Official blog of Customer Reference ForumĀ®. Learn from our community of reference pracitioners

Customer Advisory Boards Archives

Developing Emotional Connections with Customer References

Posted by Bill Lee on October 13, 2009 at 12:24 PM

There is growing interest in, and evidence of, the value of developing strong emotional bonds with customers. Gone is the notion that customers - even B2B customers - buy primarily for rational reasons. Much more important than giving them logical reasons to buy is engaging with them on an emotional level.


In a series of studies, the Gallup organization has found that businesses that optimize such customer engagement outperform their competitors by 26% in gross margin and 85% in sales growth. Their customers buy more, spend more, return more often, and stay longer.


Reference programs are in an excellent position to help build those emotional bonds. Often the "relationship owner" is an sales or account management (AM), who gives their closest attention to customers when they want to sell them something. Reference managers, on the other hand, have an interest in keeping customers engaged and connected consistently - it's in your interest. What we're learning is that this will not only be good for your program, but also for your firm's growth and profitability. 

Here are some tips for keeping customer references emotionally engaged:


Avoid obvious turn offs

Examples are asking for reference commitments up front upon signing the contract (the only exception here is to tie reference commitments to performance goals), engaging with customers only when you want references, relying on rewards and gifts to keep references happy (not to be confused with thoughtful, appropriate gifts to show appreciation, while relying on performance to keep them happy).


Learn and care about their issues and problems

Former Motorola CIO Patty Morrison calls this one of the first tests she applies in deciding whether to build a relationship with a vendor representative - including the reference manager. Think this is outside the scope of your responsibility? See how SumTotal Systems' Kathryn Perkins used that approach to build her refererence program and raise its visibility and importance both within the firm and with customers. 

Tie customer reference deliverables to regular performance reviews

Someone such as the customer's AM engages in regular performance reviews to make sure that the customer is receiving the value promised. That's the time to discuss references because it tells the customer you care, and the reference activities that naturally flow from such discussions can be exciting. In areas where delivery excels, for example, suggest doing a white paper or case study that would prominently feature the customer's role in the success. In areas where delivery is falling short, AMs are sometimes negligent in getting the problem corrected. Offer to step into the breach (as Kathryn did at SumTotal.)


Understand the customer reference's emotional drivers

What's her personality type? Is she a Driver? Analytical? Expressive? Amiable? Different types respond to different approaches and have different emotional triggers. Here's a useful checklist.  An Expressive, for example, loves the spotlight and will likely be excited about getting up on stage or in the media with his success story. A Driver may be ambitious to raise her professional stature, which can guide you in developing reference opportunities that will excite her.


Integrate references with other customer engagement programs

This will allow you to provide more options to customers - not just referencing, but other activities such as advisory boards, customer communities, user groups, customer events, etc. Such integration clearly creates better opportunities to leverage key customers. But, it also deepens emotional ties to your firm. SAS Canada's Wally Thiessen, who heads up customer programs, has taken this approach. Customer engagement at SAS Canada is 50% higher than a comparable region that has not been able to achieve significant integration. And it's leading to improved business performance, as the Gallup studies suggest: customer retention rates - once a strong point for SAS Canada that began falling off earlier in the decade, have risen steadily since Wally and his team began integrating key customer engagement programs.

upcoming events on customer references, advisory boards, and customer communities

Posted by Bill Lee on July 3, 2008 at 04:22 PM

July 21-23
San Jose, CA
For professionals who run Customer Advisory Boards, Executive Summits or similar structured customer collaboration meetings. You'll hear presentations from CAB programs at Wells Fargo, Intel, Interwoven, Cisco, Adobe, SAS, iCrossing, and other respected firms, get results from the first comprehensive survey of CAB programs, get a panel of executives' views on why they value CABs, and much more.

October 13-15
San Jose, CA
For professionals who engage with and build B2B customer communities - the only conference that addresses their unique issues. Includes a marquee group of presenters from respected Customer Community programs such as Oracle, Intuit,, Dell, Intel, HEUG (the 16,000 member Higher Education User Group), Citrix Systems, Riverbed Technology, and more. Early registration now open.

February 17-19, 2009
Berkeley, CA
(event website will be up in July)
For professionals who build and run customer reference programs. Keynote: Customer Reference Programs: Why Their Importance is Increasing, How Social Media will Radically Transform Them, by Merv Adrian, Sr. Vice President of Forrester Research. Merv will describe why he views references as increasingly important not only in analyst relations to firms like Forrester, but in marketing efforts in general. He'll also present research from Forrester on how social media is and will continue to dramatically change the field.

Tapping the Experience of Your CAB Peers: A Conversation with Mike Gospe

Posted by Bill Lee on June 17, 2008 at 12:26 PM

Mike is the Customer Advisory Board (CAB) Practice leader at KickStart Alliance, author of Marketing Campaign Development a consultant to senior marketing executives, and an expert on meeting facilitation, having facilitated hundreds of CAB and other executive sessions over the last 20 years. Mike will be leading the Peer Exchange workshops at the upcoming CAB Exchange Summit in San Jose.

Q. Mike, the Peer Exchange Workshops are one of the primary tools we use at the CAB Exchange Summit to allow CAB practitioners to exchange ideas and best practices directly with each other. Can you give us an overview of how these sessions will work?

A. The Peer Exchange Workshop is an interactive session where CAB managers have a chance to share their experiences and best practices with their peers who may not be as experienced. The objective is to tap the vast expertise of these CAB managers and invite a structured dialog to explore and prioritize best practices, traps to avoid, and proven techniques to everyone's benefit.

Specifically, the Peer Exchange Workshop exercise has two parts. Part 1 will identify the topic areas that CAB managers would like most to discuss. For each topic area, we'll ask those CAB managers who have proven success and experience to group together to answer a few questions and then report their recommendations to the larger group.

Part 2 is an open discussion where all participants can ask questions and dialog further about these recommendations. The final output being a set of recommended tips and action items that can be immediately implemented.

Q. We'll identify specific issues to address at the workshops in a pre-event survey. In your experience working with CAB programs, what are some of the issues you expect that attendees will want to address?

A. Some of the most popular issues CAB managers wrestle with include:

How to best architect the CAB program so that it fits within the larger Voice-of-the-Customer initiative, and isn't viewed as an isolated stand-alone event, Examples of criteria used to select the proper customers to join the CAB, Tips for designing effective agendas that will engage customers properly and generate the insights you want, Knowing how to facilitate a CAB meeting yourself and when to engage a professional CAB manager/facilitator to ensure optimum results, and Best practices for sharing CAB insights with the rest of the organization.

Q. As an experienced facilitator, what's the key to keeping these sessions on track and productive?

A. The key is having a plan that will drive us to a specific outcome, in this case, the outcome is a set of actionable recommendations for each topic area we'll explore. Before we break the group into small teams, we'll agree upon the topic areas the CAB managers would like to explore. My colleagues and I will each facilitate a specific team, guiding the questions to be discussed per each topic. We'll also capture notes and feedback on a flip chart. By the end of the break out session, we'll ask one team representative to share the findings with the larger group for further discussion. We'll conclude by having an interactive discussion with the larger team.

Q. What were some of the more useful, surprising, or interesting results from the Peer Exchange Workshops at last year's Summit?

A. What impressed me most about last year's Peer Exchange Workshop was the breadth and depth of customer knowledge the CAB managers had. The cross pollinization of ideas, best practices, and knowledge was extensive. Real-time learning between customers, sponsors, and presenters was non-stop and the Peer Exchange Workshop continues to be a dynamic tool for aiding these discussions. There's no question that sessions like the Peer Exchange Workshop provide not only a platform for discussion, but a networking opportunity that will continue to benefit attendees long after the Summit concludes.

An Executive's Perspective on CABs and Other Major Customer Input Programs

Posted by Bill Lee on June 4, 2008 at 11:30 AM

Sean Geehan, Founder of Geehan Advisory Boards, will be leading a panel at this year's CAB Exchange Summit. Sean is an important thought leader with Customer Advisory Boards (CABs), particularly with senior marketing executives. He has presented to the CMO Council, The Conference Board, the American Marketing Association and other important groups.

Q. Sean, you work with executives a great deal and have also presented to senior executives at forums like The Conference Board. Can you tell us a bit about these?

A. My observation is that there is an increasingly amount of pressure for firms to be more in tune with the market - so every marketing dollar has the highest impact possible, and expenditures for product development, services and innovation hit the mark the first time. In today's market, companies and executives don't have options to spend on areas that are not aligned with market expectations (customer centric, focused, etc) or innovative. They are going to these events with hopes to learn how to translate these important concepts into meaningful tangible plans and results. Marketing leaders have a real opportunity to benefit from the convergence of these two concepts.

Q. From your observations and experience, what is the major disconnect between how CAB managers view their programs and how senior executives view their programs? Do CAB mangers sometimes miss "the big picture"?

A. I'm not sure they miss the big picture as much as they are challenged or politically unable to get to the business leaders that sponsor the program engaged up front. The initiative must be centered around your executive's priorities, the general response is that "our executives are too busy." All executives are busy, but the market pressures are now aligned with marketing and those leading customer programs, especially high level customer programs.

Think about the most important issues discussed at the Executive Forums I mentioned above (Customer centricity and innovation). Getting executives involved in a high-impact, light lifting manner will catapult your CABs real impact on the firm. CAB leaders need to be bold and make the ask!! I will say, much misalignment comes from how much people within organizations believe their executives know. CAB owners often tell us our Executives "already get that", "don't need this", "would never do that", they need to be bold enough here to ask as well. That in turn will fill-in the blanks to "the Big Picture" every executive needs to confidently and clearly set the organizational direction.

Q. Let's look at the value that executives place on CAB programs. How much of it is objective, quantifiable metrics? How much of it is subjective or intuitive?

A. Typically a BU president or CEO views these more subjectively. They are looking for direction, validation, strategic guidance, and acquisition opportunities. Most CEOs want "direct business level market input" to provide them the confidence and clarity to lead their firm. Their direct reports are looking for more tangible evidence of the ROI. This will justify the spend, commitment and sponsorship across the organization. I strongly suggest a CAB scorecard, which I will provide and review at the CAB Exchange Summit in July.

Q. What does it take to get an executive involved in a CAB program? Have you ever seen a case where an executive who believed that CAB programs aren't worth the investment of time and money they require, had their mind changed because someone put together a business case for the CAB program?

A. Getting executive buy-in is simple (but not always easy). You must prove unquestionable strategic value as the people on the board must be those which the Executive respects their perspective, and the dialog needs to be aligned to the priorities the Executive has laid out to the firm. Bottom line, ask yourself: "How relevant is this CABs mission to this executive's goals and objectives?" The greater the alignment, the better your chances of support, engagement and continuous involvement. I've seen a number of situations where the executives have abandoned the program because there was not enough strategic value in the program - but once we've been able to get the right people in the room and deliver an insightful agenda rich in dialogue, the executives become strong advocates for the program.

Q. What does it take to keep executives active and involved in a CAB program?

A. Relevancy!!! Are the discussions and level of perspective relevant to the executive's and firm's success? It's the only thing that matters.

Q. When it's all said and done, where do executives find true value in a CAB program?

A. If they are gaining greater peace of mind with the key decisions they are making due to the input the CAB program provides. If a marketing leader (or CAB leader) provides that to the executive team, not only will the executive continue to support the CAB, the marketing professional will also become a "GO TO" person for them!

If you have any additional questions for Sean, he can be reached at