How to make a customer advisory board work

Customer advisory boards can give great insights on your store.

A few months ago, Dorothy Lane Market, an upscale three-store grocer in Ohio, put out a call for new members to sit on its customer advisory board. The board, comprised of 15 shoppers, meets four times a year to suggest improvements to the stores and comment on upcoming plans.

Dorothy Lane has had an advisory board for many years, says Kathy Neufarth, who oversees the panel at its Dayton, Ohio store. She says board members provide “lightening bolt” ideas that can have a significant impact. She recalls one board member mentioning how older shoppers usually need only half a loaf of the retailer’s fresh artisan breads. “We actually have always offered to cut a loaf of bread and sell someone half, but we didn’t advertise it. Now we do,” says Neufarth. A customer advisory panel can help improve your store, but keep this advice  in mind.

1. Choose shoppers, not consumers. Neufarth gets plenty of applications to sit on the board, but she selects only people who shop mostly at Dorothy Lane. “The rest don’t really get what we’re all about.” On applications, would be panel members have to answer questions about their food buying habits, age, marital status and where they shop.

2. Have an agenda. Panelists will make their own off-the-cuff suggestions. But centre each meeting around a topic. Neufarth usually picks one department to focus on. She’ll send out a questionnaire in advance “to get our panel members thinking about that part of the store. So for the meat department, we’ll ask whether they’re aware we have a knife-sharpening service.”

3. Give up control. For your panel to be a success “you have to be open to dissent and be able to swallow your pride and listen,” says John Scott, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. If you can’t, let someone else moderate the meetings.

4. Make it fun. Advisory board sessions needn’t be confined to a boardroom. Give members a behind-the scenes store tour. And ask them to visit grocery stores while on vacation and report back their favourite sightings.

5. Set term limits. Dorothy Lane’s advisory members serve two-year, unpaid terms. To say thanks, each gets a small gift at the end and are taken out for dinner with a guest to a nice restaurant. Then it’s time for Dorothy Lane to pick the brains of a new batch of shoppers.