A year ago Billtrust had an offsite management meeting where we discussed a number of things, including how to better integrate customer feedback into our product development plans. Through 2007 we had done this very informally. In my previous life at enterprise software companies, we would hold annual user conferences in some attractive destination and invite all of our customers to attend. There would be a couple of days of presentations by management followed each night by alcohol consumption that rivaled college days. They were good bonding events but I never felt that we really gained enough insight into what customers were looking for or the pain they were feeling.
This week we hosted our first Customer Advisory Council meeting (CAC - pronounced kack - I know it's terrible, I lobbied to come up with something different but I was overruled :[ ). We invited 8 influential customers in for a day and a half of intense product conversations. We talked about each of our product lines, asked the customers what was going good and more importantly what we could do better. We bounced future product plans off them. We talked about the performance of our difference teams.
Prior to the meeting, my expectations were really middle of the road for what we would accomplish. Some companies do this to placate customers and make them feel important. I really didn't want that. I was looking for concrete things that we could do to perform better and deliver better products.
It would be difficult to overstate how great the meeting was - both for us and according to the customers, also for them. I personally jotted down roughly 20 product suggestions that either weren't in our near term plans or we hadn't even considered.
For example, we are going through the final stages of certification for PCI compliance which has to do with storing of credit card numbers. We discussed this as part of one of our product updates and one of our customers mentioned that they were struggling with this as well. This particular customer is in the distribution business and they accept credit cards for in store purchases. These credit cards gets stored in their ERP system so they are subject to the PCI guidelines. This was one of those light bulb moments. I knew first hand what a pain it has been to go through this PCI compliance process so knew it was going to be a pain for them. Maybe we should productize what we have done for PCI Compliance and offer it to our customers so they don't have to deal with it. Seems obvious in hindsight, but I had never thought of it.
I'm sure there are a lot of formats to run a Customer Advisory Council, the one we selected worked well for us. What's more important than which format you choose, is to do something where you can get customers around a table and pick their brains.