How to Train Your Association Members

Let me tell you a quick story about training members, or in this case, customers. Recently, on a trip to New York, I approached the bar at the #unitedclub in LaGuardia (#terribleairport) for a quick medicinal cocktail. I ordered a Manhattan (click HERE to see why it’s the most important business drink).

The following ensued.

The bartender did not know how to make the drink. I saw here looking up the recipe on their internal guidebook. I helpfully suggested that I could quickly teach her. I’m awesome that way.

I explained it’s about ratios. Three parts bourbon to 1-part sweet vermouth with two drops of bitters, which I helpfully located on her bar. You stir, not shake, so your ice cubes don’t break up and water down the drink.

She followed my easy instructions with a smile and moments later a quite serviceable Manhattan was placed in front me. She was educated, I got a good drink, nothing could possibly go wrong. Sigh.

The price? $27 effing dollars.

Your Members Have Expectations on How Things Work

Here’s where it all went wrong.

I have drinks at lots of places, including United Clubs, around the world. In most of those places, the pricing is by drink. At this United Club in LaGuardia, it’s by the shot. 3 parts of bourbon X $9 = $27.

These were 1 oz shots by the way. The small side of the jigger. A total of 3 oz of bourbon.

Association takeaway?

Your strategy creates incentives and disincentives that “train” members how to act. The longer you have been training your members the harder it is for them to change.

If you always do a last-minute discount on registration; they will expect it. If you always send an educational update on the 3rd Monday of each month, they’ll expect it.

When reviewing your value proposition, you need to assess how you’ve trained your market to behave.

Understanding this gives you insight into potential barriers to change or tailwinds supporting a new strategy.

The More You Have to Train Them, the Harder it Gets

Many associations are attempting to explore new business models and strategies.

The more you require your members to do something different from their historical experience the more difficult the implementation of a new strategy.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change. You simply need to manage your (and their) expectations. To mitigate the challenges of change, try the following.

  • Game potential issues with staff in advance to prepare them for questions, concerns or problems during implementation.
  • Implement education efforts communicating the value of your new strategy prior to implementation.
  • Create roadmaps, templates or examples demonstrating how to take advantage of the new strategy.
  • Implement member support strategies, for example a question hotline, to help members adapt.
  • Create communication strategies with volunteer leaders or other stakeholders to help them talk to the membership and manage expectations. Let them help you.
  • Have patience, patience and more patience with the inevitable grumbles and complaints.

You are asking your members to do something different, the burden is on you to help them adjust.

Explain the Implications of Change in the Beginning

What frustrated me most about my experience at the United Club in LaGuardia was that the bartender had ample opportunities to tell me the implications of the change. Her supervisor, standing nearby, also had opportunities.

Instead, they both stood quietly as I made decisions based on my historical experience ordering a drink.

Association takeaway?

If a new policy has potential negative consequences for your members you need to be upfront from the beginning about these consequences. Consider the following.

  • Create comparison charts highlighting the difference between past and new strategy. For example, how their dues are different.
  • Create a mechanism for them to opt out of your new strategy easily and quickly if possible.

You are asking your members to do something different, help them.

Give Your Members the Benefit of the Doubt (and Adapt)

Back to the United Club in LaGuardia.

Upon discovering the cost of my drink, I complained to the bartender and supervisor that I thought they had not communicated the price to me accurately.

Specifically, I suggested that their written communication (the menu) and their subsequent behavior (failing to notify me of implications in advance) was inappropriate.

The response? Blank stares. Nodding heads. No comments. No change in price.

For $27 in sales, here were the implications.

  • I, a frequent customer (about 40% of my time on the road), felt cheated. Not good.
  • I discussed the situation with my wife (another frequent customer) about being cheated – she agreed. More not good.
  • I’ve now written a blog post outlining how I felt cheated by #United that may be read by literally several people. Getting worse.
  • I’ll use the example of being cheated by United when I speak at conferences. Clearly not good.

All for $27 in sales.

At the time, the staff could have said, oops. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I would have been happy to pay a reasonable price, I knew the drink wasn’t free.

Instead, blank stares.

Association takeaway?

During the transition period to a new strategy, your members are going to default to historical behaviors.

There is no benefit to treating them poorly for not immediately following your new rules. You don’t jeopardize a long-time relationship over a mistake. Plan on hard costs to change for example refunds. Don’t pretend these issues won’t come up. Expect them.

The More the Choices the Greater the Risk

I fly United exclusively within the United States. The result? I can’t really compare my experience to American or Delta or other legacy domestic carriers.

Drinking though, is something I do at lots of places. I can compare the pricing strategy and service of the United Club to many, many different bars.

Association takeaway?

The more choices your members have, the more likely they are to reject a new strategy if it doesn’t meet their needs.

In addition, if implementation challenges force them to use or a consider an alternative, the likelihood that they go somewhere else increases.

Before implementing a substantial change in strategy, review common competitor practices or behaviors. Doing something different, in a highly competitive market, requires your change to contribute positive differentiation.

You need to clearly understand why your strategy isn’t better than your historical strategy but why it’s better relative to competitors’ strategies.

In Summary

I’ll continue to have an occasional drink at the United Club, probably taking advantage of the free drinks not the premium drinks (#lostsales). The advantages of the club outweigh my frustration over a bad experience.

Many associations, though, don’t have that luxury.

In a changing world, you will need to evaluate and modify your strategy. By considering how you’ve trained your members to behave and creating strategies to communicate and help them through change, you’re more likely to be successful.

Cheers from my seat at the bar.