Many companies attempt to set up customer councils or advisory boards to help direct product strategy. One of the many challenges is to find customers (or other potential partners or users) who both have the time to participate, but more importantly, have the energy and insight to provide useful input. These councils are often filled with ‘key’ customers — which is another way of saying customers who buy a lot — but don’t necessarily offer their weight in insightful input. In fact, often the smallest user is the one with the best overall feedback as they have the time and energy to more fully use the product — and enjoy the attention a council can provide. Top paying customers often expect to participate as their way of buying into influencing customer strategy — which is ok in the end as sometimes companies have to play a bit of politics with these customers to keep them happy.
Like all advisory relationships, you have to use them to gain from them. Holding meetings just to provide your product pitch is not the way — communicate the roadmap but also create an engaging agenda that brings useful input to the table. You should be in a position to combine that input with your own insight (perhaps the product manager’s primarily) to help affirm a given direction.
Sometimes council members can also act as Alpha and Beta sites — given their role in the council, you should be able to count on their active participation. Perhaps the secret is to combine product roll-out with council activities so participation in one is participation in the other.
I like to see technology companies form these types of advisory relationships with key customers but not as a replacement for developing your own strategy and vision. The worst thing that can happen is that the council hijacks the product agenda and you end up building something that satisfies tactical needs putting you behind the eight ball competitively.
Lead by example, use the council to affirm a direction. You can win this way.