Maxine Clark has had a stellar career in retail. She spent 19 years at May Department Store and eventually became the president of Payless Shoe Source. Then in 1997, she started an innovative retail concept, Build-A-Bear Workshop (BBW). The store allows kids to build their own dolls.
While the business has suffered recently because of the recession, Build-A-Bear Workshop is nonetheless a major success story. There are now more than 400 locations across the world. There is even a virtual world, called buildabearville.com.
A big part of Clark's success is a obsessive focus on customers, whom she calls guests (and yes, kids can be tough customers and guests). So it is no surprise that she devotes quite a bit to this topic in her excellent book, The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart.
For example, Clark has a customer advisory board, which she says is a great way "to stay in touch with ... customers.... In fact, if you are in the start-up phase of your business, make this a priority. If you start seeking customer input early, you will be able to tailor your business to their specific and unique needs."
Here are some of her suggestions for doing just that:
Make It Official: The advisory board should have a formal structure. This means putting together a criteria for selection and scheduled meetings.
Actually, the meetings can be in-person or via conference call or web chat. But do not have too many. This could be a drain on your time. Clark has semiannual meetings.
Open Door: After meetings, let your advisory board know that you are always interested in emails or phone calls about ideas, suggestions or criticisms. As much as possible, keep up the conversation.
Members: Who should be on the board? It's important to have those who are your target customers. True, you may want to expand beyond this -- but be careful. Companies often get in trouble when they move away from their customer target. Stay focused.
Focus Group: Actually, an advisory board can act as a focus group. So, if you have a new idea, you can get feedback.
Compensation: Clark says it is usually a bad idea to pay advisory board members. Why? Well, she thinks that it may taint the advice; that is, a member may say what you want to hear so as to keep receiving the fees. However, Clark recommends providing perks, such as discounts or gift certificates.
Interestingly enough, you should have little problem recruiting members. Often, customers are thrilled to be a part of the growth of a company.