It's probably fear of the unknown or loss of control that inhibits many from taking this option, but if you have established customers, they can tell you the good (and the not-so-good) of their experiences with your business. Learning from their experience can provide ideas that, when implemented, should improve the overall satisfaction of your entire customer base. Ideas you dream up (or read about) may not have as much significance as ideas from actual customers.

A Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is a focus group involving existing customers and is used to determine their views on specific topics of interest to the business. CABs are usually conducted with between 8-12 customers and are best facilitated by an independent, objective moderator. The goal of a CAB is to obtain feedback from customers, on specific topics, that can be used to improve the business.

It tells you what your customers think about what you do, what they want from your business, how to improve it, how to differentiate yourself from your competitors, hot buttons’ to use in your marketing and how to increase the results from that marketing. Where else can you find all of that?

You’ll discover a gold mine for your business but will you want to hear it? You'll have to figure out a few details - how to get the right people to attend, who to invite, when to hold the event, how often to do so, how many people should attend, what is the ideal duration, what kind of venue to use, how to make sure everybody has their say, how to get your customers to be really honest and what follow-up you need to do.

And all you have to do is LISTEN.

Determine what you want to know

Determine the specific areas of the business on which you would like honest, unfiltered customer feedback. Make sure the goals of the research are clear. Based on these goals create a series of questions that will elicit the required information from the participants.

Ask about your business, the service they’ve received, what they like, what could be improved and in some instances your products or services.

Determine who the facilitator of the CAB will be (best to be an independent person).

Set up a customer advisory board

Identify a sample of customers that best represent the segment you are interested in. Determine how many CABs you would like to run and invite participants. (If you would like CABs of 10 participants, you should invite approximately 12-15. It is likely several will agree to participate but will not show up.) Depending on the type of customer, you may need to pay for their attendance or offer a suitable 'thank you' gift.

Think "Will I want to hear what they have to say". Some business owners fear this idea. Most don’t know what customers would say and fear negative comments. They miss out on a great marketing resource and customers’ opinions. If comments are negative - better to find out now!

An ironic twist: if you would consider an event like this chances are your customers are already happy because you have a customer-focused attitude!

Run the customer advisory board

Typical CABs run 1 ½ to 2 hours. At the outset, advise the ground rules - these should include mentioning that you are recording the session (if that is the case) but that specific feedback will not be attributed. Have snacks and beverages available to participants.

Structure the session with a short break. This will allow you to obtain spontaneous feedback from participants. The facilitator's role is key to making sure that the discussion is on track, that everyone is encouraged to offer an opinion, and that all opinions are noted.

Attention to these details will ensure that your client cannot fault the process and offers the best chance of receiving valuable information.

Compile and communicate the feedback

Compile the information from attendees' responses and organise it into a report structured around the questions about which information was being sought. Be sure to be even-handed when reviewing feedback and keep in mind that disgruntled customers might be over vehement in criticism while delighted customers might be reticent in giving praise.

Highlight opportunities to better serve customers and areas for improvement. Present the findings to key stakeholders and obtain their comments.

Agree on a feedback mechanism to the customers who attended the CAB and to relevant employees.

Agree on the next steps

Based on the briefing meetings and the CAB report, agree on an action plan for implementing those recommendations approved by the client.

Implement the steps!