Customer Advisory Boards: Honoring Your Customers

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CABs are helping resellers fulfill their clients' wish lists.

By Carly Lombardo

All resellers need counsel on what they're doing right, what they're doing wrong, and most importantly, how to stay competitive.

Partner Insights

The solution: customer advisory boards. And they're catching on as a way for resellers to tap into client wish lists on a regular basis. After all, the boards are made up of the resellers' customers, and they are the ones buying products and services.

"Most partners are reactive and CABs are an easy way to be pro-active. It brings you closer to the customers," says Taylor Macdonald, senior vice president in charge of business partners for Best Software.

He suggests resellers select approximately 10 customers to meet once a quarter. In fact, resellers can start as many as three different boards running during different months and have about 30 customers involved. "This makes your customers feel special and collaborative, not to mention you're hearing from the people who feed you," says Macdonald.

To encourage ongoing customer participation, Macdonald suggests providing them with incentives such as gift certificates and free training classes. "Take your customers out to lunch and listen to them, don't talk. Find out what challenges they face and how you can improve your business. It can only make your firm better," he says.

Meeting of the Board
Greg Boyd is always trying to get a pulse on his customers. "It's easy to get busy with everyday activities and forget about your customers, but they're running businesses and have valuable information to contribute," says Boyd, president of Dallas-based Enterprise Resource Group.

ERG, a Best Software-only shop, offers the MAS 90/200/500 accounting packages, and the SalesLogix CRM line. To gain better insight into how it is serving customers, ERG holds quarterly Advisory Council meetings. These are held in two different cities, with different client groups. Boards are organized each January and members are asked to serve for a year.

"Sometimes we have some clients that serve multiple years. Last year, each group met four times, and this year each group will meet twice, alternating every other quarter," Boyd explains.

Membership ranges from four to ten, but the ideal number is five to seven. "If you have too many, it is difficult to talk with everyone. We typically meet at a restaurant that has a special enclosed meeting area and allow two hours over lunch," adds Boyd.

At the first meeting, members introduce themselves and their companies, and then review the agenda prepared by Boyd. "The agenda includes receiving feedback from them on 'How ERG is doing in serving their companies, how do we help them to become raving fans, and what can we do better.' We may bounce an idea past them that we are thinking of implementing at ERG, whether in marketing, support, pricing, services, or technology," says Boyd.

Normally, three ERG representatives attend to make sure each client has someone to dialogue with before and after the meeting. Boyd attends, along with a product line manager and a client care manager.

Similarly, Brian Dunn, vice president of sales and marketing for HighTower, a reseller and Best master developer, has utilized such a board since 1999.

The Lincolnwood, Ill.-based company, which also focuses on Best's products, holds board meetings every three months. Typical attendees include six customers and six staff members. "We're always looking for people with opinions, and the people who complain the most," says Dunn.

The one-year terms are staggered so that every six months members retire and new people come in. "We found rotating worked best because new people have a lot to say in the first two meetings, and come up with most of their ideas at that time," says Dunn.

Prior to meetings, Dunn employs Zoomerang, an online survey system, to collect the issues the customers want to discuss. The meeting begins with lunch, followed by reporting the progress on outstanding issues, and then new issues, and finally a brainstorming session.

"With the brainstorming, we split the members into groups and they come up with ideas and then everyone comes back together to rank the ideas. We come up with a Top Five list, and then set goals for HighTower to complete within three months," says Dunn.

Tangible Benefits
Not only do CABs strengthen customer relationships; they produce tangible benefits for the resellers who hold them.

In fact, past sessions triggered HighTower's formation of the Network Administration Program, a network service offered by the hour for small to midsize companies. "The customer who suggested this felt we were good at being reactive, but wanted us to be more pro-active. Our vice president of the service department bounced ideas off the customer and formed the Network Administration Program, which now serves 30 of our clients," says Dunn.

Macdonald Consulting Group, based in Atlanta, developed new sales and marketing tools and a timeline for implementations and got their customers' reactions through their groups. "After we had worked to create sales materials that we thought were effective, we thought it would be a good idea to gather fresh opinions on these materials from a customer's perspective," says Alicia Anderson, MCG's client relations manager. (Taylor Macdonald founded Macdonald Consulting, but has not had any affiliation with his namesake firm since selling his interest in 1997.)

MCG also asked for advice on how to improve customer relationships, and how they could differentiate themselves from their competition. "We provided ideas that we had about improving customer service that were not implemented and asked them what they thought about them. We asked about our competition. 'What are the perceptions? Do our competitors contact them? Are they aware of who our competitors are?'" adds Anderson.

Getting the Name Out
Everything the TM Group does is designed to put its name in front of customers.

The Farmington Hills, Mich.-based company has provided business software and services in Michigan for 20 years and specializes in a variety of Microsoft products, including Great Plains software. The TM Group is the longest tenured member of the MBS/Great Plains President's Club at 14 years, so it is no wonder the TM Group values the synergy between their company and its customers. "We want all our customers to feel special," says Judy Thomas, vice president of business development.

Unique to the TM Group is its annual client conference. In its seventh year, TM's Vision Conference for Microsoft Business Solutions clients was held in February and featured speakers from more than 15 MBS developers, TM Group staff and Microsoft. More than 120 clients attended the event, while more than 15 sessions were held, including a Future Product Requirements session sponsored by MBS where clients learn about product direction and suggest enhancements for future product features.

However, the portion of the event that stands out is the presentation of the Vision awards. The awards are separated into three categories--the Sponsorship Award, the Innovation Award, and the Vision Award for Overall Excellence--and are chosen by TM's implementation, sales, and management teams.

And the Survey Says...

Many resellers who have customer advisory boards find customer surveys are an important aspect both before and after advisory board meetings or after working with customers.

One example is Norcross, Ga.-based IBIS. The firm has been a classic Microsoft house for the past 15 years and finds the most basic way to communicate with customers is through surveys.

"Every customer fills out a work follow-up survey, and we mean business--25 percent of our employees' variable pay is based on customer satisfaction," says CEO Andy Vabulas.

IBIS requests that clients rate the firm's performance on projects in the following areas on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest rating).

  • Were the goals defined in the statement of work for this project attained?
  • Was the project plan accurate, effective, and properly maintained?
  • Did the project manager provide regular updates regarding the project's progress both in terms of the project deliverables and the time accrued?
  • Did the project manager effectively track and follow up on project issues?
  • Did IBIS meet deadlines and milestones within a reasonable margin of the initial project estimate?
  • Was the final cost of this project within a reasonable margin of the estimate defined in the statement of work?
There are also three short answer questions: What did you like about IBIS's performance during this project, what did you not like, and do you feel that the IBIS sales team set the proper expectations for this project?

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