Connecting Clients in a Virtual World
Nancy Settle-Murphy and Bruce Peters
You just finished a highly-charged client advisory board session, and you're already imagining how the next one should look. As you start thinking through the agenda, you realize that six months is way too long to wait if you want to capitalize on the momentum created here. You know that clients' overbooked calendars coupled with your overstretched budget means that you can't possible reconvene this group any sooner — unless you can find a way to arrange a virtual advisory board meeting that will keep people focused and engaged.
Whether they're called client advisory boards, user groups, or customer feedback sessions, most such meetings are held face-to-face, and for good reason. Trusting relationships are easier to cultivate eye-to-eye, and honest two-way communications are usually far more effective when nonverbal forms of communication come into play. We're not suggesting replacing onsite client advisory meetings with online sessions. But we are recommending that you consider augmenting these onsite sessions with well-planned and productive online sessions to continue vital discussions and build on important relationships.
As you read through these practical ideas for planning and running remote client group conversations, we encourage you to envision remote sessions as a bridge linking together the ideas and energy produced in the face-to-face sessions.
- Start with a face-to-face client group session Despite all of technology at our fingertips, we cannot circumvent the face-to-face client sessions and leap right to remote client advisory board sessions. It takes face time to create the required trusting relationships among clients, and between you and this client group. No remote session, regardless of how advanced the technology or brilliantly-constructed the agenda, can replace the power of face-to-face conversations, especially when you're seeking candid feedback and bold ideas.
- Clarify intended outcomes. Make sure that all understand the purpose of the remote meeting, and how it relates to the face-to-face meetings. For example, a remote session may be designed to build on new ideas that sprang up in the face-to-face session or to solicit feedback about a new product or service. If the conversation is likely to be very different from the usual face-to-face meetings, say so to allow people to opt out if needed.
- Create a multi-pronged communications plan to augment the face-to-face sessions. To keep the momentum going and relationships fresh, create a communication program that allows clients to communicate with each other and with your organization in ways that are easy, comfortable and mutually rewarding. While email may typically act as the glue, consider introducing additional forms of communication, including a private shared portal and web conferencing service that can be used synchronously and asynchronously. If you do a good job selecting your group members, they'll see value in networking among themselves, and they'll appreciate any help you can give.
- Establish virtual client communities with shared themes. Thanks to web conferencing technology and other tools, it's become far easier and less expensive to bring together like-minded clients who live and work across the country, or even across the world. If you have a new product or service that may appeal to only a subsection of your customer base, you can quickly pull together one or more groups representing multiple locations for some valuable feedback. Keep in mind that in most cases, this type of virtual client community works best when clients are already participating in one of your organization's face-to-face customer advisory boards.
- Increase representation of diverse and divergent viewpoints with remote participation. Not all companies have budgets or resources to deploy to customer advisory board sessions for their vendors. Those who do make the investment tend to have favorable relationships with your organization already. Think about how virtual technology can make it possible to include others whose viewpoints you respect and value. For example, you can set up remote sessions for groups of clients who are not part of your in-person sessions. Or you can enable remote participants to provide feedback or advice at critical junctures of a face-to-face customer advisory board meeting with careful planning and the right tools. You'll want to include the remote participants in all other communications to make them feel an equal part of the customer advisory team.
- Your senior management can establish a more prominent, consistent presence among clients. Depending how often clients meet, and at what level the decision-makers, your own senior management team may not participate in on-site sessions as fully as you and your clients would like. By holding at least some of your client sessions remotely, you increase the likelihood of participation by more of your own management team, either by playing an active role or by careful listening (with the appropriate disclosures, of course!) By the way, your client's most senior decision-makers can also participate more easily as well if travel is no longer an issue.
- Respond to changing business trends by adjusting agendas and modifying your participant list more quickly and easily. Remote sessions allow you to make important modifications to your session faster and with less hassle. Since no one has to cancel or make travel reservations on the fly, you have more leeway as to who participates, and how and when. In most cases, it's also much easier to change dates and times. Less total time is needed from all participants, plus you won't risk losing a costly deposit on your favorite conference facility. If you make changes to your agenda, be clear about the implications in terms of preparation. You may find that by including at least some remote sessions as part of your overall customer advisory board program, you can vary the times or days to enable fuller participation.
- Familiarize clients with new technology during an onsite session. Introduce whatever technology you plan for your remote session while people are face to face. This way, they will be more comfortable and confident using these tools, which will increase the chances of their participation later on. For example, if you'll be brainstorming new ideas as part of your onsite session, have clients use the appropriate web conferencing tool from their laptop in the conference room. Demonstrate one or two capabilities as part of this session, so when you reconvene remotely, people will be ready to go right away.
Regardless of whether your client advisory session takes place onsite or in person, you'll still need to carefully orchestrate every moment, from before the session and well after. Make sure that all come fully prepared to participate productively from the first minute. To do this, people need to know the intended outcomes, their role, what technology if any may be used and how to access, and what homework they must do to come ready for a productive conversation.
About the Authors
Nancy Settle-Murphy is founder, president, and principal consultant for Chrysalis International Inc., a facilitation, training and strategic communications consulting firm based in Boxborough, Massachusetts. Please visit her web site at www.chrysalisinternational.com for related articles and tips.
Bruce W. Peters is co-founder of PeerHQ
© Copyright 2006 Chrysalis International, Inc. All rights reserved.