Those were the days. Our members had to join associations based on the location of their office. We could raise dues as much as we liked, whenever we liked. We could tell members what they wanted and needed. We could charge huge application fees and be as rude and nasty to members as we wanted. Customer service was the last thing on our minds. Then in 1994 Board of Choice (BOC) happened, and those days were gone forever.
Of course, most boards never treated members that way, but there's no doubt customer service became more important than ever once members could choose which board they wanted to join.
Today cutting-edge associations strive to focus on providing the very best customer service possible. For many, good customer service makes the difference between dissolution and long-term survival. I'll use our Twin Cities market as an example. When BOC happened, I just about jumped off the High Bridge. I feared my members would run across the river to join the Minneapolis Association since its dues were lower. We couldn't compete with it dollar for dollar because they had twice as many members as we did. How would we survive?
We had to show our members that there was value in maintaining their membership even though it cost more. That meant change. We changed our operational model to focus on service, empowering staff to make business decisions, and teaching leadership how to make well-informed decisions quickly. And it worked.Here are four things that worked for us:
1. Ask members what they want and need. What keeps them up at night, and how can we help them become more successful.
2. Get input from staff. Our staff meetings focus on ways to provide better service to members. We reward staff for innovative ideas on improving service.
3. Turn off the answering machine. Tempting as it was to automate everything, we learned that members want to talk to a person, not a machine.
4. Become the information source. We've worked hard to create a culture in which members call us for darn near everything. Also, if someone has a question more appropriate for the regional MLS or the state or national association, we don't make the member hang up and call another number; instead we just transfer the call.
Still, the vast majority of our members see us only at orientation. They want us to deliver their mail, defend their business, and stay out of their lives. But when there's a crisis and someone needs help, our members know they can count on us.
In this issue, you'll find interesting and creative ideas for providing outstanding customer service. Although life was easier before Board of Choice, it has inspired positive change. Just look at the incredible service creativity of AEs around the country. So much of what we do is based on sharing success stories with one another. If you have something you'd like to share, don't forget to post it on AETalk.
Enjoy the summer.
Keith Holm, 2005 AEC Chair