A Culture That Starts With Member Service

At Fitness Australia, "Team Cool" is a nickname for internal staff culture, but its impact is felt by members every day. That's by design, because the member-service department is where Team Cool began.

It’s a quick reference, early in the story, so you might have missed it. But it’s an important one.

In our feature on Fitness Australia’s organizational culture in the November/December issue of Associations Now, the origin of the motto “Team Cool” is explained:

At first, “Team Cool” was just a nickname that Fitness Australia’s member-service staff gave itself. But then it started to grow. Now it belongs to the full 23-person staff. It’s baked into the way they communicate, meet, and evaluate performance. They even have T-shirts. [emphasis added]

Associations are in the business of serving members, so what good is a well-defined organizational culture if it doesn’t influence the way members are served?

Perhaps it’s just coincidence that “Team Cool” began in member service, but I suspect that it’s not. Here’s why. In three separate interviews I did with staff at Fitness Australia, they each commented on the role that its member-service staff plays at the association:

  • “That role, in particular, is forward facing. So, they talk to our members every single day, so they’re probably the most important people that work here.” —Angie Karpouzis, digital media coordinator
  • “You guys are the most important people that we have, because you talked to our customers every day.” —Robert Barnes, (former) general manager of operations
  • “We always see ourselves as building a relationship with a customer. That’s the primary purpose. Should a sale be generated by that, fantastic, we get revenue for it. And that’s, you know, part of the end game, but the most important thing is the relationship. … They take a membership and then they get great service and we retain them.” —Lauretta Stace, CEO

Or take a look at the job description for open member-service positions that Fitness Australia posted this summer. Under the heading “Success in this role would look and feel like this” are the following:

  • “All #TeamCool colleagues are beaming with pride hearing how good our support service team is working with our clients.”
  • “A team of happy energetic people high-fiving each other for high-quality service and support being provided to customers and the team.”

Noticing a theme yet? Team Cool isn’t just for the staff; it’s for the members, too.

That’s a crucial connection to make, especially at an association. Associations are in the business of serving members, so what good is a well-defined organizational culture if it doesn’t influence the way members are served?

Jamie Notter, management consultant and coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, centers his advice about organizational culture on the simple idea that culture must actually drive organizational performance. Staff need to know how the culture guides their choices and actions.

“People give culture a sort of [broad description] like it’s a vibe, or it’s how we do things around here, or it’s a spirit of the organization, or something really vague,” Notter says. “It is those things, but, for me, culture needs to be defined. It’s all of that, except that it drives the success of the whole enterprise. You can’t say something drives the success of the whole enterprise unless you can tell me how it shows up in your workplace. Right? And how it makes a difference, how things happen because of it.”

For Fitness Australia, “how things happen” is that member service is given the highest priority. When it hired two new member-service staff, the four finalists were each asked to work a trial day in the office, answering phones and taking member questions, so the organization could see who performed best (and not just interviewed best).

When Karpouzis and Barnes say the role of member service is “most important,” it’s not just lip-service. Barnes says Fitness Australia’s finance manager can tell when member-service staff are out sick, because he sees it in the numbers. “When they talk to our team over the phone, they spend more money. Because we’re great people to talk to. I mean, at its most basic, our revenue goes down when there isn’t as many of us here to help answer the phones,” he says.

And high-quality service is part of the culture for everyone on staff, not just the member-service team. “Anybody on the team should be able to answer the phone and to provide a quality experience,” says Barnes. “If the phone’s ringing, you pick it up, because it’s likely to be a client who needs help. That’s a behavioral thing. That’s not a COO saying to a finance manager, ‘It’s in your job description.’ … You cannot make people do that and do it well and enjoy their work by controlling it through job descriptions. You do it by saying the reason we exist as an association is to provide support to the fitness industry so they talk about exercise to the public so they’ll be healthier.”

In other words, a belief in the value of member service should come not from a simple directive but rather from an clear understanding of how good service will advance the association toward its mission. That neatly mirrors the origin of the Team Cool culture itself. Had it been imposed from on high, it might have been dismissed as artificial. But, instead, Fitness Australia saw “Team Cool” as a sign that its member-service team believed in its own value, and then it worked to grow that belief throughout the organization.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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