Listen and Learn: Creating an advisory board

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, but 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.
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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're doing. It's a smart strategy and 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, but 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 voices of your customers. To quote Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler Corp., "Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions."



It's not hard to create a board. First, decide what information you wish to learn from 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. Perhaps you are thinking of making a major change in the way the store is laid out -- customer input could prove vital here.



Once you've decided on the purpose of forming an advisory board, 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. Choose different genders and ages. 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.



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.



After introductions and an explanation of the group's purpose, share the task statements. These are statements of what information you want from the participants. You may ask:

  1. What are we doing well?
  2. Where are we failing to live up to customer expectations?
  3. What needs to be changed about our product mix?
  4. What would you change about our store layout?
  5. What's the one thing you would change about our service?
  6. What would you consider a perfect service experience with us? 

Once the session has been completed, thank everyone for their time and send a recap of the discussion. 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. 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, and it makes people feel valued.

Sharon Leicham is the author of "Merchandising Your Way to Success" and "How to Sell to Women" and is a regular columnist for SNEWS® and GearTrends® magazines writing on merchandising and marketing topics. You can access all of her columns by going to www.snewsnet.com/merchandising, where you will find information targeted at the independent specialty retailer.

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