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Should you join a customer advisory board? And what exactly are they?

Mar 13, 2015

Dear Annie: What’s your view of customer advisory boards? I’m a senior manager at a large manufacturing company, and one of our biggest vendors is putting together one of these panels. They asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I would be interested in participating, so I’ve done some research on what these groups do and what advantages there might be for my company if I join. It sounds like an intriguing opportunity. But, like most people, my so-called free time is extremely limited and I’m on the fence about whether to commit some of it to this. What do you and your readers think? — Mulling It Over

Dear Mulling: Customer advisory boards (CABs) aren't new but, as you no doubt discovered in your research, they’re getting a lot more popular, especially (but not only) among tech companies. Dell, HP, IBM, Symantec, Wells Fargo, and many others have formed CABs, which — although they may go by other names like customer advisory panel or executive customer board — all have the same purpose: To get advice and insights from key managers across a company’s industry, and especially from its top customers.

“It’s almost like a focus group,” says John Newcaster, vice president of global logistics for Houston-based Baker Hughes’ oilfield operations in 90 countries. He’s a member of the CAB of Ryder System, whose supply-chain management business Newcaster sees as crucial in controlling Baker Hughes’ North American transportation costs.

Ryder’s CAB has members from “a cross-section of energy companies from different parts of the industry. Our job is to help guide strategy. Where will they direct their resources that will provide the most value for customers?” Newcaster says, adding that he gains as much from the meetings as Ryder does. “They get insights about what’s important to us, and vice versa.”

Kamal Bherwani, currently on the CAB for Dell’s software division, has belonged to a total of five such groups, including one each at IBM and HP. In his day job, he’s the chief technology officer at Inversora Agroindustrial Global, a worldwide agricultural distributor based in Madrid. CABs “get you out of the office and away from the day-to-day issues so you can focus on big strategic questions,” Bherwani says. “You also hear about specific solutions to problems that the whole [tech] industry is facing.”

CABs can also be “fantastic networking opportunities,” he adds. “Your fellow board members are senior executives you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”

Your main concern, the time commitment, varies from one CAB to another. Usually these groups meet in person for a day or two, from two to four times a year, with teleconferences or conference calls in between. Sounds manageable — except that, in order to keep up, you’ll have to do some serious preparation before each meeting. “Your membership is usually renewed each year, or not, depending on how much value you add,” explains Eyal Danon.

Danon, who is the president of Ignite Advisory Group, a firm that consults with companies on forming and managing CABs, has worked on these panels with executives from Xerox, Adobe, Aetna, Verizon, and many other companies. “You can’t attend CAB meetings and not participate, so it does take time and thought,” he says. “Ideally, to have the most impact, members should join subcommittees and task forces on particular issues.”

He recommends approaching your decision to join a CAB (or not) “almost as if you were interviewing for a job.” Try to get a sense of how much time a particular panel’s members put in, since that’s what you really want to know, but don’t stop there.

“Ask ‘What are the CAB’s specific goals, and how do you expect to achieve them? Why have you chosen these particular members, and why right now?'” Danon says. “If you get a vague answer like, ‘We want to understand our customers better,’ be careful, because that’s often a sign that the company hasn’t really thought it through.”

The CABs that make the most efficient use of everyone’s time, says Newcaster, are those that put a third party in charge of running the meetings and following up afterwards. “I also think it’s important to have the host company’s CEO involved,” he says. “It shows that they’re taking the CAB’s input seriously.”

Bherwani recommends weighing the hassle of taking on yet another demand on your time against the potential gains for you and your employer. “Joining a CAB is a real career growth opportunity. Every one I’ve belonged to has helped me in some way,” he says. “Try it and, if you don’t think it’s more than worth your time, don’t stay.” Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever been asked to sit on a CAB? If you signed on, what did you take away from the experience? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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