Who is your customer? How straight forward and easy a question is this for your association?  

For some associations, this is easy, members. For others it isn’t as simple, so Boards need to stop, assess, and ask this important question.  

Associations spend money on strategic planning. Post pandemic, strategic planning has become very important to many associations to help guide them in dealing with the realities of life after the pandemic in their sectors.  

The fundamental question that arises during most strategic planning sessions refers to the association’s vision and mission statements, with a focus on “who” the association serves (customers / members). It is very hard to develop a strong strategic plan if you get that one question wrong about a customer / member. Knowing this is fundamental to the strategies your association develops and resources being implemented.  

I recently participated in a strategic planning session with an association management company (AMC) client. One of the slides used during the session was titled, “Great Questions Lead to Great Decisions & Strategy”. Later in the session the facilitator asked the question, “Who is Your Customer?” and it turned out to be harder to answer than most Board members & stakeholders around the table originally thought. There didn’t seem to be one clear answer and the facilitator indicated that they were not surprised as many of their clients struggle with this question.  

Discussion ensued about the customer being the paid members of the association or was it the employers that potentially paid for the membership (realizing that not all members paid for their own membership out of pocket)? For this client, the work that they do assists many industries and society at large so many thoughts from Board members reached past the paying members for “customers”.  Again, not an easy, straightforward answer.  

Vision (Clear Future), Mission (What We Do), and Values (Core Beliefs) that guide decisions and actions, are paramount to a good strategic plan but at the heart of that plan is knowing who you serve (customer / member).  

Technology and innovation can be drivers that affect how an association operates. Associations and Boards need to look at how technology, innovation and consolidation affect the customer / member in the sector they serve. Are there new technologies that affect the association’s industry? Does this open the door to new customers / members that can be served by the association, or does it eliminate some of the existing customers /members? Boards need to be discussing this and asking questions.  

At a recent training session, I attended with a client, the facilitator talked about many industries / sectors of the economy served by associations that used to have many independent members and have shrunk to having fewer members because they didn’t recognize who their customer / members were. 

A couple of examples shared during the session highlighted the collision repair sector and insurance brokers associations. In these two sectors the number of individual members declined as consolidation took place in both sectors, making fewer & fewer independent members. The technology built into vehicles and the cost of technology to fix them in collision repair shops pushed smaller shops out of business, making the industry ripe for consolidation.  

The insurance industry has also gone through much consolidation. With the consolidation and the advent of fewer, larger multi branch firms, the level of support and number of members in their associations has declined.  

The real lesson to be learned from the question of “who is your customer” is for Board members to continually ask the important questions about those things that you think the answer is obvious. There are no bad questions when you are discussing the association’s value for members and how to strengthen your association. It is your obligation as a Board to protect the long-term sustainability of the organization and its impact. Your customer / member is at the root of that obligation.