How to Eliminate Obstacles to Engagement and Retention: Call to Action

Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers

This is the title of a 2010 HBR blog by Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman, and Nicholas Toman.  According to a survey of 75,000 people, coupled with selected interviews, conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, “delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty."  What builds loyalty is reducing their effort—"the work they must do to get their problem solved." 

 “According to conventional wisdom,” the article continues, “customers are more loyal to firms that go above and beyond. But our research shows that exceeding their expectations during service interactions (for example, by offering a refund, a free product, or a free service such as expedited shipping) makes customers only marginally more loyal than simply meeting their needs……When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily. Armed with this understanding, we can fundamentally change the emphasis of customer service interactions.”

So what seems to providers as "conventional wisdom" is actually at odds with what matters the most to their customers. What’s more, in spite of increasing evidence, the assumption that simply “delighting” customers is the most effective and direct path to loyalty continues to dominate product development, recruitment, engagement and retention efforts in most organizations.  This is because most organizations (and not only associations) are stuck in their embedded assumptions and fail to create value from the perspective of customers. This is a "disconnect" that can eventually result in obsolescence. 

 It is no wonder that one of the recurring problems that emerged in our years of research and consulting work was the difficulty associations had in attracting interest for new products, programs or benefits which they developed specifically on the basis of what their members said they needed. And it's not just about new products--it's also about existing products that, based on what the association thinks it knows about members, SHOULD be creating and delivering value but don't.

Instead of pondering these problems in isolation we invite you to participate in a short research and development project for designing new tools and solutions (described at the end of this blog).



Here are three assumptions in particular that we found to be at odds with what mattered to members


  1. Delight vs. problem-solving: Think of the “feel good” engagement activities and choice committee assignments. How effective are these, especially for younger members? Or consider the “go to” growth and retention strategies: more new programs, features, benefits, discounts, technologies, projects. Neither approach focuses on the solution of strategic problems, including harnessing volunteer talent to solutions that make a difference and motivate.
  2. Narrow product needs vs. the larger goals and solutions members want to use products for: because associations focus on "delighting" and selling products rather than on understanding and solving problems, they mostly use limited, mostly quantitative research tools for identifying product needs.  How helpful is this information to your ability to engage and keep members? Suppose a member indicated that he/she preferred a certain program over all others you offer? What if this member, while considering this particular program superior to your other offerings, did not find it superior to those available by a competitor? What if members congratulated you for your courage, integrity or foresight in launching an initiative on an important issue, and even encouraged you to continue on this path, and yet did not consider it practical enough to purchase.  Since your questionnaire or interviews did not probe beyond product preferences, you would not have known how factors such as practicality, available choices, needs for solutions as well as motivations and ways of learning and addressing problems would have affected their choices.  And you would have been surprised at the lack of member interest in the very products they told you they valued.
  3. Association’s picture of a member is frozen in one moment in time vs. member’s real life in a constantly evolving continuum. Andrea Pellegrino and I were surprised to realize that in many associations, staff could not describe a day in the life of a member: how a member saw the world, experienced problems, thought through options, tapped networks of relationships, perceived obstacles and opportunities for success, defined value and set goals in the continuum of a day, week or year.  This meant that their products and services were designed without consideration of the living, dynamic context of members’ actual lives and, hence, had limited use for targeting specific problems as they emerged.

Suppose, two organizations offer the same high quality research but one archives it in ways that are hard to access and time-consuming to sort through and get to the information you need; and the other makes it easily searchable, interactive and accessible anywhere and anytime. In fact, this second association adds services for providing you summaries and sorting through vast data to highlight relevant points to your particular business. Which would have the highest value for the customer? It is clearly not research as a product that makes a difference but the way a provider makes it easy for this research to be applied to solve specific problems and generate outcomes within a continuum of time and usage.

Our conclusion, after countless of member interviews, is that there seems to be a serious disconnect between most associations’ assumptions about members and the way these members actually think, perceive value, engage, experience problems and make choices. It is in-depth understanding of and alignment with members that enables an organization to understand the difference between what is said and what is implied and experienced. Given that all of an association’s decisions – from product and benefit development to engagement, retention, financial projections and planning—are based on these assumptions such disconnect can jeopardize relevance, growth and even survival.

We believe this disconnect is the reason many associations continue to struggle to attract, retain, and engage members and stakeholders, particularly early-career audiences.


Call to Action   

Andrea and I are in the process of further researching this problem and shaping tools and solutions for bridging this gap; evaluating programs and decisions and building value from the members out.  We need further research and input from a small group of motivated leaders to collaboratively identity and solve key obstacles to engagement and retention. To this end, we would like to invite a small handful of association CEOs and other senior executives, interested in increasing member and stakeholder development, retention and engagement and committed to a value-based, member-centric approach to leadership, to participate in a short research project. The goal will be to assess the nature and impact of any such gaps in perceptions and the type of solutions needed to bridge them. Working in partnership with you we would conduct a few key interviews in an effort to understand:

  •  If, how, where and why such gaps exist
  • What their impact might be on an association, especially its ability to create member value, engage and compete successfully

  • What opportunities might be missed by not understanding how members think in a continuum

  • The types of solutions that are needed to help associations resonate with what matters the most to their members and how these can be adapted, integrated and executed in the short term.

We welcome input from participating associations on the kind of issues we should be investigating.

 This is a short research project of a limited scope. It will involve:

  •  Interviews with about 4 individuals in your organization that are key to the creation and delivery of value to members, including the CEO
  • Interviews with about 4 of your members to include both established members and those you may have difficulty engaging, such as millennials

  • A wrap-up meeting with the leadership to present and discuss what we found and type of implications and actions these might suggest

 Participating organizations will:

  •  Get our notes on key points from our interviews and other observations
  • Get our overview of similar key points from interviews with 4-5 other associations and gauge any trends or interesting comparisons that might emerge (though the specific information from each association is confidential, we will be able to summarize in broad terms challenges and issues that arose).

  • Provide, if interested, input into new tools and solutions 

If interested, please drop us a note at







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