Why I like customer advisory boards

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By Jesse Rodgers

Seeking out customer feedback and using it to build a great product is not a new concept. Great designers have been doing it for a long time as have great companies. The Lean Startup manual (or startup bible to many) talks about involving the customer while developing that minimum viable product (MVP): “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

Where that generally leads people is straight to building a simple application that might not be sexy in its design but it is functional or a landing page about a new product that might not exist yet. Using Google Analytics and collecting email addresses along with some “conversion” points becomes what you focus on. However, if you forget to actually talk to customers as well you could be wasting a lot of time. Especially when you are moving past your MVP or have a product that people are paying for.

Live and die by automated metrics

Sales numbers and application metrics don’t give you the whole story. Your sales numbers tell you that your marketing is working and your sales people are doing their jobs — especially if sales are going up and to the right. What those numbers don’t tell you is if people are finding the product they actually want or if it is simply close enough that they want to give it a try. Application usage metrics might help you understand if people love your product or what part they love, but this might put you in a situation where you have to react instead of being proactive on your product. By the time you figure out that you might just have good marketing and sales people and the product is off the mark (it gets obvious when your churn rate climbs) you lose momentum.

Momentum is so very important for a startup, or any business for that matter. Talking to customers regularly helps you understand the metrics better, but taking customer feedback and translating it into product effectively eludes many because it is an art, not a science.

I like the “old fashioned” process of drawing out a prototype, spending time with who you think your customer is, listening to them and answering their questions. Automation can come later. If I want to collect the most information with the least effort I want paper prototypes and discussions with customers. I can’t emphasize enough how important that first highly talkative but very loosely connected (socially) customer is (the alpha customer).

Once you have built something you can track all the metrics you want but I would argue you will not get good insight on your customer with automated measurements alone. Having sat in on enough usability studies over the years, I don’t think that how people use something represents their interest in using that something, most of the time. By sitting down and talking to customers you build a much better persona in your mind of who your customer is and what those automated numbers actually mean.

Go back to the customer regularly

If you want customer feedback to be enshrined in your organizational culture you need to put a formal process around it. The established way to do this is by setting up a “customer advisory board” made up of your most feedback-giving customers. You can call it something else if you like but don’t leave out the basics:

  • Treat the customers in this group with the same respect you treat your board of directors. They are volunteering their time and providing invaluable feedback.
  • Be as open and transparent with this group as possible. Create an environment where they aren’t afraid to offend you about your product and be totally open with them about future product direction. If you feel they must sign a non-disclosure agreement to be comfortable with being open, ask them to do so.

How it works is really simple. You have a scheduled meeting at a regular interval, use your favorite screen-sharing conference application (Google hangouts work really well btw), and start listening to your customers. Take lots of notes, write a summary of the meeting and share it with the board members. You can use that to keep the conversation going via email between meetings. From there you can decide what level of participation and engagement works for you. It is a process to start using a customer advisory board well so ease into it and enjoy it.

The advantage of setting up something a bit more formal is that you are making a commitment to use it. The timing on doing this for a startup could be on day one as you build out your MVP. If you are a company with a product that is selling now but don’t have a customer feedback process in place, you should certainly think about taking this step.

This post was originally published on Jesse’s blog, Who you calling a Jesse?

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