The Marketing Strategist:

Scaling Customer Advisory Boards Without Breaking the Bank

May 1, 2008

Cisco has used customer advisory boards to test and refine its future product and services strategies since its founding in 1984. But until recently the boards were a victim of Cisco’s success. The company’s rapid growth and a culture of highly independent business units meant that any business unit could initiate meetings with customers without reviewing the membership or charter of existing Cisco forums.

When Independence Goes Too Far

The result was a lack of coordination and a duplication of effort. Events were irregularly scheduled, infrequently documented, and inconsistently managed. “Many of the business units hired outside agencies to handle the events and strategy for them, which meant that there was very little consistency,” says Nicole Siegal, manager of operations and events for Cisco. Follow-up with customers was irregular. Since business units did not coordinate with one another, Cisco customers sometimes received mixed messages—even contradictory product information.

Some customers had representatives on multiple boards, preventing Cisco from reaching its maximum market penetration. Not surprisingly, there were no metrics in place to assess the per-company penetration and no standardized means for measuring success or reporting results.

When customers arrived at various board events, inconsistencies were often apparent. Event signage, transportation, meeting materials, standard audio and visual equipment, and on-site registration might or might not have been provided. Registration techniques and communications with customers about event agendas and logistics were managed via impromptu spreadsheets, bulk emails, phone messages, and costly event-specific Websites. The customer experience was inconsistent across multiple board events and didn’t leave customers with good impressions.

Balancing Creativity with Efficiency

A natural reaction to this fragmentation would be to centralize the management of the boards. Yet any attempts to centralize could be perceived as attempts by corporate to stultify a series of independent communications channels. If the existing structure were to be changed, it needed to be done carefully.

In 2003, the Cisco corporate marketing team launched an initiative to consolidate all existing boards under a centrally managed Cisco Advisory Board (CAB) umbrella. The first step was to define which functions should be managed centrally and which should be managed by individual business units.

Coming to a consensus with 18 business units, each with its own board program manager, was critical to the success of the initiative. According to Siegal, the key selling point that emerged was that centralized administration would free the program managers to do what provided the greatest value to Cisco: develop and manage the content/subject matter for their boards. “We said, anything that’s completely unique to the managers’ specific business units, they should keep,” says Siegal.

Anything beyond that became a candidate for centralizing and outsourcing. For example, the corporate marketing team began negotiating contracts for logistics management on behalf of all the boards. A single vendor now manages hotel, food and beverage, Website registration, on-site registration, and transportation requirements. Nonlogistical management decisions are facilitated by members of Siegal’s team.

Another example of increased efficiency and consistency was the consolidation of the different board Websites onto a single platform. Each board still retains control over its Web page content, which has individual logins for event participants so that they see only that particular board’s page. After each event, presentations, plans, summaries, and a user discussion forum are made available to attendees via the CAB Web portal.

The New Strategy

The CABs’ new federated governance structure gives the business units the freedom to pursue their own agendas with customers while taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with centralized event administration and metrics reporting.

The centralized management means that new boards can be created or eliminated based on market requirements rather than the whims of a particular business unit. Some boards address specific market segments (global customers, security, and channel partners, for example), whereas others are tied to specific practices within Cisco (services, partners, service providers, and others).

The CABs all work under the same overarching principles. Customer steering committees help define the agendas. Each committee has a review process for presentations, to ensure quality and relevancy.

When meetings begin, participants know what to expect: access to their peers, follow-ups from previous meetings, exposure to unreleased products and programs, reviews of Cisco strategy, and the promise of an evaluation of and response to their ideas. Meanwhile, Cisco expects vocal, direct input and consistent participation.

Brief presentations are given by Cisco executives, product managers, and other key decision makers who want to gauge market interest for new programs and products, discuss new initiatives within Cisco, or provide updates on focus areas considered at previous meetings. The goal is for Cisco to listen 80% of the time and to present 20% of the time. For example, after presenting ideas and gathering feedback, presenters come back at the end of the event to validate the concerns of their audience.

The ROI

Surveys are a crucial part of the program. CAB managers agree on a standard set of questions submitted to all boards to gauge the progress of the program as a whole. In addition, board managers have the freedom to create customized questions for their particular audiences to see whether specific board goals are being met.

The results from the standardized questions show that customers like the new structure; satisfaction has improved each year since 2005. Meanwhile, the efficiencies of centralizing and outsourcing event administration have allowed Cisco to almost double the number of formal customer-facing meetings in the past three years while reducing per-event costs. Cost savings in the first year of CAB consolidation were in excess of $1 million, according to Cisco.

Sometimes, bigger really is better.

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