Customer advisory groups are a great idea. Inviting your customers to share their insights, opinions, and ideas with you as a manufacturer demonstrates your interest in and ability to listen to your customers on topics like products, services, marketing, and sales. We have hosted or attended dozens of these groups with different manufacturers over the years. Conducting a customer advisory group is not to be taken lightly. It is a big investment by all parties and expectations are created by all involved. We recommend you proceed carefully, under advisement.
An invitation to share your thoughts, experiences, insights, opinions, and ideas with a national building products manufacturer is a big deal for both the customer and the manufacturer. It is a perceived honor or recognition by the manufacturer of the customers when they are asked to join an advisory group. The manufacturer is saying the customer and what they have to say is valued. The customer takes time away from their business to give to the manufacturer. Yes, the manufacturer typically covers all related expenses, but the customers are generally giving their time freely.
Manufacturers offer to listen carefully to the customers as they share their experiences and ideas. The combination of the customers time and the offer to listen creates very real expectations of the manufacturer by the customers. The customers expect the manufacturers to recognize and act on the advice they are being given. Often, the customers will invest thought and time in advance of the group meeting to define meaningful ideas for the manufacturer. The customers are now further invested in the manufacturer. Failure to act by the manufacturer will have consequences like loss of trust, faith, or worse – sales.
Our Experience: A national window company worked with their advisory group to validate the new products and an approach to business. In recognition, the advisors were offered the first opportunity to franchise the new business.
Doing It Again
Customer advisory groups are often asked to share with the manufacturer on a regular basis. Some work with the same group over a few years. Others create a group that asks customer to rotate out every year or two. We recommend rotating new customers into the group to keep the ideas coming from different perspectives. This also allows you to move those that do not play well with others.
Providing the customers with nice meals, drinks, and corporate swag are typically enough for the first time you meet. Getting together thereafter requires the manufacturer answer the question “What’s in it for me, the customer?” There is value in providing the customer with confidential insights into the manufacturer’s products and business development. The early peak behind the curtain. The manufacturer can also share information and education resources to help the customers improve their businesses. Third party experts used by the manufacturer shared with the customers is a strong sign of faith and appreciation.
Consider co-hosting the next meeting of the advisory group at one of the customer’s locations and ask this customer to share best practices with their peers. It is amazing to see how these customers from non-competing areas of the country will learn and help one another. As the manufacturer, it will be good business for you to reward your co-host for their generosity.
Our experience: A ceiling manufacturer listened to their advisory group to launch an online sales business.
As a results of our experiences with customer advisory groups, we have a few best practices we have recognized as helping to make these meeting perform well. The first is to have a third-party moderator lead the meeting with the customers. They will manage the time together, unearth information, and assure everyone is participating as promised including the manufacturer.
Next, we like to ask the participants to speak in headlines. That is, lead with the point you wish to make and follow with the story. This is helpful to those taking notes and those that appreciate getting to the point.
Prepare an agenda for the meeting with timeline, questions, and expectations for both the customers and the manufacturers. How do you know if the meeting is a success if you do not have something to measure it by?
Get to know the personalities of the participants before the meeting begins. This can be done at a dinner the evening before the event. You are assured that at least one participant will try to monopolize the conversations in the meeting. Know who this will be in advance helps to manage the person during the meeting.
There are several more meeting and events best practices to consider. We recommend you engage your events team to help set up this meeting in advance to assure the greatest level of success.
Our experience: A roofing materials manufacturer invites several of their high performing customers to share insights and ideas on all facets of their business. Next up, meeting expectations.
Now that the meeting is finish, the work must begin. We are dead serious when we say expectations have been created from the meeting with your customers. We recommend you follow up with them within a week of the meeting with notes and a proper thank you. You manage the narrative by the customers from the meeting by providing them with photos, a press release, and social media posts for them to use.
The most important thing manufacturers should do following these meetings is act upon the information shared by the customers. Prioritize those items you can fulfill now and do so. Identify the ideas that merit further investment. Set aside those thoughts that may not be reasonably considered now or in the future. Then communicate with the advisory group on the progress that is being made on the ideas they shared with you. You can fulfill the expectations you both defined and created by asking what you think and sitting back to listen. You can take that under advisement.