The Rules of the New Engagement: Do you Have What it Takes to Engage?

Yesterday, I came across this definition of “engagement” on  “…If a part of a machine engages, or if you engage it,” we are told, “it fits into another part so that they work.”  It is a question of delicate and precise targeting and harmonization rather than one of "conquering"--selling your products or creating fun experiences to entice. Yet, at least in the association realm, many organizations do the latter:  

How can we encourage them to volunteer and get involved?”

“How can we get them to become aware of the offerings we provide and their value?”

“How can members not see how great we are and want to ‘engage’ with us?” 

Starting with such questions may imply an orientation and way of thinking that will make it difficult for your organization to truly "connect" with and engage its customers and stakeholders. You cannot “engage” people through persuasion. Members and other customers will engage in proportion to the value they believe they derive from you and the outcomes they experience. Are you sufficiently focused and engaged with your customers to identify and deliver such value?  How engaging of an organization are you?

A client of mine, a small law school, had decided on a new strategy for differentiating itself based on superb customer service and the promise of total student and customer focus.  The school's leadership blamed their front-line staff and student services department for their lack of success, considering them rigid, non-cooperative and concerned only with getting home early rather than accommodating the customer.  Yet, when I interviewed them and drew them out to express opinions, I found them insightful, eager to improve customer service and highly cooperative.  It turned out that the school had never shared with them the new vision and its rationale; asked for their input or helped them see the benefits of the new strategy for them personally.  The school was embarking on a new relationship-driven strategy for its future without valuing, understanding or building cooperative, engaging relationships with their own staff.  Their chances of true success were close to zero. 

Are you a people and relationship-centered organization or are you focused on your own products, governance,  processes and unchanging mission? Take a look at the questionnaire below and see if you can identify strengths to build and gaps to close in order to resonate more deeply with what matters to your members, customers and stakeholders. 


  1. Are you engaged with and curious about your members?  If a member calls with a question are employees more likely to see it as a disruption to their “real work” or as their primary job and an opportunity to learn something new and connect with this member?

  2. Do your internal conversations and staff meetings revolve around your customers or the business of your organization? Is the collective mindset of your organization "wired" to focus on your customers’ challenges and potential or on your own products, achievements, logistics and preparations for your upcoming conference or board meetings?

  3. Are people focused on, and rewarded for, efficiency, production and operational management or for innovation, relationship-building and outcomes for customers?

  4. Do you feel satisfied with your organization’s understanding of members and the occasional formal survey or market research project or are you constantly interacting with them on multiple informal platforms and digging deeply beyond what they say to understand what they mean and imply?  

  5. Can you describe a day in the life of a member or other customer? How does it start? How does she/he define success, prioritize, perceive challenges, interact with customers and peers or look for help? What is uppermost in her mind? Who are her clients and what challenges is she facing in getting them and retaining them? Whom does she have to impress, get access to, collaborate with, manage or partner with? How fast, at which points in the course of the day and to what purpose does she need what information and how does she want to apply it?

  6. Do you concern yourself with the customer as a whole person, beyond specific transactions?   Why would CEMEX, one of the world's largest producers of construction material, such as White Portland Cement, invest £3.5 million in a new cement bagging plant at its Rugby plant site in the UK?  Because it has understood that its customers now need solutions rather than mere products; and that solutions must address problems along a continuum of experiences before, during and after the sale. This why CEMEX provides value long before a customer is even created (e.g. by initiating workforce development programs in communities, starting with high school students); and throughout customers’ lifetime (e.g. training and development; innovations on all aspects of a customer’s experience and help with using construction material effectively to achieve outcomes); and across the value chain, supporting, for example, customers’ suppliers and contributing to the health of the entire industry.  

  7. Do you walk the walk or just talk the talk of customer centricity and member engagement? For example:

    1. What do your resource allocations, mindshare and priorities say about what really matters to your organization?  Do you invest in customer development, constant innovation and new capabilities or do you, like many associations, spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources internally, for example, managing board relationships and preparing for board meetings; staffing and managing multiple committees; producing and managing products and events?

    2. What is the most likely impulse when you develop a new product, identify a future direction or look for a solution?  Is it to immediately seek member feedback, listen to their conversations with each other and invite them to co-develop solutions or to convene an internal committee, hold a staff meeting, look at “best practices” and just look to your organization and peers for answers? 


  8. How do you view and measure the value of members?

    1. Through numbers of acquisitions, transactions and events attended or through the value captured and shared over a customer’s lifetime?

    2. Are you able to discern and leverage the value members hold for your organization and each other, for example: record, archive and share their insights and cases? Make use of them as content providers and partners in innovations vs. mere consumers of your products?

    3. Are you focused on recruitment or retention? Getting members through the door or constantly developing them to higher levels of engagement and participation? 

    4. Are your products, services and resourced disconnected from each other or can they be stacked and configured into specific paths of development and conduits to outcomes that members can pick from and adapt to their individual needs

    5. Do you ask what new products/initiatives you should create and how to sell them; or what new challenges your members are facing and what unique combinations of resources and services would be effective solutions for them? 


  9. Do you have the capacity to work across silos and collaborate to craft the integrated solutions different members and member sub-groups need? Does your organization have (or plans to develop) other such capabilities that will enable you to provide your customers with kind of solutions they need today; when, where and at the speed they need them?

  10. Is there time regularly allotted to share new insights about members/customers with each other and extract lessons learned? 

  11. Do you have systems and processes in place for constantly applying lessons learned and customer feedback?

  12. Are you willing and able to define and re-define your business on the basis of customer and market needs or are you constrained by what you think is allowable for you to do as an association?   

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