As a marketer, we typically ask ourselves the following question at least a dozen times a day: "Would our prospects and customers like this?"
Ideally, you'll use a mix of qualitative and quantitative data to arrive at the answer to that question.
But one great place to know what your customers like (and love … and hate … ) is directly from the customers themselves.
At HubSpot's department-wide marketing team meetings, for instance, we often host customer panels. There's good reason for this.
As Senior Product Marketing Manager, Katriona Heaslip, notes, "A good marketing strategy should always incorporate the voice of the customer — you could have the best product in the world but you won't see any growth unless you're positioning it in a way that appeals to the customer."
Additionally, Amanda Whyte, HubSpot's Director of Voice of the Customer, says, "Customer panels are such an important way for feedback to be heard, especially for teams that are non-customer facing in their day-to-day job responsibilities."
Whyte adds, "Hearing from a customer what their experience has been, in their own words, creates empathy among decision-makers in a way they couldn't get from looking at data alone. It drives more customer-centric content and communications."
A customer panel is an exceptional opportunity to learn more about your customers' points of friction and success stories. And, along with using that material to inform your future marketing strategy, it can also inspire your marketers to work harder by reminding them why what they're doing matters.
Here, we'll dive into best practices when hosting a customer panel — including what makes a "good" customer for a panel, how to ask effective questions during a customer panel, and why a customer panel is critical for creating alignment across your marketing team.
Let's dive in.
How to Choose Participants for Your Customer Panel
When you begin curating a list of potential customers to host in a customer panel, there are a few factors you'll want to consider.
First, as Lauren McKenzie, HubSpot's Director of Product Design, points out, "A 'good' panel has a wide range of experiences and feedback to offer. For instance, the panel should represent your customer base. If 50% of your customer base is based in Latin America, you'll want 50% of your panelists to be based in Latin America. A thoughtfully curated panel allows you and the team to hear from a diverse set of customers, offering a breadth of experiences and opinions."
Plus, McKenzie adds, "Gabby Thomas, our Program Manager for DI&B, always asks whose voice are we not hearing. This is important to consider when creating a panel, as well."
"It's our job to give all of our customers a platform to have their voices heard, and often that means seeking out the customers we don't hear from as much. You don't just want your fans or ambassadors — instead, you want customers that are going to push you to think differently and improve."
Ultimately, when you're curating a list of customers to host, you'll want to consider whether your panelists deliver a wide range of perspectives to get the most out of your panel.
Laurie Aquilante, HubSpot's Director of Customer Marketing, echoes this perspective, adding that diversity in your panel is critical. She says, "Make sure you have a panel with diverse perspectives. Do you have a mix of industries, use cases, and backgrounds represented? What about titles? Company size? Racial and gender diversity? High NPS and low NPS?"
Additionally, consider curating a group depending on the questions you want to ask during your discussion. If you're releasing a product meant to help enterprise customers, make sure your panelists are enterprise-level. Within that group, you might include a marketer, developer, and IT person to offer a range of perspectives on the enterprise product.
It's also important to consider which panelists will offer the most constructive feedback to truly enable your company to grow.
Shauna Carroll, HubSpot's Program Manager of Voice of the Customer, says, "When selecting your customers for the panel it is important to understand the customer's ability and willingness to provide candid feedback. When recruiting for HubSpot's Customer Advisory Board this is one of the most important factors for us — we want members who are invested in our success, but not afraid to share their honest opinion."
Of course, it can be difficult to pre-determine which customers will offer helpful, constructive feedback.
For this reason, Carroll advises, "You can determine this by having quick screening call with each of the participants. This screening call is also a great way for the facilitator to understand the various personalities joining the panel and he/she can start to build a plan for how to get the most from the panelists."
As if this doesn't seem specific-enough, there's one more thing you'll want to consider when choosing a panel: how well they speak on-camera.
Kinzie Trompak, HubSpot's Manager of Customer Stories, says, "You'll want to find speakers that are comfortable on camera. Do your speakers have a sample talk they can share?"
"Are they comfortable speaking on Zoom where they can't necessarily see faces or pick up on non-verbal cues? This piece is part of doing research and effectively preparing your speakers."
Once you've found customers that can offer a wide range of perspectives and opinions, it's time to host the panel.
But when it comes to hosting the panel … what questions should you even ask?
Effective Questions to Ask During a Customer Panel
I spoke to Katriona Heaslip, a Senior Product Marketing Manager at HubSpot, to learn what types of questions you should ask a customer during a panel. She told me, "Customers have the answers to the questions we as marketers spend a lot of time agonizing over: who is our persona, what's the perfect price point, what category should we be in, what's the best tagline to use."
"Your customers have the answers, you just have to unlock them by listening."
So — how do you unlock them?
Heaslip says, "Always have a goal or objective in mind: this will help you develop questions and add more focus to your time with customers, giving you better insights."
For instance, at HubSpot we often host panels a couple weeks or months before a new product launch. This enables the marketing team to uncover concerns revolving around that type of product, and how our marketing materials might mitigate those concerns.
You might consider doing the same thing at your own company. If you've just added some new features to your product, perhaps you host some existing customers and ask them how those features might help them — as well as any apprehensions they might have.
McKenzie also suggests creating open-ended and specific questions, to ensure your customers can stay on-track, while still broad enough to give them an opportunity to provide any anecdotal information they'd like. She says, "Focus more on asking questions that start with What and How rather than Why. Ideally, questions should focus on their actual experience, rather than asking them to project into the future or imagine what they would do in a hypothetical scenario."
To get you started, here are a few potential questions I'd recommend asking:
- What was the decision process like when buying [our product]? Did you look at or use other tools?
- How long have you been using [our product]?
- What were the earliest successes you saw? What sort of long-term impact have you seen?
- Which features or tools do you like the most? How do you learn from them?
- Which resources do you use most? (Blogs, ebooks, whitepapers, video, etc.)
- Did you have to convince stakeholders to buy? What was that process like?
- If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about our product or overall buying process, what would it be?
In terms of distribution, Aquilante told me, "Consider having a set of questions you've sent the customers in advance, so they can prepare best for the discussion. Then, during the panel, have attendees at your company write down questions that come to mind and save them for the end of the meeting."
Additionally, you'll want to ensure your questionnaire is consistent across the board. Heaslip advises, "Make sure you ask each customer the same questions (where relevant) in order to compare answers and ascertain trends and patterns in feedback."
4 Best Practices Before, During, and After a Customer Panel
Before the Customer Panel
1. Decide whether or not you'll take live questions, and how long your panel will be.
Once you've got your customers chosen and questions planned, you'll need to plan logistics. For instance, will you accept questions in-the-moment from the audience, or provide some time after the prepared panel for audience questions?
If you do leave time for audience questions, consider requesting that your employees send their questions to a pre-determined Slack channel, so the moderator can sift through and choose the ones best-suited for the panel. This provides an additional level of control over the questions asked.
As Trompak suggests, "I'd collect questions ahead of the panel. There is nothing more awkward than asking for audience participation, followed by silence. By collecting questions ahead of time, you're setting your speakers up for success as they have time to prepare and think through their answers."
Another logistical factor you'll want to figure out pre-panel: How long do you want your panel to last?
As Aquilante puts it, "You'll want to prepare ahead of time and make sure the customers and the people at your company are aware of how things are going to go. Ensure they understand how long the panel will go, and whether or not you'll take live questions. If you choose to take live questions, figure out whether or not you'll take them during or after. For us, we've found about 45 minutes to be a good length of time for a panel of 3-4 customers."
During The Customer Panel
1. Invest in recording software to turn the customer panel into a case study.
If you're conducting a customer panel via video conferencing, consider how you might record and transcribe the call after-the-fact. Alternatively, even if your customer panel is in-person, consider whether you can access video equipment to record the chat and transcribe it later.
Katriona Heaslip told me, "It's useful to record the customer call using a tool like Gong, which also provides a transcript, so you can engage fully with the customer in-the-moment without typing furiously trying to keep up. This way you can reference the call afterwards and pick up things you may have missed, or even share it with some other stakeholders internally if there's some particularly useful feedback."
Additionally, Heaslip advises using the content from the customer panel and turning it into a case study. This way, you can leverage the customer panel as a lead generation opportunity and demonstrate to prospects how your existing customers' have found success with your product.
2. Have a good moderator to facilitate various points-of-view.
Ultimately, a customer panel is only as good as your moderator. It's your moderator's job to keep the conversation flowing, encourage alternate perspectives, and simply facilitate which customers answer in which order to ensure everyone is heard equally.
As McKenzie told me, "A good moderator asks open-ended questions, involves all panelists in the discussion, and moves the discussion along rather than offering up their own opinions."
Additionally, she adds, "A potential pitfall of a customer panel is when one loud voice dominates the conversation or causes other panelists to second guess themselves."
"A good moderator can counteract this by not only encouraging differing opinions, but actively seeking out different points of view throughout the discussion."
3. Follow a few Zoom best practices to create an ideal audience experience.
Whyte recommends a few tips she follows whenever her customer panels are entirely remote.
"If the panels are over Zoom and we have a larger audience, we recommend the following tips to ensure the best experience for everyone:
- Hide Non-Video Participants (Go to Preferences > Video > Check the box for 'Hide non-video participants').
- Everyone who is not a panelist or moderator can Turn Off Video & Mute.
- To see the panelists at the same time as slide content, use Side-by-side Mode (Go to View Options & turn on "Side-by-side Mode" to see slides + gallery view of customers).
- During any Q&A portion, turn your video back on and unmute yourself so the panelists can see who is asking the question."
Of course, if you're using an alternative video conferencing tools, you'll want to explore the options you have to mute or hide non-video participants.
Ultimately, you'll want to decide what works best for your marketing team and panelists, but it's a good idea to iron out the details before going live with your customers.
After the Customer Panel
1. Thank your customers for their time with a note or gift.
Once your customer panel has ended, you'll want to follow-up with participants to thank them for their time.
Laurie Aquilante suggests sending along a thank-you note or gift to show customers you appreciate their time: "How are you going to thank customers for their time? Consider delivering a hand-written thank you note from your team or a small gift. Alternatively, perhaps participating in a customer panel is part of a greater advocacy and rewards program."
2. Provide panelists with networking opportunities.
After the panel, consider how you might encourage further interaction between your customers to facilitate long-term professional connections.
For instance, Carroll suggests, "After the customer panel, it can be a nice gesture to provide the panel with the opportunity to network further with each other and with employees from your company. Many customers will be grateful for this opportunity, and offering to facilitate/host this is a nice way to thank them for their time."
Ultimately, there are a variety of other channels you might leverage to learn more about your customers, so it's up to you to decide whether or not a customer panel is the best-fit for your team.
As HubSpot's Director of Customer Marketing, Laurie Aquilante, puts it, "Getting your customer's perspective is incredibly important for any business. There are lots of ways to do that — you can look at reviews, NPS, various feedback channels, a user/customer research function, focus groups, and customer panels. Ultimately, you'll want to consider which method you need for which program."
A customer panel is a fantastic option to demonstrate how much your company cares about your customers' perspectives — and enables you to align your team under one shared vision: the customer.
Additionally, Trompak told me, "The majority of marketers rarely speak directly to customers. Panels are a great way to infuse the voice of the customer into your work without bombarding your customers with asks from multiple teams."
She adds, "As an example, At HubSpot, we ran two panels in January to inform marketers' work for 2020. The Super Admin panel helped my teammate Lucy Alexander design the offerings for HubSpot's Power User Community."
Hopefully, with these best practices in-hand, your team can leave your next marketing team meeting feeling inspired, aligned, and ready to tackle their marketing challenges with a fresh sense of who your customers are. To explore other options, take a look at Customer Feedback Strategy: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need.