The “Hook” for Profitable Engagement: Changing your Conversation with Members and Customers

Blog_8.pngBy Anna Caraveli

Why did I choose one diet and nutrition program over the tens of other, almost identical, programs in the market? The one I chose gave you an intelligent consultant who could meet with you weekly for the rest of your life if you liked. I am an extrovert who talks to think and is motivated by change and brainstorming. A collaborative process of celebrating successes, identifying and strategizing about obstacles had just enough of a tinge of excitement to motivate me.  

Many young, independent veterinaries swear by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN)—a for-profit association– and prefer it over their mainstream professional association AVMA. On the surface they both offer the same benefits: research, information, networking, etc. Why then do vets in increasing numbers opt to join VIN rather than AVMA even though the former’s membership dues are almost four times higher? 


VIN pays attention to the nuances of how  vets experience life daily: stressed, on the go, isolated from colleagues in their small, independent practices,  too financially strapped to travel the country to attend conferences…In response VIN assembled all these resources virtually, creating online the largest veterinary practice in the world.  Content is not simply provided but delivered when vets needed, where they needed and in the format they need it.  Research from all available data bases can be accessed through one central search engine, as it emerges, before it is published and faster than through any other resource in the world alleviating the need for multiple subscriptions.  Getting advice from specialists, comparing results with peers, collaborating on solutions can be accomplished almost instantaneously through the specialist networks and collaborative platforms it as created.  Both associations talk about their commitment to members but one is perceived as merely talking and the other as delivering.   

In a recent post on innovation, Jeff DeCagna writes: “For most associations, member loyalty, rather than sustained new value creation through innovation, has been the historic driver of both strategic and financial success.” So what should a service provider who is after my and the vets’ business know about us in order to “hook us” on the value they create for, and deliver to us? The answer is the difference between “nice to have” and “imperative to have;” in short, your competitive advantage. And it is located at the margins of formal activity, and in the nuances behind scripted statements of needs and preferences: in daily experience; perception of business challenges; personal motivation; unstated needs.  It is not about new research methods with perky names, but about immersion in your members’ world and changing the conversation with them.  Below are tactics we found successful:

  • Change the content and focus of your conversation with members/customers. If you really want to know what matters the most to members, you need to dig more deeply– beyond their opinions about your association’s products. What if they say, for example, that they joined because of your journal or conferences?  How useful is this information without context?  These members may be happy to check out your journal or conference for a year or two,  while their focus remains on what is absolutely essential to their career success , for example, access to certain data bases and hard to access business relationships.  Would they remain members if a competitor could customize the exact package they needed?   If you chose to expand your conferences or journal in response to their answers, chances are that you would be wondering why they did not purchase what they said they wanted. The goal of your research should be to understand the whole person rather than their product needs.
  •  View and use conversations as discovery processes to understand members’ business from their perspective; and to uncover critical, often unarticulated, problems that need solutions. 
  •  Make the conversation on-going:  You cannot develop any degree of depth in your understanding of, and connection with, members with one- time surveys or focus groups.  Why not test the idea of monthly, moderated online community discussions around a challenge facing members that month?  In addition to engaging with members on solutions, you would be also providing staff and board members with exceptional opportunities for development, market knowledge and engagement
  • Enable multi-dimensional conversations, not only between members and association but among members, and between members and their customers, suppliers, employers and other players who are key contributors to their success. Social technologies now provide unparalleled opportunities for interaction, collaboration and participant observation. In addition to the value generated in the interactions themselves, observing and participating in such community discussions is the most effective gateway into members’ thinking and business challenges.  The most successful service providers today continuously monitor and participate in customers’ online and offline informal conversations
  • Make conversations with members everybody’s business, rather than relegating to a department of function. 
  • Make sure that conversing with and learning about customers is continuously and rapidly converted into new solutions-based programs and services. Make these conversations, rather than internal committees and resources, your principal sources of your association’s growth and innovation. “Listening” has no inherent value unto itself unless it is translated into concrete value for all participants.
  • Empower staff to drive insights from conversations into solutions to problems that “keep members up at night,” and convert design of solutions into profitable products and innovations.   Silos are not conducive to deep market knowledge and innovation.

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