How to Turn Around Member/Customer Relationships: Not just another project

Your membership is declining, still imperceptibly but steadily enough to acknowledge the downward trend.  You are determined to act fast and do something completely different this time. You can't get to a new place with the same old methods. So far so good!  This is the kind of situation when we are called in to help.   Smart CEO, right instincts, exemplary commitment to change and innovation! Sounds good, right? Yet something we call the “cult of the quick finish” – a rigid, product-driven mentality—keeps most associations stuck at the same spot, just treading water. 

 Getting and retaining customers today requires more than a campaign or strategy-- a different way of doing business.  Market leading companies see themselves as being in a relationship rather than product-driven business. From amazon and e-bay to Linked-In, Facebook, Google and myriads of disparate but successful businesses, success is based on reinventing their customers’ experiences and relationships to the company.  The “I make-you-buy” formula has given way to characteristics such as: two way interaction and value exchange vs. one-way selling; continuous innovation, learning and value creation vs. one-time events or purchases; solutions vs. products;  personalization and customization; partnerships with customers in product and business development; building and serving customer communities rather than individuals in isolation. This however requires long-term, continuous development of people and capabilities rather than quick fixes.

Long-term commitment to development of intangibles such as relationships and culture change are at the heart of the shift to a relationship and customer-focused model.  And this is the piece that even some of the most innovative CEOs we have encountered cannot understand or embrace.  They are typically enthusiastic with initial pieces of a project-- personalized, in-depth interviews vs. surveys, for example; a co-design workshops with customers vs. committee-driven processes. Yet these same leaders expect a fairly quick and definitive finish line; a clear-cut prescription for a medicine that their organizations would take and voilà—problem solved.  He/she longs for the end of the disruption the project represents and return to “regular” business.

 Here two things to consider through new eyes and become comfortable with if you want to turn around member relationships:

  1.  Relationships take time.  Association leaders know and support it in principle but they either do not understand its importance or are unwilling to invest in developing what it takes.  In projects in which the transformation process is considered to be finished at the end of a workshop or new design that started to change fundamental relationships and culture, we found that the staff was not yet able to take up a new type of conversation or paths of relationship development andinnovation.   This is why whatever progress is made cannot be sustained and built upon.  
  2.  The learning and development process that can produce a continuous stream of products or innovations is more valuable than the single product or plan.  Even the most perfect plan does not guarantee effective execution and yet ending a process with a “product”—plan, design, policy etc.—is usually the end goal of a change process.  The potential value of a plan or idea will only be realized in the process of testing, learning from results, adapting and innovating over time; and it is such collaborative, learning process, rather one event or workshop, that engages stakeholders and produces continuing innovation.  Invest not just in the plan but its long-term execution and capability development.

 The CEO of a virtual veterinary network, VIN, I often cite as an example of customer centricity and breakthrough success, told me once:  “nothing is ever finished at VIN. For VIN, every product becomes a stepping stone to another innovation and shared learning.  Posted solutions on the message boards elicit discussion and other members’ experiences that add to, revise or update the original solutions, for example; and  innovations are born by deploying existing products or content to create new products or applying them in new contexts.   

 Consider the case of ConocoPhillips award winning knowledge sharing networks as an example of a relationship-based innovation. 

 The company’s rapid global growth after the merger, created new knowledge and opportunities that it should keep up with and leverage if it were to continue to grow.  In 2004, it began to develop a concept for a knowledge sharing framework that would engage its thousands of employees across the globe in a different way—as partners in learning and innovation.  Once it decided on a world class program, it committed to a holistic, on-going development process for the long term.  For example, it created an approach and strategy for building capabilities:

 “The company sought highly experienced KM advisors who worked directly with senior leadership to create and implement an ambitious KS model and strategy. A small team cultivated strong and visible executive leadership, thus enabling the launch of the first few E&P networks in early 2005 and the beginning of collaborative bridges between its worldwide regions.

 Success in relationship strategies is not measured by the conventional, static measures of numbers of existing members, renewals or revenue but through value indicators such as increasing engagement, innovation and results:

 "By year two, the number of networks had grown to nearly 60; by year three about 80 networks were operating. Now in its sixth year, more than 130 networks are up and running. Some 13,000 employees, or about 75 percent of people identified as knowledge workers, belong to and share within networks. Employees often belong to multiple networks, averaging about 2.5 networks per member. Membership ranges from 100 or so on the low end to more than 900 on the high end. "

 Instead of expecting success through the implementation of a top-down, completed plan, the company set in motion a process of growth by learning whose value increased over time:

 "As discussions have evolved, so too has ConocoPhillips’ sophistication at expanding the impact gained from lessons learned. The KS team developed a unique portal technology that enables network leaders to actually share a single discussion thread from their portals with sister networks, without duplicating the thread and while keeping the integrity and flow of the replies in a single thread. This feature has dramatically expanded the number and global reach of potential solutions to any given problem or query."

 Learning networks have evolved in ConocoPhillips’ primary avenue for growth and resilience.

 Relationship strategies and competitive success today are not one-time deals. Value in captured through the process of continued development and reinvention. No more shrugging of the shoulders with “we’ve already done this or tried that;” no more claims of “mission accomplished” at the end of “strategic planning” or new product design; and no more expectations that a new model

 “But as we all know,” Nike’s CEO writes, “at Nike, there is no finish line.”

 If you want a sustainable change in the basis of your relationship with members and value proposition:

  •   Commit to long-term development
  • Establish a culture and specific processes for collaborative learning , testing and adapting

  • Develop people and relationships vs. products

  • Identify and develop leaders and champions of change both inside and outside your organization and on all levels

  • Develop capabilities vs. plans, products or strategies, e.g. staff abilities to partner, collaborate,  solve strategic customer problems and forge sustainable relationships

  • Establish new habits, cultures, norms and practices in your daily routines

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