Everything to Know About Customer Advisory Boards: A Conversation with Airtable’s Ilan Frank
Customer Advisory Boards, or CABs, play a crucial role in preparing your software for enterprise readiness. So crucial, in fact, that a CAB was one of the first things Ilan set up when he started his role as VP of Product at Slack and, later, Airtable.
Below, we’ve captured how to set one up:
As mentioned above, a CAB is a committee of your most impactful enterprise customers participating in an open forum for customers where they can provide product feedback directly, with the goal of informing and influencing the product roadmap. For companies, it is obviously a powerful tool in product feedback collection.
Besides being a powerful method for collecting customer feedback, CABs help refine and narrow the thousands of features large enterprise customers are known to request while helping them secure customer buy-in.
“One of the first things that I’ve done with CABs, is put them together in the room and talk about everything that is missing in the product. I encourage everyone to shout out all the feature gaps. Put out the list, have your 100, 200, whatever it is, feature gaps. Try to categorize and group them so that you have no more than 20-30 feature areas. Then, at the end of the day, have a voting exercise for everyone to spend a hundred fictitious dollars on those features. Every enterprise always believes that they have pressing needs until they see that the rest of the CAB is voting differently. They’ll say, ‘oh, okay, hold on a second. Maybe I’m the only one asking for this.” Most organizations have procedures to get exceptions to approve vendors even if those vendors do not fully comply with their enterprise software requirements checklist. What’s important for the vendor is a champion who is able to and willing to request these exceptions. Seeing the list of prioritized features will encourage the champions on the CAB to fight on your behalf.”—Ilan
With CABs, it’s not just about aggregating customer feedback. CABs provide an opportunity to help your largest customers understand why the product roadmap is prioritized the way it is and to align the communal feeling of all moving together. Ilan mentioned that he has never lost a customer on a CAB.
“A lot of times enterprise companies buy your service because of the roadmap, because of where you’re going. And they want to see that where you’re going is aligned with where they want you to be.”—Ilan
Lastly, Ilan highly encourages organizations to allow individuals not naturally connected to sales or the enterprise product team to interface with customers on the CAB. Not only is creating external alignment important among customers regarding the enterprise roadmap but creating internal alignment is equally as important.
You will need diversification across industries and company size on your CAB that represents ideally where the company is going.
“At Slack, we were targeting 6-7 industries. Also, diversification of company size is important because a 100K person company is going to ask for very different features than a 5K person company.”—Ilan
Picking between 20-30 of your most impactful customers is recommended. There is usually a 30% drop-off rate for each event, so you must have enough attendance each time.
For each company, Ilan recommends only allowing one representative to join so that product feedback is not skewed or biased by the size of each company cohort attending your CAB events. As for which representative to invite, choose the highest level person at the company that still knows your software very well.
“You don’t want a CIO, just because they’re the CIO, to come to your CAB. It’s not a network to feel good because all these important executives are showing up. You want the highest level person that still uses the software because they have the most authority in their company to evangelize your software.”—Ilan
During the COVID-Zoom era we live in today, Ilan recommends making some adjustments. First, it’s too easy for people not to speak on Zoom, so he recommends breaking the CAB up into breakout rooms with 4-5 people and calling on each. He also relaxes the one-person per company rule on Zoom and allows for one more person.
In-person or over Zoom. When in-person, the format Ilan followed was a dinner followed by a full day of meetings the following day. Over Zoom, Ilan recommended breaking the CAB into breakout rooms with four to five people each.
Set up CABs as early as possible.
If in-person, convene twice a year and plan for a full day of meetings. If meetings are virtual, he suggests gathering three to four times a year for only three to four hours maximum. You can also have CABs for different GEOs (a CAB in the US, a CAB in Europe, a CAB in Japan).
This is Part Two of our series with Ilan Frank on the topic of Enterprise readiness. Click here to read Part One: The Five Requirements of Enterprise Readiness