Keeping Members Happy

Ask leaders what members want from them and you’re likely to hear such words as friendly, positive, responsive, and problem-solver. Whatever else they may be, these are “the comfort words of membership.” It is how leaders picture themselves.

Ask members what they want in a leader and the words they use may be quite different. What they are looking for is integrity, responsiveness, initiative, knowledge, and guts.
This suggests that it’s in a leader’s best interest to align his or her performance with member expectations. It’s not only the way to keep them happy; it’s the best way to keep them as members. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Always take ownership of problems and complaints. Passing off the blame to someone else always backfires. It sends the message to others that you’re not a stand-up person, someone they can count on.

2. Never use phony-phrases — like “I’m going to be in your area,” “We have a lot to offer you,” “I know you’re busy,” or the other clichés. They’re a turn-off and peg you as a second-rate leader.

3. Always respond to your messages. Whether email, voice mail (VM), text, or a letter, respond to it. Think how you feel when your messages are ignored. If you’re not interested or want to be taken off the list, say so. It’s not only polite, but it’s also good networking, a way to influence how others think of you and your association.

4. Never be late. Being late isn’t funny or fashionable, and rarely excusable, whether it’s late for a meeting, completing a project, meeting deadlines, answering email or anything else. At its core, it’s disrespectful and says the rules don’t apply to you. Being on time, sends the opposite message.

5. Always say “Thank You.” Those two words send the message that you recognize how others help and assist you in both little and big things, and you don’t take anything for granted.
6. Never make excuses. Face it. No one believes an excuse. At the least, they create doubt and at worst, they’re perceived as lies. A trail of excuses expresses a lack of commitment, a failure to take responsibility, and announces that you are someone others can’t count on.

7. Always focus messages on the recipient. It may seem obvious, but too many emails, memos, reports, resumes, letters, presentations, and other communications are “all about me,” instead of “all about them.” Is it any wonder they’re ignored?

8. Never play the friend card. Some leaders make an effort to create a “friend” relationship with members, one that’s designed to keep competitors away. Ironically, this changes the focus from serving the member to putting their energy into continuing the relationship, a strategy that’s sure to backfire.

9. Always be alert for ways to help members. It’s only natural to think that we’re helping our members. It makes us feel good to believe we’re doing something worthwhile. But more often than not, our actions tell quite a different story: our major interest is in helping ourselves. Helping members is quite different.

10. Never make promises you can’t keep. There’s nothing worse than making a promise and then not keeping it. We all know people who eagerly agree to do something, while others roll their eyes, knowing they will never follow through. Not keeping your word can be disastrous and it can haunt your career. It’s easy to say, “I’ll take care of that.” But be sure before you promise.

11. Always prepare. May sound obvious, but marketers and leaders skip this step and wing it. Whether in person or in writing, they use generalities and relate irrelevant war stories. Nothing specific, just lots of fluff. It shows, and everyone knows that they weren’t ready. Kiss off another one and dig out the excuses.

12. Never fake or exaggerate experience, qualifications or abilities. Be assured that at some point when we least expect it, it will catch up with us. We all have limitations; admitting them says we know our weaknesses as well as our strengths. And that enhances our credibility.

13. Always satisfy the unhappy member. Here’s the formula to do it:

Take time to understand the problem. Then, repeat it back to the member.
Take ownership. “I’m your advocate.” Don’t pass it off to someone else.
Present the solution to the member: “Is this satisfactory?” If not, seek a better solution.
Follow up with the member to verify satisfaction.

14. Never let up. The biggest danger in member care is assuming that everything is OK, particularly with those you never hear from. They’re flying under your radar and before you know it, they’ve flown away. Never assume all is well. Bottom line: expectations are changing so fast you need to be finding new ways to keep members happy.

15. Always be candid. The local president wanted to look good, so he told his members that he had gone to the association’s board to get certain benefits for them. Unfortunately, members have heard such stories many times. A transparent approach would be more credible: “We know you’re looking at our competitors, and we know their programs. Because we want you to stay with us, we’re cutting the initial cost to $xxx.” Members know when you’re transparent and when you’re blowing smoke.

The challenge of keeping members happy may be the single most pressing task in associations today. Unhappy members don’t just leave; they’re vengeful, spreading their displeasure in every direction. It takes all the skill, energy, and smarts we can muster to meet that challenge. But it can be done.

John Graham
John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eBulletin, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales Ideas.” Contact him at, 617-774-9759 or