How Essential are you to What Most Matters to your Members/Customers?
By Anna Caraveli & Andrea Pellegrino PART I A few years ago a CEO proudly announced to us that she intended to turn around her entire organization, dismantle decades old practices and models, launch new, outstanding programs and services, re-energize membership and make her association the hub of innovation. Pretty cool, right? But then she added something less cool. At a time when the association’s membership was in serious decline, its leadership had been grappling with the creation of the right, new value proposition for two years now. Numerous staff retreats, board committees, member surveys, and countless drafts and revisions of branding guidelines, logos, taglines, and messaging, had not yet produced something satisfactory; something perfect that would attract and retain members by signaling “newness” and “innovation.” Meanwhile, over on LinkedIn, the association’s online community was growing by leaps and bounds. In the same two years that the association’s staff and leadership had been searching for the exact right value proposition, the online community more than doubled in size as 100-150 industry professionals from around the world flocked to—and engaged with—the online community’s networking, information, job postings, and other tools. Do you see the disconnect? A value proposition is not about you but about the value a customer actually perceives and experiences in your products, services, experiences, etc. And value is experienced through outcomes, not messaging or branding. A disconnect between your and your members’ perceptions of value creates cracks at the very foundations of your business and will inevitably topple it down unless corrected. So why do so many associations spend years on guessing what their greatest value to members should be without trying to understand how these members actually see the world; define and experience value? What Really Matters To understand what truly matters to its members and how they share and derive value all the association had to do was engage with their own members’ LinkedIn community! Had they visited the site they might have observed that, instead of off-the -shelf, static “benefits,” members engaged in daily discussions in which they posed and answered questions about specific technical processes, bought and sold products and equipment, and shared best practices, job opportunities, and additional sources of information about technical questions. What clearly mattered to these members, then, were real-time tools, business transactions and interactive relationships that allowed them to craft solutions for growing their businesses. The question is: Can a value proposition based on what the association believes is of value ever be successful in attracting and keeping customers? Judging from the increasing attrition of this association’s members, the answer would be “no.” And this is just it. Guesses about and approximations of what matters to customers are not enough to make a service provider indispensable to these customers’ ability to succeed. Why buy approximations when there are myriads of competitors and free online resources that cater precisely and distinctively to needs as specific and specialized as your imagination can conjure up. Cause and Effect The general thinking is that membership and customer relationships are separate functions more or less independent from, and equivalent to, each other. Membership, in fact, is usually secondary to other functions like board relationships, the annual conference or product development. In reality, however, membership –your ability to get, engage and retain customers—is the foundation of your business. Without customers you simply have no business. Common sense, right? Then why is it that so many organizations claim to understand such obvious truths but completely ignore them in action? For example, making gestures at “listening” to members, without actually hearing what they say or acting on what they’ve heard; confusing their assumptions and opinions with what customers really think. Examples of failure and decline as a result of misalignment between associations and members or other key stakeholders in members’ success abound, for example: A healthcare association we worked with invested years and resources in the development of a new certificate for its members that was supposed to help them develop important new competences. The association and the committee of experts it convened conducted extensive research and determined that these were the competencies that would be essential for the practice of the profession in the future. So why was it that the program failed to attract registrants and the expensive new certificate had to be scrapped? The association had forgotten its members’ employers. They were not asked about the challenges they faced, the gaps they experienced in employee training, their vision of success and assessment of needs. It mattered very little to these employers what the association and its academic experts thought was necessary and of value to them. As a result, the new competence mattered little to their employees. Unless acquiring this certificate meant recognition, promotion, raises and other benefits from their companies, why should members invest in it? The point is that without identifying the precise nature of what matters to which members, when and how; and without the commitment to facilitate it whether or not it fits with their current product categories or definition of their business, everything else will misfire—products, strategies, “messages.” It is like building a house on faulty foundations. Because the association in the above example is operating on the assumptions and prejudices of a small group of staff and members, it has written off all 30,000 members of its online community. It refuses to engage with them, except to attempt to sell them membership and other products. When we asked if they monitored or mined the online community for member needs, values, industry trends, or educational topics, they responded “Why would we do that?” This association’s leadership is so deeply entrenched in the habits of mind that stifle associations that it sees its own online community as competition rather than as a free source of essential information on value—as its own members and the industry it serves experience it every single day. What this association is leaving on the table is nothing short of a lifeline to its own future: clues for understanding what matters to members, how they want to communicate and what engages them, and new ideas it could adopt and adapt. Engagement-Based, Outside-In Architecture The nature and quality of your connection with your members/customers determines everything else. The deeper the connection and the more directly it is linked to what matters the most, the greatest our engagement. Engagement is the result of value experienced. Hitting that sweet spot in customer needs and motivations, and organizing around it, have been the keys to success. Figuring out what truly matters as perceived and experienced by customers; and how to facilitate it and make a difference lays the correct foundation for everything else: value proposition, products and services. Coming up next week: Part II: Finding your Members/Customers’ “Sweet Spot” and Making it the Basis of your Connection with them. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of “A Mindset of Continuing Learning”– a chapter from Anna’s book, The Demand Perspective: Leading from the Outside, about new tools, approaches and capabilities for understanding what most matters to your members/customers at any given time, and building products and business models around it.