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Just like companies in many industries, more tech firms are forming customer advisory boards (CAB) in hopes of gaining competitive advantage. Also referred to as customer advisory council, the focus of CABs is to provide strategic advice that the business can use. Traditionally, CABs meet in person a few times a year.

At a time when customer relationships are becoming a company's last competitive advantage, having a focused group of customers who can give you strategic input is priceless. But while the majority of Fortune 500 companies profess to be customer centric, customer centered, and customer obsessed, does it really make sense to talk to your most valued customers only once every few months?

Given its importance, a CAB should be set up to enable the company to be more agile. The way to do that is by bringing the customer-advisory model to the cloud (by creating a virtual advisory council) or by complimenting current efforts with an online component. Here are 5 ways this approach can improve on the traditional customer advisory board set up:

  1. Staying ahead of the curve.

Today, most customer advisory initiatives involve anywhere from one to 100 people, meeting in person to discuss business questions. Feedback is typically captured manually in Excel or in a CRM program.

Not only does this process require a large investment of both time and resources; merging tables and documents into something that can be easily shared across the enterprise takes even longer. This delay constitutes time - valuable time that your competitors may use to act before you do.

If you want to stay ahead of the competition, you need to quickly synthesize the data that you get from your CAB into actionable insight. One way to do this is by setting up an online community where CAB members can be engaged more frequently. By bringing your CAB online, you can get results faster and make data-driven decisions sooner.

  1. Engaging your customers where they are.

Customers in your CAB want you to listen - there's very little doubt about that. But what happens when your customers get too busy? Remember: these are people who are not paid to engage with you. They have other priorities outside your CAB.

Customers are on their mobile devices; they're frequently on the go; they're tweeting and sharing content with their networks regularly. So why shouldn't your CAB cater to their lifestyle?

An online customer advisory council can make it easy for people to participate. It can never replace the important on-site customer visit or even the annual customer and partner summit, but if you're asking people to engage with your company and give you meaningful insights, it is important to make it easy for them to share. Consider a quick mobile survey or discussion forum that they can access with a device of their choice. Don't miss out on important feedback: make it easy for your customers to be heard.

  1. Iterating to drive innovation.

Hosting an in-person focus group is a great way to capture deep insight or gather product-level feedback. What you learn from customers when you connect with them face-to-face can guide strategy. But what if you could get more insights without significantly increasing your investment in time and resources?

The challenge here is one of agility: Because product development and innovation teams work in quick sprints, companies also need to get more regular insight that will inform strategy. Engaging your CAB more often online is a great way to keep the experience interesting for customer members while gathering the necessary insight to prioritize and invest. If your CAB is online, you can even share results back with customers in the form of a newsletter or an infographic to demonstrate how their feedback is shaping company decisions.

  1. Strengthening customer relationships.

The empowered customer of today expects a meaningful, lasting connection with the companies they buy from. Companies can take on this new challenge in several ways: social listening, often coupled with CRM solutions, is a great place to start. Customer summits or in-person focus groups work well for sharing information back with customers or digging deeper on key issues a few times a year.

But social listening and face-to-face meetings are missing one important component: Regular open communication!

Communication is a fundamental ingredient in any meaningful relationship. To embrace a customer-centric mindset, companies need to start look at communication as a two-way street. Turn your customers into trusted advisors and advocates by engaging with them in an ongoing dialogue. You'll get a more holistic understanding of who your customers really are, what motivates them, and how their needs and wants evolve - and they'll love you for it because they'll feel understood.

  1. Improving the end-to-end customer experience.

Many tech companies - especially those in enterprise IT - now recognize the importance of understanding the complete customer journey. As a result, more companies use their CABs to understand the end-to-end experience of their customers. To do so requires engaging not just the decision-makers, but also those who ultimately use the technology. In fact, a recent study suggests that there's a wide gap between the perceptions of end-users and of decision-makers when it comes to their enterprise IT vendors - reiterating the need to talk to those who interact with your product on a day-to-day basis.

While most CABs remain relatively small, companies are starting to expand some in order to listen to end-users. Customer experience matters, and tech and IT firms can't afford not to listen to users. As you engage more people in your CAB, using a cloud-based platform can make it easier to talk to people regularly without the logistical nightmare of selecting a day and location that's convenient for everyone. And if the size and diversity of your CAB need to change in the future, an online community can help you scale your approach.

CABs can provide crucial customer intelligence for businesses of all sizes. But the traditional CAB model could also use a huge makeover. Just like many enterprises, your company is already moving a lot of business tools and processes to the cloud. Isn't it time for your CAB to do the same?

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