You know that many startups fail to take advantage of one of the best kept secrets of product management and company strategy, the customer council. Here is how to operate one and some important traps for the unwary, following my recent article on what a customer council is and the reasons to have one.

How to Operate a Customer Council

Everyone's time is valuable, especially the senior people at your best customers, so keep the meeting tight - make sure it is well-planned, starts on time, and you stick to an agenda. Wherever possible, you should get advance feedback on the agenda from at least a sampling of the invitees.

Face to face meetings are the best because video conferences are so much less engaging (if they work at all), but video or telephone conference calls are still better than nothing. Ideally the meeting will take place at your company's offices so that customers get a feel for your culture and a small number of your key players can participate, but it is important that you have a comfortable and professional space that is conducive to good interaction over several hours.

You can consider ending with a more social dinner, but it is expensive and not absolutely necessary. If you span other traditional meal times, certainly offer some sustenance - an army marches on its stomach.

To extract the most from everyone's time, a dedicated moderator can be hugely valuable. Not only will a good moderator keep the discussion on topic and useful, he or she can extract input from the quieter types in the room and also better control the more dominant voices. Make sure your moderator is strong and competent, and keep in mind that he or she might have to be firm, so, to avoid future awkwardness you probably don't want to put the main customer-facing person from your company in the moderator role.

The building blocks of a good agenda include updates on your company; thoughts on your vision for your product; ideas you have implemented from the previous council meetings; structured input from customers on a couple topics such as product, market, technology, trends, and competition; some highly interactive brainstorming time for stimulating creative ideas; and networking time for participants to connect with each other. Set an agenda that keeps the pace brisk, has an order that keeps it fresh by varying activity type, and does not have large blocks which could induce "death by PowerPoint."

If you really want a good group, you likely will have to reimburse some people for traveling to your meeting. You are also going to have to pay for some food. You may have to pay for an appropriate room if you don't have one. And you may have to pay for a good moderator if you cannot find an appropriately-skilled volunteer. For resource-constrained startups, these expenses can be painful. But ultimately they are worth it - a properly-designed and well-orchestrated council meeting can provide value to the company that is many times the cost of conducting it. I am aware of one case when, to the surprise of the hosts, on their way out the door, a customer casually said they had not been planning to renew their large annual license prior to being invited to the customer council, but what they saw and heard changed their mind. That is money well-spent.

Traps for the Unwary

You should impress upon prospective members that this is a serious commitment of their time and that they are expected to attend meetings - continuity is important. However, that level of commitment applies to you as well - make sure that your key people consistently attend and pay attention. No fiddling with smartphones, no ducking out for routine calls, no backbench chatter. Expect your customers to give you their respect and plan to pay it back by demonstrating your respect for them.

The moderator should take notes on the whiteboard or tripod. Hold yourself accountable for actions you agree to at the meeting and plan on reporting how you have implemented input from past sessions. If you don't want to implement something, don't agree to it in the meeting - discuss it further until there is agreement on viewpoints.

Readiness to Learn
This is not sales call. This is not an opportunity for you to generate leads or upsell customers. This is not a forum for you to lecture or argue with your customers. This is an opportunity to listen to customers telling you important things you need to hear. You must participate with a mindset of listening and learning. Ask clarifying questions. Test the assumptions behind their assertions. Try to understand where each customer is coming from. As noted, some leads and new use cases for your product may naturally emerge, but that should be a side benefit, not the purpose of the meeting.

Awareness of the Source
As you are taking input, keep the perspective of the customer in mind. Early adopters of technology are going to think differently than late adopters. Power users, customers using your product in unique ways, and customers using one-off integrations are going to have different priorities than more mainstream users. Try to keep in mind the ways in which a customer is using the product so that you can filter their feedback appropriately before applying it to your roadmap. Be mindful that you will often get the strongest feedback from the most biased users.

Ineffective Moderation
If you are going to put in the effort to plan a good meeting, put in the effort to make sure the meeting is well moderated and respects your customers' time. The meeting should start on time and all breaks should end on time. The moderator should keep the conversation on-topic and should control overly-dominant voices, seeking the input of the quieter voices in the room. You should think through the pacing and the structure of the meeting in advance to keep people comfortable and engaged. The moderator should make it a safe and stimulating environment for creative input by emphasizing brainstorming and riffing off of each other's ideas.

Now that you have a handle on the what and why of customer councils as well as how best to operate them why not give this secret weapon a try?