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What Members Want

January 1, 2005

by Sarah Wortman

Surveys that reveal: How much member service do you think you're delivering?

Pinellas Realtor Organization CEO Anne Guiberson suspects that associations deliver more member service than they think. Guiberson estimates that her Florida association handles over 3,000 phone calls and over 31,000 member touches per month.

That's a lot of interaction. But was quality of service going hand in hand with quantity of contact?

"We were getting constant complaints that we never answered our phones or returned phone calls," explains Guiberson. "The staff felt vulnerable to these allegations." In response, Guiberson launched a new survey program to gain some quantitative and anecdotal evidence of the level of customer service the association provides.

The Pinellas association instituted a new program called "How Are We Doing?" A link to an online customer service evaluation form now appears at the bottom of every association-generated e-mail, on the association's Web site (www.tampabayrealtor.com), and on the back of every staff member's business card.

"How Are We Doing?" is centered on a 15-question customer survey that members are encouraged to complete after each service interaction with the association. Among other questions, the "How Are We Doing?" survey asks members about the nature of their call, whom they spoke with, and how they were treated. The survey provides association management with a wide range of up-to-the-minute management information, including a real-time overall member satisfaction score, service scores for individual staff (for which bonuses can be awarded), and issue tracking to see what new member service resources may be needed. The survey is both powered and scored by survey company Zoomerang.

Without an organized customer service system, the management and leadership had no way to investigate and either substantiate or refute customer service complaints. With the new survey system, complaints are compartmentalized, investigated, and resolved. This provides an effective forum in which members can constructively raise concerns, says Guiberson.

Want to know if you're serving your members effectively? Reach out and ask them.

Member survey innovations

The challenge for associations is to determine what questions to ask and which methods will get them the most and the best-quality responses.

Busy members don't like to fill out traditional paper surveys that they'll then have to stamp and mail back. But many associations have found success with innovative approaches, including online surveys.

Since online surveys are generally far cheaper to conduct than traditional paper surveys, many associations are now able to conduct several surveys a year rather than annual or biannual surveys.

Diane Greene, communications and marketing director for the North Carolina Association of Realtors , pays a flat rate to Survey Monkey (about $60 per quarter) for an unlimited number of surveys.

Greene conducts about a survey a month to generate a "quick pulse" on the membership. She asks very specific questions, so there is little leeway for interpretation. While the survey may deal with issues related to the association's Web site one month, the next, it may focus on issues related to the print publication. Single-question quick surveys are common, too. For example, they've asked if open houses are an effective marketing tool, if standard contract forms should be available in an interactive fashion, and if E&O insurance should be mandatory. They've also sent some surveys to targeted groups. For example, a survey about a convention is sent to attendees.

Greene says that the number of responses they get to a survey can be an indication of how important the issue is to the membership. The 2001 member-needs survey netted 1,099 responses, while the survey about interactive contract forms (which members overwhelmingly supported) netted 1,600 responses.

Greene says there are some drawbacks to online surveys, though. "About half of our members are not online, so there is that inherent bias in our research," she says. "However, we've learned to accept that if we want a quick reading about an issue, we will get some bias."

In-person

outreach

Every Wednesday morning for two months, Kathy Harbaugh, executive officer of the Realtors Association of Central Indiana, went with her president to brokerage staff meetings. She passed out 12-question surveys and waited while members answered the "yes" or "no" and multiple-choice questions.

"We found we were asked lots of questions while we were on-site that we hadn't asked in the survey, and people really appreciated that we were there," says Harbaugh.

This in-person approach allowed Harbaugh to delve more deeply into member responses and ask the critical "why?" follow-ups when members responded negatively. She surveyed 70 percent of the membership this way.

While this process was labor-intensive, Harbaugh thinks it provided a much higher response rate than previous mail and online surveys. She also believes it is probably best for an association with a relatively small membership, like hers.

"We had fun because we heard a lot of positive comments, good ideas--and everyone had a better understanding of who their association leadership was," says Harbaugh.

Cover the

bases

A market research consultant can help an association recruit respondents, develop questions, and moderate focus groups. The costs range anywhere between $25 and $500 per person, according to Ann Beall, president of Beall Research and Training in Chicago.

Jerry Panz, executive vice president of the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors , N.C., uses both surveys and mini-focus groups to rate member service. The association uses an outside consultant to conduct its annual research, at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000. If the surveys are conducted by mail, the cost is higher since it takes longer to hand tabulate responses. Panz believes that confidentiality helps provide the high quality of information his association receives.

Whatever the hard or soft costs, association executives agree that the investment is worth it.

"Every hotel I've stayed in does surveys," says Panz, "and ever association should too."
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Survey Writing Resources

Composing questions that reveal members' needs and wants is an art. If you're unsure about how to avoid confusing or leading questions in your surveys, check out some of these online survey-writing resources for associations:

-- Nearly 100 sample surveys at QuestionPro, www.questionpro.com

-- Top tips on planning and organizing your survey at Survey Share, www.surveyshare.com/resources/tip.php

-- Guide to survey questions and answer types at Survey Console, www.surveyconsole.com

Easy Feedback Online

The Pinellas Realtor Organization's "How Are We Doing?" customer survey, below, is centered on a 15-question online customer survey that members are encouraged to complete after each service interaction with the association.

The survey is hosted at www.zoomerang.com. See the full survey at www.tampabayrealtor.com.