Is Your Staff Trained to Sell Membership?

Any association staffer who interacts with members and prospects influences the membership experience. Research from the retail sector suggests simple training on member benefits could sharply enhance your staff's ability to positively engage members.

It was more than three years ago, at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas, that author Dan Pink told association executives “We’re all in sales now.”

Pink contended that we’d entered an era of “nonsales selling” and that professionals well outside the traditional scope of sales—people like teachers, art directors, and software writers, even—are now “spending an enormous amount of their time, brain power, and energy trying to get other people to part with resources—time, attention, and effort—for mutual gain.” Today, some recent research on retail sales has me wondering about how associations equip their staff for selling membership.

Every association staffer who interacts with members influences the member experience. Shouldn’t they be knowledgeable about all the association has to offer?

Earlier this month, Knowledge@Wharton published an interview with Marshall L. Fisher, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, about research he and colleagues conducted to quantify the impact that knowledgeability has on sales performance. To say that being well informed about a product is helpful in selling it may be obvious, but they sought to answer how much it helps, exactly.

Fisher and colleagues analyzed data from Dillard’s department store and Experticity, which provides online training modules to Dillard’s and other retail brands, and found that sales associates who participated in at least one learning module had “46 percent more sales per hour than those who didn’t train,” Fisher says.

Some of that was because associates who volunteered for training were likely more motivated, but not all of it. “We found about half of the 46 percent was due to the individuals themselves, and the other half was due to the training,” Fisher says. The size of the positive impact surprised the researchers, even accounting for self-selection in the study. “Twenty-three percent is still a big improvement,” he says.

No, associations aren’t retailers, but, as Pink suggested, every association staff person who interacts with members, even minimally, influences the member experience. So, shouldn’t they be knowledgeable about all the association has to offer? And, given associations’ nature as an array of diverse enterprises bundled into one package, wouldn’t training be particularly necessary to gain a broad understanding of the slate of benefits?

The last time I wrote about instilling a member-centric culture at an association, I made much the same point, but the suggestions from Dan Ratner at the American National Standards Institute and others who had written on the topic mostly focused on keeping membership, as the association’s driving business model, front of mind for staff. These methods are important; staff should know why membership matters and how the association’s membership efforts are performing. But maybe it’s easy to forget the obvious: what membership actually delivers.

The study on retail sales knowledgeability suggests that training staff on your association’s membership as a product would position them to better engage members. What are the key benefits and dues rates? How many issues of the magazine are published annually? How does a member sign in to the association’s online community? How soon can a member access new research reports before nonmembers? Does the association offer members any insurance coverage? When is the next call for volunteers? And so on, and so on. Association staff—all of them—ought to be able to answer these questions for members, and not just ones about the products or services they work on.

The good news is that, chances are, your association has some training capability. If you provide any kind of education services to members in your association’s industry, then you could use the same tools and apply the same methods to training staff on your membership product. It could be a face-to-face group seminar, a self-directed online course, or anything in between. New staff could be trained during their onboarding process, and incumbent staff, ideally, would return to training at least yearly, with the training regularly updated as needed. You could work it into board training, too.

Tracking the success of such training, however, might be difficult on an individual basis—lacking individual sales numbers like in a retail setting—but the ROI could be measured indirectly through member satisfaction and retention metrics.

The alternative is hoping that staff simply absorb knowledge about your association’s products over time, through osmosis. In June 2013, Associations Now featured the California Dental Association’s newly created “member concierge” position, filled by a 25-year veteran of the association. CDA’s membership director said at the time, “I would not hire somebody off the street for this.” Part of that was about needing the right personality for the job of personally calling 1,000 new members on the phone every year, but it was also perhaps a subtle implication that an association is such a complicated organization that it takes years and years of experience to be able to explain it all.

There’s no replacement for hard-earned experience, sure, but there has to be a faster way to turn your staff into expert evangelists for your association’s membership, right? Perhaps a little training could go a long way.

Does your association train staff on its benefits and services on a regular basis? If so, how is the training done, and how do you get all staff to buy into it? Have you seen an impact on your membership performance? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments.


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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