Seek Counsel With a Council & Kick-Start Customer Engagement
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post discussing ways to connect with customers in our current environment. No. 6 on that list was about creating a new customer council.
Before my retirement from Oracle, my team and I used to run a LOT of customer councils, including one that (very actively) engaged our CEO and one of our board members. I brought a fair amount of experience to the table, but I learned far more than I taught.
Here's some of what I learned and recommend that you apply:
Carefully identify a group of peers who are equally senior and prominent in their field. Establish within that customer group a core team of the most influential and collaborative members. Use that group as a sounding board, for progressing meeting discussions, and for recruitment or sponsorship of new members. There needs to be (and will be) a high level of camaraderie created within the core if you do it right.
Have very specific objectives and be completely transparent about them. The right combination of distinguished industry leaders will yield crucial feedback to you—and will help you build important relationships with the larger group. Aside from feedback and relationships, a well-constructed council will be one of the greatest incubators of new business opportunities you can have.
Bring in the very best subject matter experts and seasoned executives from your own organization. Do NOT allow them to use slides. Your executives need to be completely comfortable having a conversation with the group (as opposed to presenting). What you should hear in a council meeting is far more talking from the members and far less from you and your company.
Pull in a world-class outside speaker for a session on something other than your company, your strategy, and your products. Think of macro-level topics that will appeal to the group: an economist; a demographer; a political scientist; a renown technologist; etc. Bring someone in to drive a discussion that your members would not otherwise have access to.
Pack the agenda so everyone feels they are spending their time well, covering a lot of ground. For senior executives, time is the most precious commodity they have. With a packed agenda, you will need to apply guerrilla meeting facilitation. That means cutting people off; moving topics along; and systematically adhering to the agenda timing. Everyone will appreciate that. You can't be timid.
Be explicit about the expected code of conduct or rules for the meeting. Set the right tone and don't allow the discussion to become a gripe session about a sales rep. Keep the conversation elevated so that it's all about strategy, not tactics or behaviors. You actually can simultaneously be forceful, professional, and friendly.
Think through the topics thoroughly. Your content, or areas of focus, need to be highly tailored. Each meeting segment should be equal parts briefing, delivering a point of view (demonstrating thought leadership), getting feedback from customers, and dialog about broad implications and the future.
Maintain extreme continuity from meeting-to-meeting by taking action items from one session and then circling back in the next session with an update. It's also critical to find the right way to engage with the group and individual members between meetings. Don't rely on generic touch-base emails. Pick up the phone and engage with each member for a meaningful outcome. That outcome could be topics for the next meeting. It could also be on a specific matter that would be impactful for the member. Your account team will surely have guidance on the latter—and will appreciate the engagement.
Finding the right venue is important. That said, our situation today (and for the foreseeable future) requires a different approach. There's no reason why you can't launch a council on Zoom and then modify the approach a few meetings down the road. You may have to take a single full-day agenda and convert it into 2 or 3 different segments, with the overall agenda spanning those segments in a way that makes sense thematically. The trickiest part of executing this way is to secure solid commitments from your members. But if you deliver the value, they'll come and come back. The good news is that scheduling several 2-3 hour Zoom sessions will be easier than arranging a full day with travel.
Long-range planning is crucial. Your members will have calendars booked out at least six months, depending on their seniority. Respect that by calendaring 12 to even 18 months out.
Done right, your council—especially a senior executive council—will demonstrate thought leadership on your part, generate important ideas and feedback from your most influential customers, and enable collaboration among those customers to help their businesses and yours. You will also create a level of credibility within your company, as you model the right customer strategy behaviors and contribute to the highest level corporate business objectives.