Want to know what your members are thinking? Take a cue from the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, who volunteers in a member bookstore once a year.
A great golfer once said, “There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.”
Fictional as that golfer may be, it is sound advice. Golf is a difficult pursuit that is easy to overthink. Perhaps not unlike running an association. Association executives do a lot of thinking and communicating and meeting and surveying to try to understand members, but maybe the answer is much simpler: be the member.
Once a year, during the holidays, Oren Teicher follows this advice. The CEO of the American Booksellers Association, the trade association for independent bookstores, visits a member store to volunteer as an extra hand for three or four days during the holiday sales rush. This season he volunteered at Watermark Books and Cafe in Wichita, Kansas, helping with restocking, organizing, handselling, and any of “the 1,001 tasks that go on in the busy time of the year,” he says.
Teicher’s volunteering visits are a holiday tradition he has kept for about 10 years, having begun when he was ABA’s chief operating officer. He simply asks for bookstore owners interested in hosting him via ABA’s weekly newsletter, and he tries to mix up locations across the country year to year. Some years, fellow ABA senior staff spread out and volunteer at bookstores as well.
“My staff always laments when I come back, full of all kinds of things that I’ve learned and things that we ought to be doing.”
“I have found [the visits] to be really, very, very valuable, not just as an opportunity to get to know the booksellers better who I’m visiting with but to be able to look at things from the the other side of the table, if you will,” he says. “I always have done this around Christmas time when the stores are busy, so you get a sense of what things are like at full throttle.”
When he returns, Teicher shares his newfound insights with his colleagues. “My staff always laments when I come back, full of all kinds of things that I’ve learned and things that we ought to be doing to be helpful and responsive to stores.” ABA provides marketing materials for stores to use and adapt and has led a partnership with Kobo to sell its e-reader in indie bookstores. Seeing how such initiatives are playing out at ground level is invaluable.
“There are dozens of things that you hear from customers that are really useful in terms of understanding why it is that customers shop in our member stores, what it is they like about them, and, frankly, what are some of the things they don’t like about them,” Teicher says.
But why volunteer? Why not simply meet with members over lunch or a townhall meeting? Teicher says he gets a lot of that kind of face-to-face interaction throughout the year—”the meat and potatoes of what we do as an association”—but the power of active, participatory learning brings to life all the thoughts and feedback he hears during the normal course of work. “There is a difference between going out to lunch with a member or being in a meeting with a member talking about industry issues as opposed to standing on the bookstore floor, interacting with customers, interacting with staff, understanding what types of issues they’re grappling with at any given moment,” he says.
ABA reported healthy year-end sales among its member stores for the second consecutive year, so there’s reason to believe Teicher’s stints as a volunteer bookseller are contributing to ABA’s success. For association executives who might arrange similar visits with members, Teicher stresses the importance of genuinely contributing, not being a burden that needs to be entertained, though he does set a few parameters, such as not handling money (best left to store’s paid employees) or taking on tasks that require a highly trained hand. “I don’t think they want me to giftwrap stuff if they ever want to see those customers again,” he jokes. (More seriously, if your members are doctors, you likely shouldn’t be picking up a scalpel.) But, beyond that, the goal is to get as close to the member experience as possible. “I’m there to help to do whatever it is that needs to get done,” Teicher says.
As you strive to maintain a deep understanding of your association’s members, keep in mind Teicher’s story and Ty Webb’s advice. To get in touch with the member experience, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the member.