It is 2:30 PM, far past the lunch rush and well before dinner, and a small cafe in Florida on the Inter-coastal Waterway is doing a brisk business. It is my first time here but I am surrounded by regulars. Some are regulars in the we come here every week sense and some are regulars in the we come every year when we pass by sense.
Each year thousands of boaters make the Winter trek from the north down the waterway toward sun and fun. This cafe is a popular and well known stop for these travelers. There are hundreds of restaurants in just this couple hundred mile stretch of the Inter-coastal but this cafe is remarkable. I am told that boaters pass up dozens of restaurants on their way to this particular restaurant. The food is good but the food itself is not draw. The building is not at all remarkable (an old bait shop turned cafe and bait shop). The ambiance, for a northerner like me, is remarkable looking out over the marshy grasses and water while eating lunch, except this is duplicated hundreds of times over up and down the waterway. So what is it? What makes this cafe so anticipated, so sought after, so remarkable?
This cafe is successful because of their customer service. They draw traffic away from surrounding restaurants because of their service. There’s no gimmick. No high-tech innovation. Just ongoing, consistent, great quality customer service. What does customer service mean to them and what can we steal for our associations?
Before we stepped up to the counter to order we were greeted and smiled at at least three times. The bus boy ran to hold the door open for us. Someone asked if we would like to have a menu and showed us where they were. The cashier gave us a friendly greeting and weighed in on our choices while serving us quickly because there was quite a long line. These were genuine smiles that said, welcome, we are glad you are here!
Imagine how this same kind of greeting could play out at a conference. A new member, new to the conference, is walking into the conference area. They are warmly greeted before they get to registration and then shown exactly where registration is. While in line rooming conference experts chat with them and ask if they have any questions. Registration is well set up and efficient so the registration staff have time to greet attendees. Once they have their badge and packet they have another chance to go over and see a conference expert at a station and ask their questions so they can get the most out of the conference.
Also imagine if every member inquiry and phone call was answered with a smile. What if we thought of every member phone call not as a interruption but as a chance to connect and to learn more about our members?
Among our Members
Back to the cafe: while we were eating there were two staff people roaming around cleaning tables. But not only did they clean tables they asked us how the food was and asked if there was anything else they could get us. In most order-at-the-counter-pick-your-food up establishments the staff is all working behind the counter. Not here. Restaurant staff was out among the customers. They could hear the chatter about the food. They knew when things were fine or when a hot sandwich was cold. They were also accessible. If I had a problem I could just flag down one of them (it turned out the table wipers were the owner and her son).
Imagine our conference again. Instead of every association staff person working on the conference many actually have the opportunity to participate in the conference. They are easily identifiable as staff and thus accessible for anyone with feedback, a problem or a questions. In being freed up to participate they can also observe what is working, what is not and where the snags are. More time on the floor also means more contact with members to learn about their needs and build relationships.
Of course this need not only happen at the conference. It can happen all year around, even for national or global associations. Scheduled calls, being accessible via email, phone or online all can help us all be among our members more often.
Knowing What To Do
We walked in and were given a menu and shown where the counter was. After giving our order the cashier explained that we could take our seat and would be called by first name when the order was ready and then she showed us exactly where the pickup counter was. The intercom was absolutely clear and we could hear every name called. Picking up our food we were shown where the utensils and condiments were. No doubt, we knew how to navigate this system.
Members at most associations feel like there is a lot more value they could be getting out of the association they just don’t know what. They don’t have the time to explore every benefit and learn how to use them all so they can take advantage of all the association has to offer. What if they didn’t have to? What if someone from the association knew enough about the member’s problems so they could tell them exactly what they need to know? We could show members how to navigate the association and take the shortcuts they may want to get to the solutions they need.
It is amazing to see the owner of a successful restaurant wiping tables. Wouldn’t she normally be in the kitchen, taking the money or be behind the scenes working in the business? In retrospect her work made perfect sense. No one knew the business better than this owner because no one knew her customers better. She cares.
Somehow we association professionals need to find time to get away from the business of the business and spend more time getting to know our members better than anyone. We show our members we care when we know them better.
Nice associations finish first. Associations offering great customer service have happy and engaged members. A big part of offering great customer service is knowing your members. Amanda Kaiser, qualitative member researcher, writes articles like this about member insights based marketing, strategy and innovation on her blog SmoothThePath.net or find her on Twitter @SmoothThePath.