EdTech Customer Advisory Boards

If you are a decision maker for edtech purchases you probably have been approached at some point about joining such a group.

May 23, 2013

Have you been asked to sit on an edtech customer advisory board?   

If you are a decision maker for enterprise, school or departmental level edtech purchases you probably have been approached at some point about joining such a group.

From the vendor viewpoint a customer advisory board is a great way to get unfiltered market feedback for product or service strategies. While I have not seen any empirical research on this (we are woefully short of research on our edtech world), I imagine that customer advisory boards serve a useful function for customer retention and perhaps referrals.   

In higher ed, where sales cycles are particularly long, it makes good sense to invest resources in developing strong relationships with customers. An advisory board, if done correctly, can be of enormous value in strengthening the partnership between the school and the company.

Unfortunately, my experience with customer advisory boards is that their usefulness and utility tends to be all over the map. If done poorly, a customer advisory board can actually weaken a relationship.

In evaluating if I am going to join (or stay with) an edtech customer advisory board I look at the following 4 attributes:

1. The Presence of Peers on the Advisory Board:

An advisory board is a terrific opportunity to learn from our peers. How is this school or that department utilizing the hardware or software on their campus?  What sort of integrations or customizations have they done?  What resources are they devoting to running, evangelizing, and supporting the technology?  The great thing about higher ed is our culture of sharing.  An advisory board can be the perfect place to share best practices and lessons learned.

This sharing, however, is dependent on having the right mix of people on the advisory board.   I look for opportunities where I will be collaborating with peers, colleagues that are in similar positions at their universities as I am at my own.   If there is nobody that I recognize from my other professional work on an advisory board I probably would decline an invitation to join.    

2.  The Purpose of Advisory Board Is Clear:

The company should be very clear with itself why it is constituting an advisory board, and be able to articulate these reasons to potential members.  Is the company looking for short, medium or long range advice and feedback on their services or products?   Is the advisory board intended to help the vendor test out and share its messages, or is the focus on the product?   

One thing I definitely look for is buy-in at the leadership level for constituting an advisory board.   I want to know that the this project has the backing and the attention of senior management.  Without leadership sponsorship the advice board will not be able to address strategic questions, and any recommendations have a much smaller likelihood of being implemented.

3.  The Company's Goals for the Advisory Board Are In Line with My Goals:

In order to devote the time an an advisory board (which is always uncompensated and carries with it a high opportunity cost in terms of time), it is necessary for me to feel that there will be a strong return on investment.   I look for opportunities to influence product roadmaps, as living with a particular product or service uncovers all sorts of ways that it can be improved.  

Often the improvements that I seek in the learning technologies that I use on my campus are about making the software or hardware simpler, more robust, and mrs resilient. Edtech companies have a tendency to want to bring out new products and new features, and an advisory board can be a good count weight.

4.  The Advisory Board is Well-Organized and Properly Resourced:

Running an effective advisory board is hard work.  There are a ton of logistics that go into making face-to-face and online meetings productive.   In my experience the return on investment for participating in an advisory board is directly correlated to the resources that the company puts in to managing the activities of the group.   Devoting significant staff time and dollars to recruiting, organizing, and following up on the work of the advisory board is a signal that the advice given is truly valued and valuable to leadership and the product teams.  

A poorly organized and run advisory board will send the opposite message, so I would caution any company to be sure that they really want such a body before organizing their own customer advisory board.

What has been your experience with edtech customer advisory boards?


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