SaaS is rapidly disrupting an area of the enterprise software business that is frequently overlooked – the customer advisory board. A customer advisory board is made up of an ISVs best customers, who help review future product roadmaps and provide valuable feedback and input on planned new features and enhancements.
Why the Traditional Customer Advisory Board (CAB) is Broken
Having spend a portion of my professional career working in large enterprise software companies, I have seen, firsthand, that the customer advisory board is in many ways broken. While intentions are good and the concept of the CAB itself is useful, there are many key issues:
- Forgot Bob? – We all have budget restrictions, so when you are planning to fly customers in and wine and dine them, you can only afford to invite a very limited number. You would likely choose your VIP customers, leaving “little Bob” out, and taking away his opportunity to participate and influence the future of your product.
- Is it the right Bob? – CAB meetings are a nice little perk (especially when held in warm and sunny places), so you’ll often find that company management, instead of the user that has day-to-day experience with your product, will attend. Yet, a CAB can only be productive when attendees can provide real insight and feedback on your product, something that those who don’t use it frequently are unable to do.
- Infrequency– Most companies hold CABs on an annual basis, while others host regional meetings multiple times a year. Neither approach is a methodical, frequent process that is built into the organization’s DNA. To make CABs productive they have to be an ongoing process that both sides are committing to.
- Long delivery cycles – Perhaps one of your customers came up with a really great idea that you want to incorporate into your product plans. A traditional enterprise software vendor would go back to the development center and make it a priority in the release after the next (the next release is already closed for changes). This means that, in many cases, the customer won’t see that great new functionality for at least a couple of years, which might make it obsolete altogether.
SaaS and the Continuous Customer Advisory Board
SaaS brings the customer and the software vendor closer together, and shortens the feedback loop. SaaS vendors can (and should) always provide an effective way for customers to provide feedback and submit ideas, and reach out to customers to discuss their needs. SaaS providers can facilitate the continuous customer advisory board through:
- Online communities – SaaS users can participate in the vendor’s online community and discuss or vote on new ideas and features. At SAManage we use Zendesk to collaborate this way with our entire user community. All customers, regardless of their size, get the opportunity to participate in the discussion, cast their vote, and influence future product features.
- Talking to the right Bob – SaaS vendors can group their users based on how they interact with and use the service. They can easily tell if the user is a “power user”, and how frequently he/she is accessing certain features and areas of the service. That gives the SaaS vendor an opportunity to reach out to and establish a discussion with its power users – a great way to gather feedback from the right bob.
- Continuous communication – CAB can be ingrained in the DNA of SaaS companies. For example, when we release a new feature, we monitor how users leverage and utilize it, and reach out to them for feedback. Its a great way to learn how we can continue to improve our product capabilities.
- Agility – SaaS companies that utilize agile product development methodologies can deliver new features, or incorporate user feedback much faster. This agility allows us to change priorities, quickly modifying a feature we just released to incorporate customer feedback, whenever needed. It takes just a few months, not years, to enhance our solution based on user requests and continuously meet customer needs.