Our research shows that accountability—or more accurately, the lack of accountability—is among the top challenges that partner-company executives face. We've also found that many partners are too close to their own organizations to have genuine insight into their own businesses, their marketplaces or their industries. Client Advisory Boards and Business Advisory Boards can help provide better visibility for both those blind spots.
Client Advisory Boards
A Client Advisory Board—which typically includes five to seven current clients—can provide insights into customer needs from the customer perspective. For instance, the group might evaluate your sales and service functions or serve as a sounding board for new product ideas. Board members should be willing to meet formally with you at least three times a year and commit to at least two years of service. We recommend that you select not only your “pet” clients, but a cross-section of your customers.
At first, someone from your company should set agendas, oversee advisory-board meetings and take detailed notes. It's critical for you and your own team members to avoid becoming defensive about issues that board members raise during their meetings. However, it's equally important to remind all attendees that these sessions shouldn't be viewed as complaint forums, but instead as opportunities to work together toward improved performance. If a meeting drifts toward becoming a gripe session, the partner-company representative should immediately redirect the discussion.
What's the sales angle? The simple fact that you have an advisory board can be an important asset during the sales process. Chances are that prospects in your region will recognize some of your board members, and they're also likely to be impressed with your commitment to the customer experience.
Within a vertical market, you might also create an Industry Advisory Board with members such as past trade-association presidents, respected industry consultants and current clients. This committee can provide market insights and ideas for future offerings, and, like a Client Advisory Board, it can serve as a differentiator.
Generally, members of such boards aren't compensated, but you could acknowledge their contributions with small gifts or special product or service offers.
Business Advisory Boards
A Business Advisory Board's role is to recommend strategy, suggest solutions to business problems and advise on relevant regulations. Like a Client Advisory Board, it should include five to seven members, but all should be from outside your company. The best such panel will have a diverse mix of local businesspeople and specialists from key functional areas such as human resources, finance, marketing and sales.
This type of committee typically meets quarterly, but can convene more frequently if needed. Meetings should follow formal agendas sent to attendees in advance along with any supporting information that's needed for discussion. Such preparation is essential because, otherwise, it may appear that the partner company doesn't take the advisory group seriously or is unwilling to share important information with its members -- and those members may stop participating as a result.
The two main benefits that you can expect from a Business Advisory Board are, of course, insight and accountability. For many partner-company executives, their current businesses are the only ones that they've managed and led, so outside expertise can be particularly valuable. Some Acumen clients work with their Business Advisory Boards to conduct regular operational reviews. This process not only helps the partner-company executive hold the management team accountable for results, but forces a situation in which the entire company team is accountable to the Business Advisory Board.
Keep in mind that members of these boards are normally reimbursed for their time; occasional gifts of appreciation are also appropriate.