Advisor Insights with Susanna Kenyon-Muir and Shiva Kannan

Advisor Insights

Published 14 June 2023

Customer Advisory Boards are gaining popularity among corporates and multi-national companies as an effective means of harnessing measurable stakeholder engagement, eliciting customer input/feedback and in the most sophisticated and mature instances, enabling client-centred co-design and co-creation of products and services.

In this Advisor Insights interview, Advisory Board Centre General Manager Penny Ellenger hosts Certified Chairs Susanna Kenyon-Muir and Shiva Kannan as they explore some key considerations for obtaining maximum benefit from this approach for all parties involved.


The “Advisor Insights” series are unfiltered conversations that give you a lens into real people and real businesses within the advisor ecosystem.

Read the transcript

Penny: Hi, and welcome to this Advisor Insights.  My name’s Penny Ellenger. I’m General Manager for the Advisory Board Centre, and today I’m joined by Susanna Kenyon-Muir and Shiva Kannan who are going to share with me some of their thoughts and experiences and best practice considerations around customer advisory boards and advisory structures. So, what I’d love to do first is ask each of you to just spend a moment or two sharing with me just a little about yourself, where you’re coming from what’s been your sort of principle background. Susanna, if you’d like to go first.

Susanna: Absolutely. Thank you. My name’s Susanna Kenyon-Muir. I spent the last 17 years working in different software companies across APAC and the UK.  My experience has been within customer success, working with large and small organisations in helping them really drive best practices and adoption of software. So I’ve been involved with customer advisory boards. I’ve been involved in helping setting up governance and operating models to really drive the adoption of the software that I’ve been working with. So with the likes of Salesforce or I spent quite a chunk of time over the last four years, and with some other scale up and startups as well. So that’s, yeah, my background.

Penny: Thank you, Susanna. Thank you Sheva.

Shiva: Penny, thanks for the opportunity. And Susanna, it’s a pleasure to explore this topic together.  So as far as my background, I’m an accidental technologist and a longtime practitioner now.  I’ve lived in, worked and managed in multiple parts of the world so I’d like to consider myself a global citizen.  My experience moving from a practitioner has been over the last decade or so much more on transforming businesses, using the capability of digital, the power of digital, so digital transformation. And as part of this, I’ve worked with multiple vendors or partners, depending on where they are in that spectrum to make this happen. Common companies like that Susanna mentioned, Conga, Amazon, I mean, large companies, midsize and small companies as well. So the entire spectrum.  After about a couple of decades at GE Healthcare recently have transitioned to health tech startup as a COO, more so to increase the surface area for learning and also has an opportunity to give back. So true pleasure to explore this topic.

Penny: Well, thanks very much both of you for those introductions and welcome to both of you. And so today we’d love to explore a little bit more this what is an emerging area in our best practice advisory board space. And that is the concept of customer advisory boards.  now I think I am the initiate here because I think both of you appear to be very well versed in working with customers through this sort of structure.  So what I’d really love to unpack today is the experience that both of you have had.  Shiva from your perspective as a customer, and Susanna from, yours as a partner, as a vendor, as a provider, technology provider.  So firstly I think Shiva, it’d be really valuable for me to learn what has been your experience broadly in either serving on or engaging as part of a customer advisory board.

Shiva: Sure, sure.  So with my experience working with different partners across the spectrum large, small, medium-small, you get the entire spectrum in terms of experience as well.  In my mind, customer advisory is a phrase that is liberally thrown and I would say abused as well.  So it’ll be good for, I mean, I’ll lay out at least what came across well as a good practice to a customer because it added value, right? Ones that just walked away after making a sale and then showed up when there was a renewal or to sell more products. Those are the ones where clearly it didn’t work. They were doing, they were using customer advisory more as a check in the box.  But the ones that worked where, where they saw that there’s a win-win in having a customer advisory board to truly use the customer advisory board to shape their future product strategy and their roadmap, and to get unvarnished, constructive feedback from the customer who are using their products. Cause even from a customer side, you want your partner to be successful so that you have a viable partner to work with, right? So I can use Salesforce as an example. There are other companies that use this model. The one that’s worked well for us is where we have made customer success a priority. They have made it an organisational priority. They have structured it right within the organisation. They have the right measurements for them, and they also listen to them. The most important piece, right? Second, the customer success team has a pulse of where their customers are. That is through constant check-ins to listen, actively listen, not to see where the next sale is, right. To see how their products are adding value. If not, why not.  Third to then have sessions where they bring in at their own dime people that can work with the customer to understand the problem, unpack a problem, and then see how we can add further value. The last one is where you can have co-creation sessions, one-on-one with the customer, where they’re very transparent, very open, vulnerable with where they are, their strategies, and then how the partner can help them take them to the next level. So those are some of the things that’s work for us, but there are a lot of ones that don’t work. Yeah. And usually when they don’t make it a priority.

Penny:  Yeah. Excellent. Thank you. Thank you, Shiva. And when we were speaking before you mentioned it, is that that difference between your relationship with them being that they’re a vendor versus being a true partner and having that kind of partnering relationship. So thank you Shiva.  Susanna, from your perspective internally and coming from within the organisation, I’d love to explore a little bit about one, I guess that the purpose and the why and then perhaps start to explore a little bit about how you managed where you’ve been involved with the implementation and kick off of these type of  structures, if you are happy to share from your side.

Susanna: Absolutely.  I love what Shiva said, and I think it’s a real opportunity for companies, vendors, partners to really make a difference and have an impact with the customers that they work in or work with. And I think one of the points that Shiva made is customer success really has to be integral to the company’s structure, the way that they operate, and really be disseminated within the organisation, not just as a function and what I mean by that is it has to really touch the entire customer journey. So listening to the customer, whether it’s in a customer advisory board, and I’ll talk about this more in a second, but really listening to the customer and having a feedback loop so it’s not just about showing up to a meeting or a customer advisory board session, but really listening, following through, quantifying where there is value, where isn’t there value and bringing that back throughout the organisation, whether it’s product feedback or something’s not working with the implementation. So without getting kind of technical with the technologies that structure is really important and setting expectations up front. So I think that’s from a high level perspective. If we talk about advisory boards and what I saw working really well versus where sometimes it faltered is really having a clear set of expectations upfront and preparation is key. And I think this really transfers also to advisory boards – this can’t be a last-minute thing. You have to have months of preparation in advance, collecting feedback, aligning with the right stakeholders, both from in an internal perspective but also with your customers and, and understanding what they really want to get out of that meeting, what are the challenges that they’re having today but also understanding their vision and strategy and making sure that you’re talking to that in the session. So the executive team really needs to be primed beforehand. So a lot of preparation needs to happen before these sessions and coming in with a clear agenda and, similar to an advisory board, having a chair and a facilitator that really is governing and steering, I guess, the ship within the session so that you’re talking to the vision and strategy of what the customers want to hear, hearing their feedback, but making sure that it’s not kind of derailing and becoming an opportunity to vent for the whole session. So those are a couple of things that maybe I’ll, I’ll pause and see if Shiva, you add anything and then we can, we can kind of double down on things.

Shiva: Being on the other side, that all makes sense, right? Because you are part of meetings where you go in and the person just shows up and then they haven’t even been briefed. So then you’re using majority of the meeting to get them up to speed, or it’s intros, and then you’re walking away saying, why did I do this? And should I be doing this the next time? Right. It just leaves a bad taste in the month.

Penny:  Yeah. We were talking before about I mean, to me, I’m hearing one lots of terms that resonate with best practice terminology as weas we articulate it within the Advisory Board Centre network. And for those organisations that are really leaning into this there’s a maturity to it. There’s a mature approach to actually going but taking the whole process seriously and treating both sides of the partnership in this instance with the respect that they deserve. Now, Shiva it’s possible that you were a very high value customer and this is sort of the pinnacle of that interaction and that customer engagement, but I think there’s some real interesting lessons to be learned and that those best practice elements can be scaled up and down that spectrum to still get a really good outcome regardless of the  dollar value of that client. So I’m really interested in, both of you have experienced the Certified Chair Executive ProgramTM and understood the Advisory Board Centre’s approach methodology to best practice. How do you see that playing a role in the operation of good practice customer advisory boards?

Susanna: So I think that there are a lot of similarities in having, like I said at the beginning, preparation and orientating yourself with the key stakeholders and making sure that you’ve got the right stakeholder engagement. I think that’s so important in a customer advisory board or in an advisory board setting, making sure you’ve got the right people in the room that can add value to the discussion. So getting that right from the beginning, and I know from an advisory board perspective, having the right chair at the beginning to select the right advisors.

Penny:  So that fit for purpose piece?

Susanna: Absolutely. And then having those orientation meetings at the beginning to understand where are you today? And what’s kind of working, what’s not working, and then preparing for the first meeting, or in this case the customer advisory board meeting, setting a clear agenda, expectations, preparing beforehand, having your prep meetings, sending out any material that needs to be read beforehand. I mean this applies wholeheartedly with customer advisory boards as well. Then being quite structured in the session so that all of the attendees know what they’re going to get out of it and also have an opportunity to participate.  I was in an advisory board, a customer advisory board, previously where the customers did spend about 45 minutes of, I think the 90 minute session just introducing themselves so there was no opportunity to showcase or to talk about what they wanted to talk about or to hear from the customer. So I think it’s a real opportunity for customers to really make a difference and to what we were talking about earlier to go from being just a vendor to a strategic partner and to make a difference with the customers. Those are a couple of points I just wanted to share where I see the similarities between advisory boards and customer advisory boards. I don’t know, Shiva, if you wanted to add anything.

Shiva: Wholeheartedly agree, Susanna.  I would echo everything that you said and a few additional things. I mean, just to stress, maybe it’s a repeat just to stress, right? The ones that the work well in which we heard our best practices, the best practice framework from the Advisory Board Centre is that fit for purpose. It’s common sense but people tend to forget that every time. In terms of what, what exactly are you trying to solve? Are you trying to solve a strategic problem? If so, what are you trying to solve? Or are you trying to solve a tactical problem? I think laying that out initially, getting everyone aligned to that through preparatory sessions, Susanna, that you mentioned, it just gets everyone into the right frame of mind. And then they can come in and have those discussions and then take out the venting and everything that you mentioned, Suzanna, out of that. So, I would say that second terms of measurement of what would good look like when we finally solve this? And the most important thing for customers is if they’re going to spend that that time, is their follow up. Value that’s coming out of this. So, because the, the value is not just going to come from that session. It is what happens post that, and then if it’s good enough, then we get back together again.

Penny: If the respect that’s been shared between both sides is there and the outcomes have been articulated well, it’s been a structured and disciplined kind of engagement and interaction, well then you tend to find people feel a little bit more predisposed to doing it again and repeating the exercise, Suzanna, are any further thoughts?

Susanna: I think a really important trait is listening and really listening where the customer is at and I think sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to lay out everything that you’re doing but if the customer is not at that stage or if in an advisory board, if the client is not at that stage, then there is no point in trying to push your agenda. So I think listening and really meeting the customer where they’re at is something that, at least for a customer advisory board and any kind of governance model is highly critical. And I think that’s a transferable kind of trade for advisory boards as well.

Penny:  Yeah, absolutely. Having that structure and that safe space to create the listening opportunity and know that it’s a valued exchange I think is really useful.  Just some final comments. I think we’re nearly out of time, but any tips either for individuals within organisations who are considering implementing their own customer advisory boards or as a customer? Shiva, any tips that you might have ahead of joining a next customer advisory board?

Shiva: So, if I can.  So from my side, it works when it is structured right and when people are serious about it and we give it the right amount of attention.  To a customer, they feel like they’re being valued, that we are finding true partners. We have an entire landscape of vendors that a customer works with, and it is a small percentage of that graduate to become true partners. So that is definitely something that is valuable for the customer.  For the customer also typically, I may be outing myself as a luddite, I have my phone but I probably use like 5% of the functions within that phone because I haven’t spent the time to see how the remaining things can add value.  It’s similar for customers. We spend millions of dollars on all these investments but are we really taking the time to understand what value it can add? What are the edges and that’s where these kind of things where there’s best practice sessions and then learning from the partners can be valuable as well. And for the partner, it is an opportunity to get a customer for life to increase lifetime value and to get an advocate, which is the best marketing agent that you can ever get.

Penny:  Susanna, a final thought.

Susanna: Yeah, I agree with everything that Shiva is saying, and a lot of these things are common sense, but it’s one thing saying things, and I think the critical part is execution. So respecting, like I said at the beginning, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our customers to really step up and add value and make a difference with their customers and at the end of the day for their bottom line as well. So I think having clear expectations, understanding what value you’re going to be providing to the customer and listening to them, preparing, having some sort of structure and best practice and following through and like I mentioned before making sure that you’re listening to where they’re at. So I think those would be the key things – structure, understanding expectations, making sure there’s value measuring as well. You know, from maybe the beginning of the life cycle of the customer to what their intended benefits were and kind of where that is on a regular basis. Maybe it’s quarterly, biannual or annually.

Penny:  Excellent.  Thank you. I’m hearing as I said before, lots of terms that resonate with our best practice methodology in terms of knowing expectations upfront, having that measurement on both sides in terms of what are the expected outcomes and how closely are we meeting those?  Really super interesting to hear both sides of that customer advisory board experience that you’ve both had. So I really appreciate you both Shiva Kannan and Susanna Kenon-Muir for joining me today.

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