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Collecting Customer Input
One of the most cost-effective ways for collecting customer input at any stage of the product development process is creating a Product Advisory Board (PAB) composed of individuals who are friendly to your company and want to help you succeed. A PAB means smarter, customer-driven products via regular, close contact with your customer community during product development. You can use them to brainstorm product ideas with actual customers during definition or test out specific product details during implementation. This also applies to marketing messaging and content, not just products and features.
For small companies, your PAB is more than just the pals who helped you get your company off the ground; they are part of an official program and are expected to give you regular honest, constructive feedback. Even if you are pre-revenue, treating your PAB members as paying customers creates a sense of formality which incents them to give you great feedback.
Step 1: Identify a few potential PAB members.
Where do you find them? Cull your your sales team's favorite customers, your prospect list, trade show attendees, friends of friends, college alumni, etc. You're looking for people who know something about your space and either want to help you succeed or, better, have a vested interest in doing so. If possible, you want to get a broad group of opinion leaders from the following:
- A variety of different industries
- A variety of different business sizes (small, medium, large)
- A variety of different geographies (local and international)
- A variety of different levels of experience with your product
Also, don't just look for members who are already completely satisfied with your products. Customers who have a gripe are much more interesting! But be careful -- you don't want too many "loose cannons" in any PAB meetings you may hold.
Step 2: Send an email invitation and NDA.
The email invitation is your sales pitch for the PAB. What do you have to offer your PAB members? It doesn't need to be money or even stock options (although very early stage companies may want to consider this if they don't have anything else to offer). The big benefit is the ability to shape the company and product direction. On top of that I've offered fun company-branded tchotchkies, invitations to company-sponsored events, and my undying gratitude.
Here's a sample script you can use to pitch prospective members.
Step 3: Wait for responses.
Critical mass for this kind of feedback program is about 10 active members.
Step 4: Send a Welcome Kit to respondents.
A small "thank you for joining" package with a couple of tchotchkes is a tangible reminder of their commitment to help you.
Here's a sample letter to print out on your company letterhead and include with the Welcome Kit.
Step 5: Refresh your list.
You can repeat Steps 1 and 2 over time to replenish with fresh members over time.