A customer advisory board setting can produce valuable feedback as customers have an opportunity to pool their collective experiences and present them in a coherent manner.
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When telecom specialist Cimco Communications wants to know what its customers are thinking and feeling, it simply asks them.
Cimco is among the growing ranks of companies using customer advisory boards composed of key representatives from their client base. Since June 2002 Cimco has held quarterly meetings with roughly a dozen client executives who participate in discussions and offer insight on current services and proposed new offerings. The evening sessions include dinner, open discussion, and networking with an external business speaker, as well as Cimco agenda items.
The advisory board setting can produce valuable feedback as customers have an opportunity to pool their collective experiences and present them in a coherent manner. This benefits Cimco and its customers. "You get more information than if you were to call eight people and hear one problem expressed eight different ways," says Bob Osborne, Cimco advisory board member and IT director of Westex, a Chicago-based manufacturer of flame-resistant fabrics.
Advisory boards are also an effective method for promoting customer loyalty. Osborne credits his influence as an advisory board member with Westex's adoption of a new Cimco service offering, and with convincing Cimco to shave about two weeks off the installation time of a new T-1 line, a positive experience for his company. "It really did play a big part into why I chose Cimco as a provider," he says.
Brooke Marlow, vice president of marketing, agrees that the advisory board plays an important role in customer retention. "You're not talking about a huge amount of people, but for those twelve to fourteen members on the board, they're definitely loyal customers," she says.
More important, Cimco credits the insights from its board with contributing to better than 95 percent customer retention, and for improving the success rate for service launches. "It's proven its value just in the new products, and it's helped with some of our branding and advertising initiatives, and helped validate market acceptance," Marlow says.
Cimco follows up thoroughly on the information it gleans at meetings, both internally and with the advisory board. Marlow says closing the loop is critical to maintaining interest among board members. "We take the time to present the feedback from the previous effort, because if we've asked their opinions, we want them to see the efforts, what has really come out of it," she says. "It's a way for us to feed back to them that their effort and time is really being utilized."
Organizing productive discussion rather than a throwaway wine-and-dine session does take work--the company spends the entire three-month window between the meetings preparing the next meeting. For Cimco, however, the payback in running an open, communicative customer advisory board plays out in knowing what real customers think, and being able to adjust service offerings to meet their needs before mistakes are made. "It's a cost-effective method for soliciting feedback from the marketplace, compared to formal market [research] strategies," Marlow says.
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