There is an old adage (supported with compelling research) that acquiring new customers is exponentially harder than retaining existing ones. Our clients are in constant pursuit of that “Golden Customer” the one who champions your cause, who tells you what you want to hear AND what you don’t want to hear, and who transitions with you from a disparate set of give-and-take transactions to an ongoing, mutually fulfilling relationship.

Good relationships are about honesty, trust, and a shared commitment to mutual success. In families and friendships, we have the opportunity to demonstrate these values every day. But how can you demonstrate these values in relationships with customers and clients? Now more than ever, real time feedback about products and services is easily given and received it’s always a click, a tweet, or a review away. The real challenge, however, is not merely understanding likes and dislikes, but is in creating and maintaining a dialogue with customers aimed at better outcomes for all.

For many organizations, opportunities to build and nurture relationships with these key people and organizations are developed through a Client Advisory Board.

What is a Client Advisory Board?
A Client Advisory Board is made up of a group of leaders and buyers from your top customers. These are the people with whom you have, or you want to have, those deep relationships. A good Client Advisory Board is a community of diverse yet like-minded leaders who are willing to commit time, energy, and insight into helping you create the most value for your organization (as well as for them too.)

How do organizations typically run client advisory programs and sessions?
For many, it’s a series of meetings with their best clients, and the traditional transactional meeting model is hard to resist – it’s habit. It is conference rooms and/or horseshoe table configurations, PowerPoints, and KBQs. Customers try their best not to keep looking at their watches; account managers cringe a bit and plow through.

What’s different about the collaborative Client Advisory Board?
We are often asked to design and deliver Client Advisory Boards and have been involved in over 200 successful client advisory sessions. Our model is unique in that it islike all we dohighly collaborative. Our client partners share our belief that real relationships are built through ongoing, virtual, and in-person discussion, and in imagining and hashing out what can be done to produce meaningful change.

Three design ideas for collaborative Client Advisory Board sessions
Here are three actionable ideas for designing a collaborative Client Advisory Board session that will create lasting, trusting, and valuable relationships:

#1 Give your participants a gift
I’m not suggesting a fancy chotchke or a cool gadget. Often, the most valuable “gift” you can give your clients is knowledge, something that can make them better at their job – something that they can take back with them and that increases their chance of being successful.

As an example, on one session the gift we gave the clients was understanding how to remain calm under pressure. Our guest speaker was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot who successfully landed a disabled airliner into the Hudson River.

If something like that is outside of your budget, consider sharing some of your own organization’s intelligence on an issue that matters to your clients. Does someone in your organization have insight into some of the idiosyncrasies of the Affordable Care Act? Is there an exercise you can deliver that can help your customers better understand their own customers? Do you have a whitepaper on industry trends? If you can show that you value what you can do for them outside of the products and services they buy from you, they will, in turn, invest more in their relationship with you.

#2 Help your participants make new connections
One of the biggest benefits that most business professionals get from conferences and industry meetings is the ability to network with people similar to them. Whether they are from the same industry or share the same function, the opportunity to share challenges, war stories, and discuss best practices is invaluable for clients of all shapes and sizes.

This is the same for the customers in your Client Advisory Board. If you can provide structured time for them to talk with each other, there will be multiple benefits. The first is that it is another gift for them – this is something that can make them better at their own job. The second is it allows for the creation of a community of people, one of which you are an integral part. Lastly, your customers tend to be more forthcoming and more specific when they are talking to each than when they are talking directly to you, especially at first.

Some of the most positive feedback we get from our clients is when we set up chat rooms around common challenges facing their customers. Or when we put participants in pairs and ask them simply, “If you could create a new business that would solve your industry’s or organization’s biggest challenge, what would it be and why?”

#3 Invite your participants to shape the value
This is the component that is obviously most significant to you as the host of an organization. This is about asking, “What can we build or make better that would be of most value to you, Ms. Customer?” But this exercise is also incredibly valuable to your customers. If they can maximize the value that they are receiving from your products and services, then it will make them more successful in their own jobs. In order to do this most effectively, design for feedback along these three dimensions:

  • Feedback on your existing products – Ask targeted and specific questions about your current offerings. What is good? Bad? How could they be made better? Easier to use? More effective?
  • Refinements to your product pipeline – What products do you have in your pipeline? Is there something that is expected in a few years that your customers could help to refine to make more valuable for them? Can they help to add detail to a concept or a prototype? Do you have something in beta or pilot that they can help shape in a material way?
  • Designing products of the future – Finally, ask your customers what products or services they would like that you aren’t thinking of yet. Run a whiteboarding exercise to solve a significant challenge. Explore the options of creating something in partnership with your clients.

The benefits to letting your customers shape the value are numerous. You know that you are creating something that is of use to them. It can help to prioritize your activities. Also, by letting your customers be co-designers of your offerings, you are investing them in your success. If people feel ownership of something, then they are going to try harder to make it successful.

Achieve better relationships and results through collaboration
The three design suggestions outlined above will put you on the path to success with your collaborative Client Advisory Board, but there is one additional critical component that is surprisingly often overlooked: Once you get feedback from your customers, you must to do something with it. There is nothing more alienating than asking a customer what they want and then completely ignoring their answers. They most likely will never come back to your next Client Advisory Board session.

Commitment is nothing without follow through. Even before you conduct your meeting, have a plan for how you are going to incorporate your clients’ feedback. Ready the organization for the input. Be ready to act. Be ready to tell your customers how you are acting on their input, and mean it.

True collaboration builds relationships and creates momentum. Once they experience this way of engaging, your client partners will be searching for ever more ways to create mutual value and shared success.