Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio January 2001 Current Issue
January 2001 Association StrategiesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Association Strategies

By Nancy Friedman


Customer-service training and other simple strategies help foster loyalty

Many associations focus on growing ever bigger and spreading their message to larger and larger audiences. While recruiting new members is indeed important, attention must be paid to those who have already signed up.

Following are a few ideas that can help associations ensure their databases are full of members who are alive, ready, willing and able to be active participants in the organization.

Treat them right.
Hospitals have patients, hotels have guests, schools have students, and lawyers have clients. Whatever the term, in the end these people are all customers. It is important that everyone working for associations remember their members are their customers.

One way to reinforce this fact is to have an ongoing customer-service training program in place for the staff and new hires. The training will help them handle complaints and other situations that, if resolved badly, might cause a member to quit.

A quick way to set up the training is to piggyback it with an association conference. If the agenda offers a customer-service seminar for members, enroll association employees in the session or offer an abbreviated version to the staff.

Provide year-round value.
Aside from scheduling a few physical opportunities for members to network, create online opportunities via a bulletin board or an e-mail listserv. Other Web-based benefits are distance-learning courses (significantly discounted for members) and buyers’ guides.

Focus on renewals.
When a member is lost through cancellation, something has gone wrong. If you lose enough members, you’ll have a very small association.

Recently, our company canceled membership in a trade association. No one called to see why we left, what happened or if they could do anything to win us back.

Whenever a member doesn’t renew or hints at not staying with the association, a red flag should go up and practices should be in place to find out why the member is dissatisfied. Just saying, “Well, we can’t please everyone” is not appropriate.

Find out what happened. Was it a budget problem? Try to work out a payment schedule. Is it a political situation where two members have locked horns? Find a good negotiator in the association to address the situation.

The longer the group waits to gather this information, the more difficult it is to get the member back. The decision not to renew is possibly reversible if acted upon early. Just trying to resolve the differences tells a reluctant member she is important.

Before retention numbers fall precipitously, start keeping records on why members leave. This might help you see a pattern.

Offer incentives.
Many associations offer incentives to join, but not to renew. At the very least, have an up-to-date brochure that emphasizes the ongoing benefits the organization offers members.

Check staff attitudes.
When a member calls headquarters, is he immediately welcomed and recognized by the person who answers? If not, the member might think, “Why the heck should I stay in this association if they don’t even care when I call?”

Every person who answers phones should be prepared to be cheerful when the phone rings. Every office gets busy, and certainly we’re all understaffed and overworked. But those are just excuses, not reasons to be unpleasant or unfriendly to a member. Make sure everyone understands how important your members are to the association that the members are the association.

Nancy Friedman, known as “the Telephone Doctor” (, is a St. Louis-based consultant and speaker on organizational issues.

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