Confronting Priorities: Are you Focused on Solving Customer Problems or Selling Memberships?

Here is a puzzle to contemplate. A well-meaning colleague writes in a recent post on the ASAE List Serve:


"Most of the organizations I've worked for had a majority of their revenues coming from their publishing activity. This brought up questions like, 'maybe we should become a publisher and use membership as a marketing strategy,' or 'maybe we should make membership free, provide the benefits and services and focus on increasing our average order size on the publishing end through cross-selling and upselling practices,' etc. It was easier for everyone to focus on the successful areas of the organization and find ways to build on that success rather than focus back on the mission and the needs of the core customer base (i.e., members.)"


On the face of it, that organization’s questions sound eminently reasonable. Most of their revenue comes from publishing. This means that their customers place more value on the publications they purchase than the idea of “joining” the association.  Undoubtedly many of this organization's customers value being members. Others probably don't mind paying a modest membership fee in case they decide to attend the annual meeting or have time to read the journal. The association's thinking and the questions they asked might have been something like this:  What are the most critical needs, customers perceive as obstacles to their success that we are able to meet better than our competitors?  Customers' choices tell us that our specialized publications are the most valuable asset we can contribute. Do we need to force them to become members to purchase them? Should we expend time and resources to manage a complex membership program or focus them on what customers see as far more relevant to their success?

I just could not see anything obviously wrong with this line of thinking and wondered where the writer was going with it.  Market-responsive businesses are supposed to be on top of their customers' needs and perceive underlying motivations and emerging needs before even these customers are able to articulate them.  They discern patterns of behavior and their implications and constantly modify their value proposition, mode of delivery or business model to resonate with demand. Focusing on the publishing business, while maintaining a free membership as gateway to higher value products and/or services, sounds like a wise response to demand to me and indicates a willingness to adapt.

Yet, our colleague sees this as “selling out” and a cause to embrace and issues a call to arms. He urges us to “fight, fight, fight” presumably to retain membership as is. But why retain a part of a business that is unprofitable you may ask. The writer explains: “Regardless of what portion of their check is supported by membership dues, they owe it to the members for the existence of their position within the company.”

 Okay now I am even more confused. t those who purchase publications also customers? Is the idea that conventional association members are superior to, say, repeat customers who purchase expensive publications or subscribers to research and publications updates?

And why does a company “owe it” to members to maintain one avenue for participating in the association--membership? Is the conventional model of association membership a universally accepted human right like liberty? Is it an inherently superior state of human existence, like excellent health, peace of mind or love? And even if were, is preserving such rights the role of an association?  Let’s not confuse the legal classification of non-profit with philanthropic.  Perhaps most importantly, is the goal of an association to preserve membership, or any other model, or to help their customers succeed whatever it takes?

I have often seen this type of confusion between advocacy for customer orientation and “victims” advocacy among association professionals. There is almost a martyr-like attitude among those who see themselves as “fighting” for membership and a belief that any revenue consideration or even the mention of the word "customer" sullies the ideal. This reverential attitude is not the same as member or customer orientation.   Membership is a great concept when it represents the optimal way customers want to be engaged in an organization and derive value from it. The objective, however, is to deliver what customers perceive as value in the way that most increases that value rather than to force all customers though one narrow gateway and sell membership packages. 

The danger of course is attachment to one's own creations--programs, products, mission, categories, convention and just the way things are done--at the expense of people. People have always been changeable and today's customers' are especially fluid and unpredictable. The more an organization and its culture attach inordinate meaning to their own products--tangible or intangible--the less likely they are to be "tuned into" their customers' minds and rhythms and toss beloved legacy programs and assumptions.  It is the old cart before the horse that we are all prone to once a practice, job, relationship etc. becomes routine and second nature.  Don't let it.  

Think about it. Associations that focus on their own products and interests over their customers, like organizations in other sectors, cater to those who are already sold on what they currently offer--those who want to engage along the traditional volunteer leadership paths, embrace an altruistic vs. value-based model of relationships (it is my duty and honor to join) and value the basic mix of benefits in their membership package. What about the market that is not pre-sold; the margins of the profession that are rapidly becoming the center and shape the future?  As many associations are finding out, the core they cater to is rapidly shrinking. 

I believe that we must always question commonly used terms and force a  brutal assessment of what we really mean. Are we really talking about member value or our values? When we talk about commitment to customer service, are we talking about allocating the bulk of our time and resources to customers or scripting polite responses for front line staff? Do we care for customers whatever their direction or for institutional conventions and categories, like "association membership?" 

In the end,  advocacy for customers (whether they are called members, consumers, subscribers, patients or any other term) boils down to one thing: making it a priority to help them solve the problems that are uppermost in their minds and impede success; a relentless focus on nothing but the ability to understand them and generate constantly fresh value as needs arise and within a continuum of life stages, situations and experiences. 



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