I’ve been thinking, writing and talking a lot about Association 4.0. That’s how I describe best practices in a game-changing time for the association community and across the business world. Technology is driving the most visible disruption. So, it’s easy to forget that the new online community or e-learning platform you just launched is not going to make or break your success. But the members who use those systems will.

Dr. Karen Bartuch’s recent presentation at .orgCommunity’s Solutions Day event, Making the Unreasonable Happen: The Art of Customer Service in a 24-Hour World, was a great reminder of the need to put our members first. No matter how we expand membership models or revamp publications, our customers need to be top of mind. Bartuch is director of strategy and research at Sandstorm Design. She is an evidence-based creator, innovator and marketer with 17 years of experience in the public and private sector. As a former academic, Dr. Bartuch’s Ph.D. dissertation analyzed scientific concepts underlying successful strategies for marketing, growth, sales and innovation. Statistics are this researcher’s chocolate, and she shared some interesting numbers with the group.

Give Great Experience

“The beach was too sandy”— comments like that gem, posted on Travelocity, should roll off a customer service professional’s back. The need to keep members smiling is eternal. But, not much else in the realm of satisfying our constituents remains the same as it was even several years ago.

Electronics have brought companies closer to consumers than at any other time in history. The good news is that this new coziness means we can be amazing and dazzle with on-demand service at a highly customized level. The challenge is meeting those lofty expectations. Once the unhappy sunbather, surrounded by too much sand posted her review, it was already too late. Bartuch reports that you can expect that picky vacationer to tell nine other people about the unpleasantly gritty conditions.

Customer service is typically perceived as a one-time, reactive event—especially in the association world. Organizations need to expand their focus to encompass customer experience. Being mindful of how a member is treated when they have a question or a problem, isn’t enough. Members are judging you based on their overall assessment of the organization and its orientation to their well-being. Research, Bartuch notes, demonstrates that two-thirds of a company’s success in the market is based on the experience that it provides to customers. Members seek fulfillment across these five dimensions:

  • Tangibles—everything that can be touched and felt, from the office space to marketing materials and the website
  • Reliability—dependability and accuracy at providing service
  • Responsiveness—willingness to deliver promptly on requests
  • Assurance—the knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust
  • Empathy—caring individualized attention

Strive to Delight

Bartuch cautions that a satisfactory rating on this spectrum is not good enough. To improve member retention and hone competitive advantage associations must strive to delight. Eighty-six percent of consumers say that they would be willing to pay for better service, but only 1 percent feel that vendors meet their expectations. Here is a comforting statistic, if you can convince Ms. Sunshine that you’re willing to do what it takes to keep the sand at bay, she is likely to tell five other people about the great service and will probably become a loyal return customer to your beach.

Bartuch highlights the following trending strategies as paths to feeling the member love:


Online chat is an easy, quick and unobtrusive way to share information and resolve problems. It has the advantage of being low-key and conversational yet efficient. Customer satisfaction ratings rank chat as the preferred method of support. Millennials are especially comfortable with this type of interaction. Better still, chat offers an opportunity to drive sales. Statistics indicate that 6.5 percent of customers who interact on chat go on to make a purchase. That’s higher than the typical conversion rate of 3 percent. While artificial intelligence is getting plenty of hype, Bartuch cautions that the human touch is important here. She notes that Gartner, one of the world’s leading research and advisory companies, predicts that by 2020, 85 percent of customer-brand relationships will be managed without human interaction. That is probably an optimistic outlook for associations. The AI options that are available to smaller organizations aren’t smart enough yet to respond appropriately to complex questions. For associations that would like to experiment with chat, she suggests operating with live agents for limited hours.

Social media

Social media is an opportunity for members to engage with you on different service levels. Sixty-three percent of customers expect support on social media, and 35 percent prefer social options over other platforms. If you’re not providing this support, Facebook is a good way to jump in. It’s a perfect platform for responding with a personal touch to comments and suggestions. You can address technical or account related questions, complaints from dissatisfied users, urgent service or product requests and potentially challenging public relations issues.


Most people want to DIY before resorting to a phone call. Google, the self-help genie, can provide your members with the answers they are looking for. In order to work that magic, your site should be stocked with plenty of “How To” articles, robust content and video, and all resources should be optimized for quick searchability.


You can’t serve your customers without understanding them. If you don’t already have a data strategy in place, commit to developing a plan today. Use any and all the tools of the trade—qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups and quantitative paths such as surveys, observation and data that you mine from your AMS. The point is that you should be collecting and analyzing with a goal of improved service and decisions. Gathering the right data also helps with continuous quality improvement.

Gartner also predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of all data analytics projects will relate to some aspect of customer experience. Bartuch believes this prediction is on the money. So, keep your eye on that sunbather and make sure that the sand is exactly as white and smooth as she wants it to be. See the video of Dr. Bartuch’s presentation here.