Why Software Companies Need Client Advisory Board Meetings (Not Just End User Conferences)
Jan 16, 2019
The user conference (UC) is ubiquitous among SaaS providers, but comparatively few companies hold additional Customer/Client Advisory Board (CAB) meetings. This, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity. Both events give customers the opportunity to network, share resources, and bring new information back to their respective companies, but they are not interchangeable.
Third-party vendors like Exago do well to distinguish between clients and end users; but even when those groups are one and the same, the purpose of a CAB meeting is fundamentally different from that of a UC. It all comes down to information flow: at a UC, information predominantly passes from the vendor to the customer; at a CAB meeting, it mostly flows from the customer to the vendor. For this reason, CABs and UCs differ structurally in some key ways.
"Both events give customers the opportunity to network, share resources, and bring new information back to their respective companies, but they are not interchangeable."
First and foremost, size. UCs tend to be large-scale events held in hotel ballrooms with hundreds of end users in attendance. Sessions run on parallel tracks with the expectation that not all talks will be relevant to all attendees. CAB meetings, by contrast, need to be small to function properly. A CAB comprises a select group of customers or clients who engage deeply with the product and wish to play a more prominent role in its improvement. It is important, therefore, that each individual member’s voice be heard. This lends itself to smaller, more intimate single-track sessions centered more around conversation than a lecture-style talk.
The second key distinction is in the vendor’s transparency. UCs typically feature company and product news pre-approved for public consumption whereas a vendor gets the most value out of its CAB meeting by giving members a peek behind the curtain at what plans are underway or under consideration. Some UCs will have usability booths soliciting customer feedback on a narrow set of features, but this is by no means the central aim of the conference.
Additionally, CAB meetings tend to focus exclusively on the product while UCs typically offer sessions around vertical-specific topics, sales, marketing, customer success, operational efficiency, and so on. Both events typically feature a presentation on what’s new in the product, so there’s some overlap in that regard; but CAB meeting content typically stays in that vicinity while UCs strive to send customers home with a wide range of actionable insights related to but not exclusively about the product.
Event sponsors also typically have a presence at UCs but not at CAB meetings. This is partially because there aren’t generally enough business prospects at a CAB meeting to make a sponsor booth worthwhile and also because CAB events can be small enough to not require outside funding. Ultimately, though, sponsor booths would not be in the spirit of a CAB meeting, as clients attend in their capacity as advisors to the vendor rather than as consumers.
Lastly, CAB members have a year-round responsibility to the software provider that UC attendees do not. An individual’s attendance at a user conference might land him or her on some extra email lists from the vendor, but targeted marketing is a far cry from direct communications from the vendor’s product manager regarding usability testing, feature concepts, use cases, and implementation practices. A CAB meeting functions as a touchstone for ongoing collaboration between the vendor and its product champions.
UCs and CABs do share some similarities, however. Both events typically afford customers the opportunity to share their implementations of the product, tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way. In that regard, customers do leave with actionable insights they can pass along to their teams when they return to the office. Both events also sport agendas peppered liberally with networking breaks.
So how can you tell which event type is right for your company? Well, if your customer base is distinct from your user base, convening with both groups will give you a more complete assessment of your overall business strategy. And your users are your customers, then what better way to serve them than to solicit focused ongoing feedback? If you can manage holding both events, your company certainly stands to benefit.
Originally published with Software Business Growth.