Research shows that frontline staff have the power to make or break member experiences. Here are five things for leaders to keep in mind when it comes to frontline membership staff.
Membership police (affectionately): Staff or volunteers whose job it is to admit current members, turn away non-members, and abide by strict rules of membership admission.
Anyone who has been a member to a cultural organization is likely to have a “membership police” story. They might have experienced condescending reminders of the rules of admission when they don’t realize their memberships have expired; their caretakers and family members might have been turned away for not knowing who’s included on the membership; or they may have been talked down to by staff when asking admission questions – making them feel like they are thieves stealing from the organization by even asking.
We know that members are important for an organization’s success. Why do some organizations treat them so poorly? My guess is that it is unintentional. “Membership police” could be good cops, ready to make a member’s visit a great experience. More often, however, leaders have unwittingly trained them to be bad cops. Some organizations don’t realize that they’ve deployed a small army of people to embarrass and anger critical constituents. And yes, admission rules are important – and so are the experiences of the people who are already onsite at our door.
There’s a way for these realities to work together to strengthen cultural organizations. Perhaps some leaders simply haven’t paused to challenge their cognitive biases about member intentions.
Let’s do that now.
Here are five data-backed findings to integrate into staff trainings to help evolve membership police from “bad cops” to “good cops.”
1) Members are already among an organization’s biggest advocates.
Let’s start with the basics: High visitor satisfaction rates are important. They correlate with higher intent to return and likelihood to endorse an organization. Members generally report 15% higher visitor satisfaction than people who otherwise get into an organization for free. This is a huge bump! The reason for this is that these folks already like the organization. They’ve already bought into it.
Interestingly, the people who become members to support or belong to an organization – rather than transactional reasons like free admission – report the highest visitor satisfaction rates. In the chart below, individuals have been sorted by their reported, primary membership benefit. For instance, those who said that their primary motivator for being a member was mission impact are represented in the “impact” line. Here’s more on this finding.
If an organization is lucky (and strategic), they’ve cultivated members who care about its mission and hard work. This means that there’s already an element of the member-organization relationship that extends beyond “business” to something more meaningful.
Don’t jeopardize this hard-earned affinity. It’s worth considering how to preserve and even improve on it when outlining ideal behaviors and protocols for the “membership police.”
2) The worst thing about a visit is negative interactions with staff members.
Perhaps unsurprising: Onsite interactions matter.
Perhaps surprising: Onsite interactions matter most in making or breaking a visit.
Customer service issues – such as rude staff – are reported as the single “worst thing” about visits to cultural organizations in the US amongst folks when were not satisfied with their visits. This is true among both exhibit-based and performance-based entities.
For exhibit-based organizations, a negative experience with rude staff is over twice as dissatisfying as having whole exhibits closed! It is over four times more dissatisfying than admission cost. Positive, personal interactions are increasingly becoming the expectation at cultural organizations, and they can play a major role in increasing visitor satisfaction. When the “membership police” are trained as bad cops rather than good cops enabling meaningful experiences, then an organization risks sabotaging its positive endorsement and re-visitation before a person has even taken part in your experience at all.
3) The “membership police” are a problem.
Are the “membership police” actually a problem? Data says “yes.”
Research shows that the top three dissatisfiers among high-level members paying over $250 each year are (1) solicitation telephone calls, (2) not being treated as special onsite, and (3) proving identity at the entrance. Not being treated as special and having to show identification being perceived as a negative experience underscore a general failing by the membership police to make members feel valued.
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of this is the dichotomy between onsite and offsite experience for members. Organizations know a member’s name very well when they interrupt them on their cell phones during their precious lunch break or inundate them with snail mail, and yet these names are forgotten when they walk through the doors – and now these folks are forced to “prove” their importance. Simply: The onsite and offsite experiences don’t match – and both experiences risk implying, “our protocols are more important to us than you are.”
The solution here isn’t necessarily to stop calling folks. It’s to be more considerate of the overall membership experience and recognize that the way organizations are handling members onsite is a problem.
4) “Membership fraud” probably isn’t impacting your organization at suspected rates.
A critical rationale for many a membership cop is to prevent “membership fraud” and protect the organization from folks pretending to be members to get into an organization for free.
Membership fraud happens… sometimes. Here’s the reality: IMPACTS followed 11 cultural organizations and found that the fraud incident rate is only 1.9% or, 1,900 fraudulent member visits per 100,000 expected member visits. Is a membership fraud rate of 1.9% worth irritating your organization’s most closely held constituents? At the very least, this consideration should inform how we think about the role of the “membership police” and what is considered “success.”
Consider this: In a way, members have paid for their right to defraud us. Research shows that guest pass fraud (people using someone else’s pass) is often pre-paid and may actually be beneficial for cultural organizations. People visiting a cultural organization on a guest pass are actually worth 48.77% more to an organization than they would have been if they bought a ticket. Here’s the business math that, unfortunately, organizations do not often stop to consider.
In the for-profit world, this situation may be much like family members using someone else’s Netflix password. These TV providers may also benefit by treating folks dipping into their services like potential customers rather than criminals.
Real-world research shows the belief that organizations have major “membership fraud” problems that jeopardize solvency is generally false. It’s largely a cognitive bias. An availability heuristic is a common cognitive bias that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a situation. If an example can be recalled, it means this issue must be widespread, right? The availability heuristic makes us think that our recent experiences are representative of a bigger trend, concept, or situation – even if representative data suggests otherwise. In the case of membership fraud, the availability heuristic is what makes a membership representative say “Membership fraud is a crisis! Someone came in with a guest pass that they got on AirBnB earlier this week!” while overlooking the much larger percentage of people who came in as actual members.
The membership fraud crisis? It’s not actually a crisis. Organizations often hurt themselves both in terms of mission execution and their financial futures by thinking that membership fraud is a bigger issue than it actually is. (Many blindly assume it’s a crisis based on their cognitive biases without looking into any math at all!)
And in the rare cases it does occur, we may actually benefit by it.
5) Some people do not know that they are not members!
While we keep careful track of membership expiration dates, it may not have occurred to some visitors that their memberships have expired.
Being unaware that they are not an active member is a top reason why previous members have not renewed their memberships. Also note that intending to renew during their next visit (but not having visited within two years) is the top reason.
When membership police act as “bad cops” and turn away expired members, they may actually be turning away long-term support. IMPACTS has found the value of a renewed member to be 66.1% greater than that of a new member, so sensitivity toward expired members may be particularly important.
Be kind to your members, and don’t assume they are “out to get you.” They are good guys/gals supporting our missions and helping to make our work possible.
Instead of “membership police,” organizations may benefit from thinking about their frontline staff as mission-makers. They are one of our greatest assets to bring people in and encourage support and positive experiences. It’s a good idea to have a cohesive membership strategy, but it may be a bad idea to “guard” education and inspiration with perceived stiff regulation and condescension – reinforcing a negative perception with which cultural organizations already struggle.
Personalized interactions matter, and while membership “rules” exist for good reason, there may be times when it is best for the organization that they are broken.
Staff interactions can “break” a visitor experience – but they can “make” a visit as well. Membership regulations matter in our effort to effectively engage people, but engaging people matters most.
After all, isn’t that what we’re all about?