How we set up a Customer Advisory Board to regularly engage with our users

2020-10-27, by Stephanie Jiménez

Everything we do as Product Managers has our customers at its core. Our users are the reason why we are building our products: our goal is to solve their problems, offering them a database that adjusts to their needs.

In order to make that happen, we realized it is important to establish a formal, steady line of communication between our customers and us. That's why we launched a Customer Advisory Board, or CAB, at Crate.io.

The CAB is the structure in which we regularly get together with engaged users of CrateDB and CrateDB Cloud. They tell us about their experience with our product, explaining what they love about it and what they'd like to see in the future — and we take notes.

To have steady feedback from our customers allows us to:

  • Get a deeper understanding of how our customers are using CrateDB
  • Validate features of existing products and ideas for new ones
  • Offer solutions to our user's problems

Without talking to customers, we can only speculate about what they need: we want to know first-hand. Then, our mission is to use this information to make life easier for our users, building the products they need.

Want to know more about how we set up our Customer Advisory Board and what we're learning from it? Continue reading.

Creating a Customer Advisory Board Questionnaire

If you're going to talk to customers regularly, you need to have a standard questionnaire: a good one. The questions you ask will determine the information you get.

We created our questionnaire using the Y Combinator Startup School guidelines, condensed in the awesome talk "How to talk to users" by Eric Migicovsky. Highly recommend checking it out when preparing your user interviews.

According to our experience (and Migicovsky's too), one of the most powerful question to ask is:

What you don't like about the solutions you've tried?

This question will help you determine what the average customer wants but doesn't find in the offerings out there. Those are precisely the features you want to focus on if you want to offer a better solution than your competitors'.

Of course, it is also key to ask the same question concerning your own offering:

What you don't like about our product?

This is what allows us to get to the essence of what we want to discover: our user's pain points.

Of course, we love to hear what our customers love about our database. Who wouldn't? But what pushes us forward is to hear about the troubles and difficulties of our users. We want to know what is making their life hard when using our product, because by fixing those issues, we'll improve our database. Our solution will be better.

So don't be afraid to hear hard reviews: build-up an honest environment with your customers during the interviews. To have honest feedback is the key to it all. To discover your weakest points is the gold you're looking after.

Getting customers aboard: signing up your CAB members

It's always about the people. In this case, even more.

At Crate.io, our goal was to build a board in which all our users can feel represented. We have different types of customers: open-source contributors, enterprise users, engineers, DevOps, experienced developers, beginners...

We’ve been lucky enough to be able to build a board including customers with different backgrounds. This gives us visibility to the different perspectives our customers have, and the insights we're gaining are amazing so far.

Hosting the interview: some tips

If you want your interview to go smoothly, consider these points:

  • Your questionnaire is your guideline, but don't be afraid of adjusting on the fly.

    During the interview, some issues will arise that you were not expecting: don't be afraid to dive deeper into them. And if you're finding that some of the questions you had planned have been already answered during the conversation, skip them. Make the most of the time you have with your customer.
  • Schedule a call.

    To ask questions by email is not enough. As we said, we want these unexpected topics to be able to come up: that won't happen if you just send questions to your customer. Besides, there's nothing like a conversation to make people feel comfortable. Schedule enough time to let your customer relax and tell you what he or she really thinks.
  • Include other members of your team.

    In our case, wonderful things happen when we invite an engineer to be present during our interviews. (This is precisely what Marty Cagan from the Silicon Valley Product Group suggests you do.)
  • Extract quotes.

    Quotes are a powerful way to relate to your users later on, and they'll be a wonderful tool for your Marketing team. Make sure to ask the interviewee permission for recording your videocall, and review it later for quotes.
  • Integrate prototypes.

    If you have the chance to test new features with your CAB members before they get released, even better. The same for new products. The more feedback you get in the earlier stages, the higher the chances they'll be useful to customers.
  • Remember: it's all about the customers.

    This is not the place to hear how awesome your ideas are. It's easy to get defensive and start pitching your product, but remember that what we want are honest opinions. That's what makes the whole exercise valuable. So let them do the talking: you want to hear about their use case, their problems, their feedback. It's time for you to listen.

With respect to the timing, we want to always stay aware of what our customers are thinking—but we pay special attention when a new version of CrateDB is released.

For example, around our latest release, CrateDB 4.2, we run four dedicated CAB interviews. Apart from our usual questionnaire, we inquired about our product roadmap and the features included in the latest release. This helped us identify some issues that our engineers were able to follow-up on with a second call.

By the way: we conduct our interviews via videocall. For useful advice on how to effectively communicate in a remote setting, check out this post.

Moving forward: turning information into action

To make sure that what we've gathered is then shared usefully and effectively through the Crate.io people, after each interview we:

  • Prepare a report using the notes we've taken during the interview
  • Share it with the team
  • Classify the feedback we've gathered based on features or topics, to make it easier to identify the things that consistently arise when talking to customers (if something comes up often, that's the thing you want to tackle first)
  • Pull-out key learnings
  • Define action points

What we've learned

To hold interviews with customers (and to stay in contact with them afterward) is the best way to understand their problems. This is extremely helpful knowledge for any Product Manager: interviews are an awesome way to get a perspective of our products we cannot grasp from the inside. Thanks to this practice, we're coming up with solutions for problems we otherwise wouldn't have been even aware of.

Customer feedback is crucial for the product, for the business, and for our culture. It is key for our engineers to get guidelines on how to move forward. And it is also important to have go-to users testing and validating the new features we're working on.

So before wrapping it up, we want to express our gratitude to the members of our Customer Advisory Board: the time each one of you takes to help us improve our products is incredibly valuable for us. Customer interviews will be increasingly present in our development roadmap, and you are the ones who make it possible. Thank you!

Become A Customer Advisory Board Member

Do you want to participate in our development cycles?
We'll be pleased to welcome you to our Customer Advisory Board!

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