Creating an Advisory Board

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Creating an Advisory Board

It's an accepted practice for large companies to hire firms to periodically conduct surveys or focus groups to track how their customers think they are doing. It's a smart strategy and is a critical step toward maintaining a company's success.

As a small business owner, you might think you can't afford to hire a research firm to keep track of how you're doing. The good news is you don't have to. Instead, you can establish a customer advisory board to find out what your customers think about your business.

A customer advisory board will give you valuable information to help you improve your service and product selection. It will also allow you to hear the voice of your customers.

It's not hard to create a board. First, decide what information you want to get out of an advisory board. You may want to find out how your customers feel about the level of service they are receiving or what they like or dislike about the products you are currently carrying. Your goal may be to gather ideas for future product selection.

Who to Choose

Once you've decided on the purpose of forming an advisory board you'll want to determine its makeup. Choose a cross section of customers who are important to you. You may want to include some who have had problems or those you feel will not be shy in sharing their opinions. The ideal customer advisory board consists of 12 to 14 participants. To get that many participants you'll probably have to invite at least double that number.

Where to Meet

Decide on a meeting place. If you want to meet in your store, make sure you have chairs and room for everyone. You could also use a meeting room in a centrally located restaurant or community hall. Buy yourself a flip chart and a roll of masking tape so you can record comments and post them on the wall during the meeting.

How often?

Bring your board members together every quarter for meetings lasting no more than two hours. Evening meetings are probably the easiest for everyone to attend. Provide a light dinner or refreshments. It's not necessary to pay participants for their time but you may want to offer them special discounts or reward them with a small gift.

Prepare an agenda

When issuing invitations to participate on the board, explain the purpose and acquaint prospective members with the other invitees. This can be in the form of a formal mailed invitation, an email or a phone call and always ask for a response. Two days before the meeting call each invited board member to reconfirm.

Your first advisory board meeting agenda should include introductions, the purpose of the board and what you will be asking them to do. Explain how you will go about collecting their ideas and explain that, as the facilitator, you are there to organize and move the discussion along, but will not be offering opinions of your own. It is very important that you stay neutral and avoid defensiveness.

Getting the information you seek


After introductions and an explanation of purpose introduce the task statements. These are statements of what information you want from the panelists. You may ask, “What are we doing well?' “What needs to be changed about our product?” What's the one thing you would change about our service?” What would you consider a perfect service experience with us?” Before the participants arrive, write the task statements on large pieces of paper from the flip chart and tape them to the wall where everyone can see them. You can discuss more than one task statement but avoid trying to overload the session with too many questions. Fewer questions will result in better in-depth discussions.

To jump start the discussion (some people are reluctant to speak up in the beginning) give each person a stack of brightly colored Post-It Notes and a pen. Have them generate one idea per note that addresses the task statement. Ask them to be specific. If the task statement is “What needs to be changed about our product??” have them list specific ideas or feedback on fit, color, style, fabric, brands, pricing. – one specific idea to a card. Give them time to generate as many ideas as possible relating to that one question. Do the same with the other task questions you ask.

As they generate ideas, place their cards on the walls with similar ideas grouped together. As you do this you can ask questions about anything that's not clear. This exercise encourages people to say what they really think and stimulates additional ideas.

Follow up

Once the session has been completed, thank everyone for his or her time and follow up with thank-you notes to all participants. Shortly after the session review and record the information gained, evaluate whether your objectives were met, consider what worked and what didn't and make necessary changes to the agenda and the participants in advance of scheduling the next quarterly meeting. Don't give up on the advisory board after one meeting. They will get easier and more productive the more you do them. Commit to at least a year of quarterly meetings then decide whether to continue.

Implement an advisory board only if you are serious about listening to your customers and considering their advice. The best retailers are great listeners – that's how they find out what their customers want. When a person feels listened to it means a lot more than just that their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.

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