One of the best things a Product Manager has in his or her toolbox to define product direction and better guarantee client satisfaction, is the Product Advisory Group. This group is generally composed of a group of industry representatives, users of your product (but exclusively so) that are focused on a common goal – to improve processes, profitability and “value add” offerings to their customers through improvement of your product line. Through the collaboration of this group, you will be better able to manage the change required to make and keep a successful product. This is one of the best ways to get your customer base involved and for them to feel ownership in your products, increasing loyalty and opening lines of communications that are difficult otherwise. I’ve found that having this group behind the product is also a tremendous sales tool, providing knowledgeable reference customers and demonstrating more depth within your organization.
Look at your product/product line. Are you having difficulty competing? Are product revenues flat, declining or just not where you or your company expect them to be? Do a SWOT analysis vs. your competitors. Do you know what the real revenue potential is for the projected life of the product offering? Establishment of a Product Advisory Group will provide “real world” input to your idea generation and product roadmap.
How do you establish a Product Advisory Group?
In this first installment, I’ll discuss the preliminary steps that should be considered for setup and organization. Follow-up discussions will focus on the true purpose, functionality and practice of a successful Product Advisory Group.
You want to ensure that the members that compose your Product Advisory Group are going to provide value and input to the idea generation and Product Management process. You want to ensure that members participate and bring innovative and common sense ideas to the table. Membership should include:
Your key customers must be a part of this process. They are the ones that will determine the success or failure of the direction of your product set. The representatives must be contributors and provide a representative voice for their organization, this is no place for wall flowers. Your group should also be a representative sampling of your customer base, from the smallest to the largest. Having this sort of representation will develop a level of mutual trust between you, your Product Advisory Group and eventually, your customers.
The second group to include are your technology and reseller partners. These should be those that are revenue generating and value add providers to your product line. Given that some of these partners may also be competitors, this subset of the Product Advisory Group may require a separate meeting, sometimes discussing items individually. You can determine whether they are allowed to participate in the much larger group meetings.
The third, and final group of participants will be those non-voting representatives of internal departments that have a stake in your product. These members are welcome to attend and provide input to any discussions with the customers, but most remain on topic with focus on the group’s mission. Departments that should be represented will include Development, Legal, Sales & Account Management, Operations, Implementation, a Sr Management stakeholder and, of course, the Product Manager.
Organization of the Bylaws
Formal organization is important and, although this may be time consuming on the front end, your group will benefit in the longer term. Establishing a solid set of bylaws will not only provide the group with direction and behavioral guidelines, but will document the ever so important topic of member transition and group makeup.
Ask questions when assembling your bylaws. Better to work through potential issues up front, than to encounter them down the line and have those discussions distract the group from it’s true purpose.
Following is a list of topics I have found requisite to the establishment of bylaws that will lead to a successful Product Advisory Group. Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list of everything that should be included and you may want to include some industry specific items. However, this will give you a good start on the essentials.
This is an absolute requirement and may take more time to develop than the rest of your bylaws combined. It should be a short, one paragraph statement, of this group’s mission in life. Having a mission statement helps your group maintain focus. You should communicate this to the group often, even including it as part of your published agenda and meeting minutes.
Determine your Product Advisory Group’s makeup
Ensure that all customer groups are represented. Customers, small and large should have a seat at the table in providing input to determine your products future.
Declare the makeup of the Steering Committee
The Steering Committee is a subset of the larger advisory group to help lend direction and handle crisis communications. This will be discussed in detail in a future post.
Define procedures for filling general membership seats
Empty seats can be filled either through nomination or volunteer. In either case, the potential member and qualification must be presented to the Product Advisory Group for vote and acceptance or denial.
Define specific processes for election of officers
Define the terms of the officers
The term should be long enough to ensure important tasks can be completed, but not so long that it becomes a drain on the customer’s organization. Generally, one to two years has become the standard length of time in office.
Terms should not begin and end at the same time for all officers. Although difficult at the groups inception, ensuring continuity will provide long term benefits and ensure longevity.
Define the succession process for officers
Ensure continuity – not all officers should exit at the same time. (One way to do this is to elect only the vice president, who succeeds to the president’s position after an initial term. The president then rolls to an advisory board position).
Bylaws should also account for early, and sometimes unexpected, exits. This is fairly common in the business world and shouldn’t be ignored.
1 member, 1 vote
Don’t let your smaller customers lose their voice.
Don’t allow very large customers to dominate the conversation.
You might be surprised at the number of innovative ideas that have come from the most unlikely sources.
Sadly, nothing is ever perfect right out of the chute and changes to the bylaws will eventually be required. Submission of proposed changes, presentation and voting of the membership, and implementation of the changes (including communication outside the Product Advisory Group) should be addressed.
Officer’s duties should be defined.
Everyone coming to the table should know what they’re getting into. Definition of the basic duties of each officer position will show the division of duties and better prepare them for the tasks required to make this group successful. I’ve provided a sampling of common duties below.
President / Chairman. The President will lead the meeting, establish follow-up tasks and coordinate the agenda with the Secretary and Steering Committee.
Vice President / Vice Chairman. Sits on the Steering Committee and will stand in for the President, when required.
Secretary. Working with the President and Steering Committee, the secretary will develop and publish the meeting agenda, send meeting invites, track attendance and report to the group.
Sergeant at Arms. This person will police policy, ensuring that discussions stay within the bounds of the bylaws and intent of the group and that processes are not abused.
Meeting schedules and timing
Are meetings in person or does the geographic spread of your customer base require phone and/or web based presentations? Meetings should be regular and consistent, at least once per quarter. If you are constrained to phone conversations, try to schedule an in-person meeting once per year.
Things to avoid
Leave specific meeting dates and times out of your bylaws. Remember that putting too much detail on matters such as this leaves you with no flexibility to change. Once in the bylaws, it takes time to propose/vote/implement.
State the limits, if any, that are to be placed on discussions
Although it would be wonderful, from the Product Managers perspective, if all participants could freely share everything, there are topics exclusive to each customer’s business that should be avoided in group discussions. Not excluding these topics could not only impact a customer’s competitive position, but could lead to anti-trust concerns surrounding control of your market. Examples of these would be pricing, unique features of your product used to drive major revenue, etc.
Be sure to watch for the next installment where we’ll discuss the mechanics of your Product Advisory Group’s meetings.