t want to implement something, they should not agree to it in the meeting – they should discuss it further until there is agreement on viewpoints.
Readiness to Learn
This is not a sales call. This is not an opportunity to generate leads or upsell customers. This is not a forum to lecture or argue with customers. This is an opportunity to listen to customers sharing important things the founders need to hear. They must participate with a mindset of listening and learning. And ask clarifying questions. And test the assumptions behind their assertions. They should try to understand where each customer is coming from. As noted in our previous article on the advantages of customer councils, some leads and new use cases for the product may naturally emerge, but that should be a side benefit, not the purpose of the meeting.
Awareness of the Source
As your founders are taking input, they should keep the perspective of the customer in mind. Early adopters of technology are going to think differently than late adopters. Power users, customers using the product in unique ways, and customers using one-off integrations are going to have different priorities than more mainstream users. The company should try to keep in mind the ways in which a customer is using the product so that they can filter their feedback appropriately before applying it to their roadmap. They have to remain mindful that they will often get the strongest feedback from the most biased users.
If your CEO is going to put in the effort to plan a good meeting, he or she should put in the effort to make sure the meeting is well-moderated and respects the customers’ time. The meeting should start on time and all breaks should end on time. The moderator should keep the conversation on-topic and should control overly-dominant voices, seeking the input of the quieter voices in the room. The CEO and/or moderator should think through the pacing and the structure of the meeting in advance to keep people comfortable and engaged. The moderator should make it a safe and stimulating environment for creative input by emphasizing brainstorming and riffing off of each other’s ideas.
Now that you have a handle on the what and why of customer councils as well as how best to operate them, why not share this secret weapon with one of your CEOs and encourage him or her to give it a try?