December 16, 2010

Making Thank-you's Meaningful

'Tis the season of "thank you," the time of year when our organizations not only receive the greatest number of donations but also express our gratitude for members' support and money. We read a lot about the importance of thanking people in ways that are meaningful to them, and I'm hearing some positive stories from organizations that have been trying to experiment with ways to do that.

Meals on Wheels, for instance, just launched an online radio station whose inaugural program, "Wheels in Motion," featured President and CEO Enid Borden and one of her affiliate leaders talking specifically about what they were most grateful for as they continue their fight to end hunger among senior citizens. They know that many elderly people--both their clients and volunteers--still listen regularly to their radios for news and entertainment, while younger people listen online and will be comfortable setting up RSS feeds and downloading the ongoing program from iTunes.

Another organization called my house the other night to thank me and celebrate my "five-year anniversary as a donor." The donation is a no brainer for me--the group works hard to stretch my money and doesn't inundate us with excessive appeals. Still, it was nice to have someone call to let me know that they appreciated my loyalty as much as my money. I'll be aiming to celebrate 10 years with that organization, for sure.

And here's one of those great stories you wish would happen to every one of your favorite charities: A member had given a nonprofit a $1,000 donation recently. Although they don't usually call donors, a staffer gave a ring and thanked him personally, developing such a rapport (and not making another ask) that the man immediately sent a check for $10,000 more! If we could all be so fortunate....

And finally, this is my own chance to say thank you to the many ASAE members and other association/nonprofit and business professionals who willingly give up their time and wisdom to me so that I can share their experiences, advice, and ideas with others for the greater good. You are what make this blog, our magazine and other publications, our website, and our education sessions and events relevant and helpful to thousands of your peers and partners.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


December 14, 2010

Have you ever complained about free drinks?

When I picked up my mail a few months back, a familiar envelope greeted me from Southwest Airlines. A nice letter with a reward notification through their loyalty program, with the standard four free drink ticket coupons that accompany each milestone. For the first time ever, I turned to my wife and started to complain about FREE DRINKS:

  • Why hasn't Southwest moved to paperless drink tickets? They've implemented a "cashless cabin" already on all flights, but still print paper tickets for their loyal customers to hopefully redeem once in a while?
  • What happens if I misplace this letter and tickets? Do they print and mail replacements out?
  • Couldn't they find a way to link my rewards account to a credit system, by which I accrue and redeem drinks electronically?
  • Couldn't they provide me an email with a QR code to scan, or some other simple way to identify my account and "tab." Saves Southwest printing/postage, and creates the possibility for a carbon-neutral program. It would also provide them with valuable data on who redeems these coupons, how frequently, etc. Not to mention a much more cost effective option than the current model.
  • Southwest recently launched an awesome "check-in for charity" program embracing geolocation as a fundraising partnership with the Make-A-Wish foundation. For those that don't drink, or want to donate their drinks or a cash equivalent to charity, couldn't Southwest use the same framework to make donations in the amount of a drink value to a charity, flight credits for military service men and women, etc.?

My wife, as only she can do, put it all in perspective for me with one observation after my quick rant. "Wow, those are great ideas - why haven't you given them to Southwest yet?" So I sent them a quick email.

Her comment and simple reminder made me think about the parallels with association work. On a daily basis, organizations struggle to respond to rapidly evolving member expectations, and need to operate in a continuous stage of innovation in order to succeed. Associations that are effective in this process usually see higher expectations from the members, and hopefully a corresponding increase in the amount of engagement and feedback received.

I often wonder why so many organizations are afraid of feedback. I worry much more when members are NOT calling, emailing, commenting, or communicating on what we could be doing better. ASAE seems to be a good example of an organization embracing feedback, and welcoming the constructive criticisms in order to continually enhance their programs and services.

Most likely, Southwest is getting ready to roll out a program upgrade that far surpasses my suggestions in the near future, but will give my ego a polite stroke and thank me for my feedback and participation. And I'll continue to sing their praises as an innovative company and industry leader as a result.

Here's to free drink complaints, and the added expectations to help drive each of our organizations. Cheers!

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July 20, 2010

When members rave but staff grumble

Another post drawn from the LeBron drama. How do you like that?

To follow up: last week I shared some "what not to do" lessons association leaders could learn from LeBron James. As a closing note, I mentioned the open letter to fans that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote the night of LeBron's decision to leave.

Bruce Hammond commented and focused on Gilbert:

"… as a leader, talking about how bad or unmotivated an employee was while they were on your team doesn't make you or your organization look very good for the next potential all-star team member you want to come join you."

An excellent point. Shortly after, though, I read that numerous Cavaliers fans offered to help pay the $100,000 fine Gilbert received from the NBA for the letter and that the Cavs received "thousands of e-mails and phone calls" from supportive fans.

That kind of support from your fan base is invaluable, and given that Gilbert has now lost his biggest draw, his desire to do whatever he can to keep his customers passionate enough to fill seats is understandable, even if it means painting a former employee as a mortal enemy.

In a way, keeping sports fans happy is like keeping association members happy. They're both sets of passionate people who are often hard to please and who have a lot of ideas about how things should be run. But, for an association CEO, where's the line between keeping members happy and failing to support your staff?

I once had an association staffer tell me about her CEO's habit of throwing staff under the bus when a board member complained. In the less extreme, a vocal member can elicit a reaction or decision from a CEO that gives staff headaches later.

But, while the CEO risks upsetting staff in these cases, employees are paid. Accepting a certain amount of heat in the name of "the customer is always right" is a tacit part of the job description.

So I don't disagree with Bruce's point about the potentially negative effects of a leader rallying support from paying customers at the expense of paid employees. He's right. Failing to support your staff can hurt you in the long run. But without CEO experience myself, I can only imagine what it feels like to be a chief staff executive facing a cranky board or an aloof membership; it must be tempting to appease them somehow even with the knowledge that staff will grumble later. Dan Gilbert must have felt that way, too, assuming the impact of his message on other players even crossed his mind at all.

Any CEOs or executive directors willing to chime in on the art of keeping both members and staff happy?

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July 12, 2010

Customer Service Hygiene

Let's be honest. Nobody likes going to the dentist. But, I've been going to my dentist for about 25 years. And it's not too bad. When I got married they provided a free whitening treatment so my teeth would shine in all our pictures. When the phone rang and it was Barbara, I knew my appointment was a few days away. When I showed up for my appointment Maryann the hygienist asked me about things we talked about six months ago at my last appointment. She would set aside my favorite color toothbrush. She must have taken notes.

Then about two years ago the office underwent an extreme makeover. In addition to the new modern décor, and all new staff, the office has all the latest dental technology: digital x-ray machine and that high-fangled thing that measures the space between your gums and your teeth, "1, 1, 1, 3." The new hygienist knows all the latest techniques. I barely feel anything. There's even a new spit bowl vacuum (which I actually find a little scary). And, of course, a ceiling-mounted tv, complete with all my favorite cable channels.

Of course the changes were intended to make the dental appointment experience more pleasing for the patients. Unfortunately, the warmth, the personal touch, Barbara, Maryann, the kid's play area - which I now need - are gone. Sometimes the hygienist uses the remote to put on what she wants and doesn't pass it to me. And they now make us pay up front and get reimbursed by the insurance company.

So, this is more than just a rant about my soon-to-be-former dentist. It's more of a lament. I wish they would have asked someone like me why I went there for 25 years before they got rid of all the good things. And I hope when our associations decide to make sweeping changes to a program, service or experience that member needs, expectations and satisfaction are the priorities and not image, technology and money.

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February 23, 2010

Transparency personified

Way back in October 2009 (centuries ago in internet years), Wes Trochlil blogged about an AMS vendor that installed an ombudsman on its staff to represent client concerns at the company. I want to revisit this ombudsman idea, because I've been intrigued by it for a while now. (In fact, it actually came up here once a few years ago, but only as a brief mention.)

If you have no idea what an ombudsman is, check out Wikipedia for a lengthy explanation, or see the bio page of Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander (a fellow Ohio University alum, I must note). Ombudsmen are a growing practice among newspapers, and Andy has written some remarkably frank, honest assessments of the Post's performance, such as this one about its plan for sponsored, off-the-record "salons" in 2009. Andy's columns are published in the newspaper every Sunday. The second paragraph of Andy's bio explains his role:

As The Washington Post ombudsman, he serves as its internal critic and represents readers who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process. In his role, he also promotes public understanding of the newspaper, its Web site and journalism more generally. He operates under a contract with The Washington Post that guarantees him independence.[emphasis added]

Going back to Wes's post about the AMS vendor ombudsman, called the "Director of Customer Care," there's another important note about how the position is structured at the company in question, Aptify:

This position reports directly to [the CEO], and is not part of any other Aptify department.[again, emphasis added]

While an association is neither a newspaper nor a tech vendor, the concept of an ombudsman is one worth exploring for associations, whether in practice or at least in philosophy. If an association created an ombudsman position, perhaps the job description would read like this:

As Association XYZ ombudsman, he/she serves as its internal critic and represents members who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including service quality, price, fairness, ethics, and the governance process. In this role, he/she also promotes public understanding of the association, its products and services, and membership more generally. He/she operates under a contract with Associations XYZ that guarantees him/her independence.

You could argue that this role could or should be filled by the association CEO or the board chair. Or perhaps the COO, the director of membership, or even the communications director. But mission and philosophy often fall by the wayside when an executive has a multitude of responsibilities or a vested interest in protecting his or her own job or department.

The ombudsman as a dedicated position, however, rises above a value statement simply by its very existence. An ombudsman embodies transparency because, essentially, transparency is his or her job. As long as the ombudsman position includes the factors I emphasized above—independence and separation from all departments—the act of creating such a position is a strong commitment to truth, honesty, transparency, and member service.

Knowing how afraid of transparency most associations seem to be, I don't see this idea getting a lot of traction, but in a more ideal world associations would be willing to make this kind of commitment to their members.

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October 21, 2009

Marathon season and the 10 count

Since we're in the thick of fall marathon season, I have a quick piece of advice that works for both runners and association managers:

  • The 10 count: When you get to the top of a hill, don't immediately slow down. Instead, keep running hard for at least 10 more seconds. Push your pace while counting to 10 in your head.

For runners: Your body's natural reaction after cresting a hill is to slow down considerably. If you let this happen, you'll fall off the pace that you were keeping before you reached the hill. Of course, continuing to run hard for 10 more seconds will hurt, but it will prevent you from letting the hill beat you. This is when your mind must win over your body.

(I have to credit this lesson to John Long, my high school cross country coach. He might not have invented it, but he's the one who first taught it to me, back in my much fitter days.)

For association managers: I didn't make the connection between the 10 count and association work until earlier this year, during a discussion at a conference with Christine McEntee, CEO and EVP of the American Institute of Architects.

She pointed out that her board members are always most excited about their roles in the days immediately after a board meeting. Meanwhile, those are the days when a CEO and staff are most exhausted, when the meeting's finally over after days or weeks preparing for it. McEntee said she has to consciously remind herself and her fellow AIA staff to keep up their energy after the board meeting to help foster the engagement of their board members and convert that short-term excitement into long-term success.

Of course, this applies to any association meeting or event. Your members will be most excited and will most need your assistance at the exact time when you are the most exhausted. This is when your mind must win over your body. Consciously remind yourself to keep up your own energy for at least a few days or a week or two after a big meeting, whatever you deem the appropriate equivalent to the "10 count."

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October 6, 2009

The headaches of petty complaints

I don't envy Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty right now. As explained last week in the Washington Post, neighborhood groups in DC are embroiled in bitter arguments over the benefit or nuisance of speed bumps that have been installed. The level of outrage engendered by little mounds of pavement is a bit absurd, but leaders are often charged with minding such petty arguments among their stakeholders.

I'm sure most association managers can relate. As mayor, Fenty has more important things to worry about: fixing schools, reducing crime, battling the local AIDS epidemic, etc. As an association executive, you face challenges like finding new sources of revenue, keeping pace with changing technology, or fighting for your industry on Capitol Hill.

Yet, members get vocal about the selection of food at a meeting, word choice in a publication, or the deadline for an awards application. (Perhaps they even send you an email with a red "urgent" exclamation point!) Is your first reaction slap your forehead and say "Gimme a freakin' break!"?

My colleague Lisa Junker makes an insightful point, though: what might seem "inconsequential" to the CEO, who has to worry about the big picture, matters dearly to the individual member. This is a frustrating, eternal truth of leadership.

So what are the options? Roll up your sleeves and stick your hands in the dirty details of minor situations? Ignore them and hope they go away? Say a few words to create the appearance that you care, delegate the problem to the appropriate department, and then move on with other things?

Please use the comments as a therapists' couch. Blow off some steam and entertain us with a few of the petty situations you've had to deal with as an association manager, and then share how you've navigated them.

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May 5, 2009

"Green Desks"--An Option for Meeting Attendees?

While many association meeting planners are adding special educational programs and tracks on adopting more environmentally friendly work habits and goals, the Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Supplies has crafted an additional approach for its upcoming conference: a "Green Desk."

The Green Desk, which debues at the July 2009 AWFS Fair, provides “a place where anyone in attendance can stop by to ask questions related to green practices and issues that are impacting virtually all businesses.” This one-on-one approach is in addition to the association’s education track, “Going Green,” to help corporate members move to more sustainable products and processes, and to meet new “green building” standards.

I like the idea of associations offering such "green coaching," even if it isn't more complicated than serving as a one-stop resource desk at an event to pick up relevant tips lists, discuss the latest industry eco-trends and benefits, or connect members interested in the same green steps.


March 8, 2009

Now how did THAT happen?

I am a CEO and Education Director of a small staff association. For most of my professional life I have been a licensed health care provider and educator; in some ways I am an “accidental” chief staff officer. A couple of years ago the executive committee of the association approached me to help troubleshoot some issues. The organization had recently lost a key staff person and was struggling to stay upright during a very rocky transition. A business manager had been brought in but resigned after only a few months, leaving the association in a worse position. Having served as the board president of the organization four years earlier, the exec committee thought I could provide some insight about the association and help assess its situation. A few weeks as a consultant turned into a year as chief operating officer, and transitioned to the chief staff officer a few months ago.

It’s been amazingly busy and I felt overwhelmed at times, learning the skill set of organizational management. Resources such as ASAE, especially the Diversity in Executive Leadership Program (DELP), and other association professionals have been very helpful (lesson number 1: no one goes at this alone!). I’ve been able to come to place where, while everyday is still daunting in challenges, it becomes a bit easier to see the brass ring - all of the intricacies of fulfilling the organization’s mission from a broader perspective. It’s easy to become lost in the minutiae of day-to-day operations - and sometimes that’s really important to do. Yet staying down in the weeds can be disorienting; the CEO can’t afford to lose the crucial sense of direction.

Membership is a key example. Our association has had a steady number of members for the past 5 years. No contraction yet no growth. The staff and board have had meetings to talk about why this is the case. Many reasons have been cited - not enough advertising; not enough benefits; few outreach efforts, to mention just a couple. In thinking this over, larger questions came to mind: Just who is our membership? Why do they join? Is there a need that we not meeting? Is there a segment that we are not thinking about? As simple as these questions are, we have actually few answers - no surveys, no data crunching. The mechanics of attracting new members becomes easier if the organization is clear about whom it really serves. We’re working on finding the answers to these questions right now, going through our database and asking existing members about why they joined. We hope to also ask those folks who are NOT members why that’s the case.

We’re using low-cost tools to do this, and it’s slower-going than I would like, but I also know this information will help us in the long run, and make us stronger in the process.

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February 27, 2009

Choose your partners wisely

It is really scary to me that the longer I am a consultant and the more involved I get with social media, the more I realize how much of what we see in our daily lives can translate into smart business practices for associations. Here is an example:

In the spirit of going green, I do as much of my banking as I can through my bank’s Online Banking System. I recently signed up for an e-bill service that would replace my paper statements with email notifications alerting me to when a bill was available so that I could review and pay it online. I thought this was a fantastic way to do things—until I didn’t receive a statement from one of my credit cards for about 3 months. Since this was a card I don’t use frequently and honestly was trying to use less, I didn’t catch the problem until I went online to check something else and saw that I was now 2 months delinquent and had late payment fees as well as interest charges piling up.

I immediately called the credit card company. They informed me that they had not made a mistake; their job was just to make sure that the e-bill partner had received the bill. If I then didn’t receive it, that wasn’t their fault. They refused to waive any fees and told me to call the e-bill company.

My next step was to call the bank where I originally signed up for the e-bill service. They told me that they understood the problem but that they needed to conference me in with their e-bill provider. Once we had the e-bill partner on the phone, they told us that they had not received a bill from the credit card company in 3 months. We then tried to conference the credit card company in as well, but they continued to be adamant that they did not do anything wrong and literally hung up on all of us.

The good news is that the bank and their e-bill provider agreed to jointly reimburse me for the charges. The bad news is that it took me almost 90 minutes and quite a bit of frustration to get there.

All this could have been prevented if my bank and their e-bill provider had predicted the credit card company’s reaction to such a problem and had more detailed procedures in place to make sure something like this did not happen. The bank and the e-bill provider handled it very well, but the situation could have been avoided if the bank had chosen their partners a little more wisely.

Partnerships are a great way for associations to extend their offerings and serve their members in a cost- and time-effective way. But we must all perform due diligence and set up as many procedures as we can so that situations like the one above do not happen to our members. Members want to know that they are getting good service and do not want, or need, to see “behind the curtain.” It is our job as association professionals to make sure they experience good (and seamless) service when working with us and with our partner organizations.

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September 6, 2008

Common sense and member service

I purchase my family’s health and dental insurance through Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield. As I am sure most of us have experienced very few doctors and dentists file claim’s on the patient’s behalf and then bill you for whatever you owe after the get compensated by the insurance company. I recently sent in a claim for a dentist visit by my wife. I filled out all the proper forms, attached the bill from the dentist and mailed it in as instructed. The forms came back about a week later with another form attached that stated that had a checklist of what I assume are common errors. It was a list of about 10 things that could have possibly been wrong with the forms that were submitted and the box was checked next to “date of service not included.” I know my dentist always includes the date of service so I immediately went to the form and say that in one place the date was illegible but down at the bottom of the form it stated the date in clear handwriting. Apparently the member service representative who got that form was told that if they run into issues where something is wrong they are to follow the procedure book and fill out the appropriate form, stick it in an envelope and mail it back to the customer. Is it only me or does this seem kind of crazy? The member service rep could have simply looked more closely at the form and if there was still a doubt as to when the date of service was they could have picked up the phone and called me or the dentist to confirm. The call would have taken 2 minutes which is probably as much time as it took this person to get the form, fill it out, stick it in an envelope and mail it. It also would have saved the company the cost of postage as well as helped save some trees because they would not have had to use additional envelopes or forms to send the stuff back to me. Finally, they would have avoided aggravating a paying “member” (yes, they call me a member and I have a member card and contact member services when I have issues) since I now have to correct the tiny mistake, find a new stamp and envelope and mail it again.

I bring this up because I really hope that member service at associations is not like this. I understand the need to have processes and procedures and feel they are very important. I also know that using some common sense, taking a little bit of initiative and doing things slightly differently to make your members happy is always something we need to take into consideration.

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August 25, 2008

Annual Meeting Hotels--Green and Sustainable

The hospitality sector has long been community-minded, and now many of them are including the planet in their “community,” with special programs, services, and operational practices and goals to lighten the environmental footprints of hotels and other accommodations. I heard about some of these actions from annual meeting attendees staying at the 15 official hotels in San Diego at the recent Annual Meeting & Expo.

Among the variety of sustainable amenities and practices—not all of which were available at each hotel--were the following:

· Reusable towel and linen options
· Biking and walking maps that help you avoid driving
· Water conservation measures such as low-flow faucets and showerheads
· Solar film on certain guestroom windows to reduce heat and UV rays
· Energy efficiency fixtures and light bulbs
· Recycling (sometimes in-room is available now)
· Wellness kits for travelers
· Organic or locally produced food and beverages
· Eco-messaging on hotel television channels
· Organic or sustainability-certified flowers and plants
· Donations to associations and nonprofits operating sustainability-oriented programs such as diversity initiatives, natural resource conservation projects, supply chain management assistance, and more

Other hotels by these leading brands are experimenting with additional options, such as retrofitting facilities for increased energy efficiencies and reduced carbon emissions, preferred parking for low-emitting vehicles and carpools, nonprofit partnerships to offset emissions or help obtain green or sustainability-oriented certifications, organic cotton linens and toiletries, grants for “volunteer vacations,” and employee/guest community engagement programs.

Attendees at the annual meeting were already been asking our staff about such practices in Toronto and Los Angeles, sites of the next two ASAE & The Center annual meetings. Please consider asking those questions at the front desks or concierge stands at hotels during your future business travels as well. Vocal customers, such as meeting planners, will help accelerate the move of hotels toward even greater social responsibility.

Meanwhile, congrats go to our partnering hotels at the meeting for communicating greener and more socially responsible options to recent attendees!


July 29, 2008

Secret shopping your inclusiveness

In one of the classes I attended today, the subject of "secret shopping" came up, and one chamber executive shared an interesting story: She knew two people that were considering moving into her area and were coming to visit for a few days. Since they were new to the area, she asked them to play the part of newcomers at one of her chamber's networking breakfasts. Acting the part, they sat by themselves at a table to see if any of her members--and more specifically, her volunteer ambassadors--would welcome them. She was shocked to see that no one, including the ambassadors, greeted the visitors or sat with them.

Based on this secret shopping experience, she was able to revitalize her ambassador program--she had a very specific example to show them of how the program wasn't working, and that gave everyone involved a better understanding of what it would take to make the program a real success.

Have you considered secret shopping to see how welcomed and included a newcomer might me when attending one of your association's events? What do you think the outcome of such an experiment would be?

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July 23, 2008

Quick clicks: The survival of associations

Lots of interesting discussions are going on this week:

- If you like controversy and are interested in the future of the association sector, you should definitely be following this debate: Ben Martin at the Certified Association Executive blog wonders if associations are really the best solution to the needs they currently are filling, and predicts, "As long as people don't really care, associations will survive." Matt Baehr agrees, at least in part; Tony Rossell disagrees; and Jeff De Cagna strenuously disagrees, while Lindy Dreyer has a slightly different take on the issue. (Be sure to read the comments on each post for additional thoughts and discussion.)

- On the Beaconfire Blog, Elizabeth Weaver Engel shares a wonderful story about a visitor to her tradeshow booth at the AMA conference.

- Jake McKee at the Community Guy blog shares an interesting chart that summarizes the drivers of brand credibility.

- Lee Aase shared seven steps to help nonprofits get the most out of YouTube, which reminded me that I mean to link to Jamie Notter's post on the value of online video. Elsewhere, Cindy Butts shares a cautionary tale about an association that ended up on YouTube without meaning to.

- David Gammel offers three reasons that online communities often fail, while Michael Gilbert at Nonprofit Online News has some thoughts on what nonprofits are doing wrong with their own online communities.

- If you're coming to Annual Meeting, you may be interested in Maddie Grant's list of 10 things she plans to do while she's there.

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June 16, 2008

Quick clicks: Meeting ideas, customer service

Happy Monday!

- There have been some interesting meeting ideas up for grabs in the blogosphere lately. Matt Baehr suggests offering an "unsession" room at every meeting, while Nancy Wilson points out that reusing conference bags can be both green and a creative networking tool.

- Ben Martin ponders whether the process of becoming a board leader tends to squash productive dissent among those future leaders.

- Wes Trochlil has a great question for associations out there that are conducting surveys or other data-gathering projects.

- Bob Sutton shares a wonderful story that shows how a customer's problem can create an opportunity for even better customer service. On a related note, the 37signals blog reminds you that the customer just doesn't care whose fault it is.

- Jeremiah Owyang shows some really interesting examples of how to track a particular issue and how it's being discussed among bloggers, Twitterers, and on the web more generally. (Note that the issue in question relates to the Democratic nomination battle, but, setting politics aside, I'd think these same techniques could be useful to any association.)

- How often do you get to see association management presented as a dream job? (Admittedly, this article focuses more on the industries these trade associations represent than on the profession of association management, but still, it's nice to see some association professionals recognized in this way.)


April 24, 2008

It’s all about users

More from the 2008 Digital Now conference. A common theme bubbled up in several of the sessions today: focusing on users.

Specifically, many of the thought leaders have hammered home the importance of thinking like your members and website visitors, listening to them for their needs, and asking them how your content and services should be structured.

Dan Guarnaccia, VP of product marketing at Sitecore, listed the seven habits of effective websites. Number one on the list? “Your members are in charge.” Later on, he talked about taking an honest look at your website and finding the holes – the places where your members look for content and either miss what’s there or find nothing at all – and patching them up.

Matt Loeb, CAE, staff director at IEEE, conducted extensive usability testing for the online portal for IEEE’s magazine, Spectrum. Members were asked to complete tasks on IEEE’s website and were monitored as they did. Their feedback? The site navigation stunk (in so many words). So they redesigned it.

In the same session, Gary Rubin, chief publishing and e-media officer at the Society for Human Resources Management, said he intentionally downplays the brand of SHRM’s print magazine on SHRM’s website. “People are going to our website for broad content, not our magazine,” he said. Content from the magazine and other resources is arranged by topics and categories – which is how visitors browse and search – not by what publication they came from. (Take-home test: check your association’s website. Are the names of your publications more prominent than the content in them?)

The real doozy came from Jim Bower, founder and chief visionary officer of Whyville, an educational online virtual world for kids age eight to 14. Bower argued that the human brain interprets information in three-dimensional space, and so Whyville is constructed for children to learn by moving through and interacting in the Whyville community. He said two-dimensional information (including that on a computer screen) is “an artifact of the printing press.” Whyville seems alien to most adults, but it works: Whyville has drawn 3.3 million users. Engaged users. The kids even participate in their own governance system.

The big picture: as association staff, it’s way too easy to develop deeply ingrained interpretations of everything about your organization. Don't allow this to guide how you deliver content and services to members and consumers, because they see your products in entirely different ways.

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April 9, 2008

The right way to answer the phone?

Seth Godin has a great post up today (admittedly, most of his posts are great ones) about handling customer phone calls. Here's his opening salvo: "The new rules mean that the most valuable marketing event is almost always an inbound phone call."

I'll admit that answering member calls is something I struggle with, because in my career in association communications, I've often received calls from members with questions that had nothing to do with my area of expertise--the member operating under the assumption that "communications" meant that I knew the answers to any given question they might have. I've struggled with the conflict between wanting to give great customer service and just not knowing the answer to a question. And, of course, no member enjoys being bounced all over creation while they're trying to find the one person with the answer they need.

But last week I noticed something while I was working at Springtime: The hardest questions I had to answer were the brand-new ones. Once I had told one person where the closest Starbucks was or how to get to the general session, I could answer the question easily and fluently the next time it was asked. Our meetings department gave me pretty much all the information I needed, but I had to go through the experience of answering the question once to upload it properly into my brain.

I'm wondering: Would it be worthwhile to cycle all of your staff through a few weeks of answering member phone calls? It would certainly be hard work for all concerned, but would it help your staff get a truly fluent familiarity with the questions your members tend to ask--and therefore help them to provide better customer service when called upon to answer those questions again?

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January 14, 2008

Small Rant Re: No Way to Sell a Meeting

I have been invited to a AMA conference for "medical communicators" - seems like a great opportunity to network with my counterparts from around the country, and it's even on 'my' coast - which heightens the appeal. So, I've told them I'm planning to go. In fact, I've told them four times, and counting.

Three separate sources in the organization have sent me emails inviting, then prompting me to reserve a spot. The first message, from someone I’ve met, wrote "Respond to this message to let us know you're coming, and you'll get a discount." So, I did, and he confirmed it, twice.

The next message, from someone else, sent two weeks later, said "Respond by the early-bird deadline to get your discount."

Confused, I wrote my contact to ask whether I needed to pay by that early-bird deadline, or just reserve a spot, which I had already done. Twice.

He apologized, and assured me that my place was held, and I had nothing more to do – real registration wasn’t open yet, anyway. Fine. A bit miffed, I waited to hear when *real* registration was open.

Except then I got another "Early Bird Deadline Extended!" message from the original contact on January 9, telling me about the new 'pre-registration deadline.' Which, thinking I've already responded, I skipped, until this weekend when I looked more closely at the message. This one actually links to a registration site. And the language has changed!

Suddenly I'm confused and a touch panicky - have I just cost my employer money by assuming I was all set? 'Pre-registration deadline' sounds like the date by which one must *pay* to get a discount.

So I go online this morning to register, though I may be late. Better to get it done, anyway. But there is no program, there is no fee to pay, and aside being forced to RSVP for a luncheon identified by acronym I don't know and that is not defined, there’s nothing specific at all.

I think all I’ve just done is tell them I’m coming. For the fourth time.

This is no way to market a meeting. For all their outreach, I still have little idea what I’m in for.

I don’t know yet: when is the housing deadline? When will real registration open? Now that I’ve pre-registered through their system, will it let me register again when it’s time to choose my itinerary and pay? And when exactly might that be?

Lessons: 1) ‘Save the date’ marketing is great, but keep the number of messages at that end limited – to one or two. 2) Know what the right and left hand are doing. It confuses and alienates people when they get duplicated messages that don’t acknowledge what they’ve already done to respond. 3) Don’t aggressively market the event until you’ve got the program, deadlines and details set. 4) If you want people to pre-register, make it *real* pre-registration, so that it’s possible to pay at that time. We don’t want to register twice.

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October 2, 2007

Contradictory impressions

During a recent training event I attended, we saw an interesting video presentation on customer service. The narrator told a number of great stories, including one about how the common practice at banks of attaching pens to chains was a terrible idea. The chains imply that the bank thinks the customer is a thief, he said; it would be wiser to provide unchained pens with the bank’s name on them, so that if the pens did wander off, they’d be advertising for the bank as they did so.

Makes sense to me. But the whole thing struck me as funny, given that the video started with 10 seconds of focus on a single dark screen with large red writing at the top: “Duplicating this video is STEALING!” Which undercut the narrator’s point somewhat.

I’m not here to argue for illegal DVD duplication, but to point out that it’s important to consider the impressions you make on members and customers. I’m sure the narrator of that video was sincere in his arguments; I’m also guessing that he never saw that “Duplication is STEALING!” screen, or, if he did, he didn’t think of it in connection with the story about pens at banks. It’s easy to do that when planning a big project—you can get very focused on details and not realize that Detail A contradicts Detail R, and that members or customers will be annoyed or even angered by that contradiction.

One example I’ve seen several times recently is that of advertising a conference as “paperless” after eliminating an on-site program or education session handouts, while not considering the amount of paper used elsewhere at the meeting. Once attendees have the expectation that the conference is paperless, they will notice every time you use paper throughout the event, and question it. You should too.

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September 11, 2007

Great Happiness Spaces

I'm heading to Tokyo for my third time next week. Being one of the mecca's for video games, I have no shortage of excuses to visit (in this case, there is the massive Tokyo Game Show that boasts ~200k attendees, and various other technical conferences I'll be speaking at).

Like many travelers, I'm always compelled to learn (more) about where I'm traveling. Sadly, given busy schedules, this usually means reading the country/city Wikipedia page (which alone is still massively helpful). In the case of Japan, I generally like to consume some of its pop-culture and so have been on a somewhat informal/personal "Japanese immersion program"...

A colleague recommended I watch the documentary on male host-club workers, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief.

Wow, what a fascinating and disturbing story about the hard drinkin', smokin' and hair-sprayin' young men that entertain women for money. Just from an other-world culture point of view, it is quite a jarring film to watch and does a great job in peeling away the layers of the onion off the "glamorous life" facade.

Anyway, what does this have to do with member associations? Well, there's amazingly a lot of parallels to draw in terms of creating "happiness spaces" and being attuned to customer needs, etc. The central character, being the most successful host in Osaka, states multiple times that it's always/only about the customer, and never about himself - he exists to anticipate and serve their needs.

Portions of the film also made me think back to Douglas Rushkoff's thought leader session at ASAE-07 about associations being the place where members can be geeks about what they love.

In short, we should always be striving to create such great happy spaces for members - perhaps even at the expense of what we may personally prefer...

(FYI, the documentary is freely available via Google Video and runs approx. 75 minutes.)

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July 19, 2007

Don’t forget to follow up

David Gammel posted this week about an error message he came across on a website. In thinking about what the organization could have done differently to engage with folks who hit that error page, he says, “In this case, a form for an e-mail address and an offer to let you know when the problem was resolved could have been a good alternative to a standard feedback form.”

I think this is a great idea with a broader application: I think sometimes we underestimate the importance of followup as an element of excellent customer service. When a member/customer has a question that can’t be resolved immediately and hears “We’ll certainly take your input into account and consider it,” he or she may feel OK about the response. But if that member/customer hears back in three months, “We wanted to give you an update on what happened because of your feedback,” he or she will probably feel really good about the organization that took the time to check back in.

This is something that can be fairly hard to do (I would be the first to say that I should look for more opportunities for this kind of followup in my own work), but I think it can really be worth the effort.

At my last association, we used to routinely see member responses in anonymous surveys that cried out for personal responses. Typically, the member was using an open comment field to vent about something important to him/her that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the survey at hand. (I would imagine this wasn't unique to that association.) You could tell this individual was frustrated, but there was no way to reach out to him or her.

I always wished there was some way to end a survey with, “Did you provide any comments on this survey that you would like to discuss personally with staff? If so, please paste the comment and your e-mail address here.” I’m sure there are good research reasons not to do this—certainly it would make some respondents worry that the rest of their survey responses would no longer be anonymous—but I would have loved the chance to talk to some of those frustrated members directly and address their concerns.

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February 22, 2007

Food for thought on customer service

Customer service is a hot button these days (did you DC-area folks see JetBlue’s giant mea culpa in the Washington Post the other day?).

You might be interested in checking out two interesting blog posts on the subject:

Seth Godin diagnoses what he thinks is wrong in customer service today and proposes some changes.

Seht also points to Joel Spolsky’s blog, where he writes on the seven steps to remarkable customer service. My favorite section is actually bonus step #8: creating a customer service career path that attracts the best and brightest applicants to spend several years in customer service on their way to their longer-term career goals.


ETA: David Gammel also found Joel Spolsky's post to be of interest, and has some good comments of his own.

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February 20, 2007

Creating an Ideastorm

Via Shel Holtz’s blog, I came across something new Dell has launched that has great applicability to the association world.

Dell’s new Ideastorm site allows users to propose ideas for new products (or tweaks to existing products), vote for ideas they like with just the click of a “Promote” icon, and discuss ideas that are in play.

The best part (I think) is labeled “Ideas in Action”—where Dell intends to report how they are using the proposed ideas. Since Ideastorm is less than a week old, they don’t have anything in that space yet—but I think it will be critical in terms of keeping users involved. Compare this with a typical feedback cycle where a member or customer fills out a survey and possibly, months later, sees a newsletter article summarizing the survey results and a few sentences on how the results will be applied.

Could your members come up with a storm of ideas this way?

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January 14, 2007

Day 4 of idea a day: Mystery shop

It's a simple idea, so simple that nobody does it. What a shame.

In a lot of ways, I agree with Ben Martin's previous post that association staff are like their members. But one significant difference I can think of is that the staff is much closer to the association's products and services. Sometimes too close. You know the reasons behind how you organized your website or your conference. You know how you marketed your products and how you thought customers would buy them. You know why you chose A and not B.

So my fourth idea is to establish a mystery shopping program. Depending on the size of your association, you may need to enlist others in the program — membership to establish a phony member, IT to help monitor what happens, etc.

Because association staff is too close to the organization's products and services, a true mystery shopping program should use outside help. A few ideas of how to design it:

Find someone in your industry or profession who has never been a member and tell them you'll comp their travel and participation at your conference.

Find a member who has not been particularly active, and tell them you'll give them a whole selection of your products for nothing if they will be your accomplice.

If your areas are not technical, get a neighbor or friend to place a few orders.

And of course, plenty of consultants will be happy to help you out.

Be sure you design it as a program. Do not go into thinking you know the answers. This is research, and if you go into research with a preconceived notion of how it will go, you are liable to unconsciously design it to meet that end. In addition, give it a budget. And most important, use the results to design the next study as well as to think about how you can create a better experience for your members.

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