Does the Experience Impact Membership Growth?

Has your association ever hired a “secret shopper” to evaluate your customer service? Do you really know what membership prospects experience when they look for information on your website or call your association?

In a market research study of approximately 500 associations we learned some surprising insights about the new member experience that could be impacting your association’s membership growth. Read about our team’s experience when playing the role of “a prospective member”, common shortcomings of association response (or lack of), and helpful tips on how to avoid a negative experience.



Our project began as simple market research to gain deeper insight on how funds flow through associations with components. We had a list of approximately 500 associations from which we wanted to gather information about membership and dues payment:

  • Do members join at the chapter or National level?
  • Do members pay dues at the chapter or National level?

If we understand the association’s chapter and dues structure, we have a better sense of the type of resources, content, and tools that can help them.



Initially, our team was going to gather the information we needed by calling the association or chapter. But, it was so difficult getting through to a real person—more on that later—that we changed tactics. Instead, the team checked the website first to find the information we needed: how to join, where to join (chapter or National), and whom to pay (chapter and/or National).

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the prospect experience varies widely depending on the association—from friendly and informative to rude and frustrating. The team started taking notes and tracking their experience as a “membership prospect.”

We were surprised by the number of websites that fell short on providing simple information about joining. For example, several national associations provided inaccurate contact information for the local chapter. And, some didn’t provide any contact information for the local chapter or state association.

Also, it was impossible to join online at many associations. If a review of qualifications is required for membership, that’s understandable. But, if a prospect is ready to join and you don’t offer an online option to do that, what a missed opportunity!

Many of the websites didn’t provide the information we needed about where members make dues payments—to the chapter or to National—or whether you paid one lump sum for both dues or paid each separately.



If our researchers couldn’t learn what they needed from the website, they called the number given for membership inquiries or, if they couldn’t find that, the main number. For these calls, they approached the conversation like a membership prospect would, asking basic questions like, “Where do I join, the chapter or National? and Where do I pay my dues, the chapter or National?”

We tracked our “prospect” experience at both the chapter and National level:

  • Were we able to reach someone—did someone pick up the phone or did we get voicemail?
  • When we left a message, did someone called us back?
  • Were we able to get information from the gatekeeper—receptionist or call center?
  • Were we able to get the information we needed about membership and dues?
  • Were we able to get information about chapters from National, and vice versa?
  • How was their customer service attitude on a scale of 1 to 5?

Some scored high, like the association that said, “I’d recommend waiting until September to sign up because we will be discounting membership dues by 10%.”


Most of the time, the experience went as you expected and we got the information we needed. But we were surprised how often the association’s response (or lack of it) fell short of our expectations.



On our first attempt to call an association, 25 percent of the time we couldn’t get a live person or even voicemail. Or, someone answered and tried to connect us to membership, but couldn’t.



When we reached a gatekeeper, many of them couldn’t answer basic questions about where to join, whom to pay—chapter or national—and whether to pay chapter and national dues together or separately.

Or, someone picked up the Membership department call and couldn’t answer those basic questions. Instead, they’d say, “Let me call you back.”



Too often, we left a voicemail message and never got a call back. Or, we never got a call back from that Membership person who said, “Let me call you back.” So, we made the call again and still, sometimes, we never heard back. Imagine if we were a board member calling incognito!



We noticed a big difference in the level of assistance provided by national associations and their chapters. We were amazed by the number of national associations that couldn’t provide the information we needed, yet their chapters could. For example, 20 percent of the national associations couldn’t tell us how to sign up for chapter membership.

Yet, when we talked to the chapter, they could always tell us how to sign up for national membership.You’d think it’d be a sales partnership, benefiting both the association and chapter.

In the 2016 Chapter Benchmarking Study from Mariner Management and Marketing, 35 percent of the survey participants said the alignment between their national association and its chapters was their top concern. If your national association staff can’t help callers with basic chapter membership information, that might make this problem worse. National and chapters should have a partnership that extends to sales and, therefore, benefits both of them.



“I’m too busy to answer your questions right now.” Yes, someone really did say that. Ouch. But it wasn’t all that bad. We rated the staff’s friendliness on a scale of 1 to 5. We’re happy to report a lot of 4s and 5s.

For example, one person answered all our questions, provided us with additional information, and even offered to follow up when we were ready to become a member to make sure we got answers to any other questions we might have. Lots of 3s too. But 3 percent of the associations scored a 1 or 2.

Some completely lacked the personal touch. For example, many missed the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to help by not even asking, “How else can I help you?” We even heard this once, “The membership representative is out of office for two weeks. Try back then.”

Not likely. What puzzles me is why people would behave that way to a membership prospect.

  • Is it stress?
  • Burnout?
  • Lack of training?
  • Do they just not care?
  • Is this type of behavior tolerated?
  • Is it too difficult to find and train a replacement?

How do you feel when you walk into a restaurant and the host doesn’t acknowledge your presence? When they do, they bark out, “Party of 2? Follow me.” Or, if there’s a wait: “Party of 2? Name? We have a 30 minute wait.” No welcome, no warmth. They act as if they couldn’t care less about whether you add your name to the waiting list or not.

Do you really want to wait for a table in a restaurant like that when you could spend your valuable time and money elsewhere? These gatekeepers set the tone for the entire dining experience. What kind of tone are your gatekeepers setting?



Being a marketer, I was astounded by the number of associations that didn’t ask for my contact information. They’re missing an opportunity to add me to their prospects database, to establish a relationship with me, and to demonstrate their value by sending me targeted content of some type.

Our market research project turned into an interesting (and sometimes depressing) experiment. You may want to do your own experiment and “secret shop” your association and chapters. Find out what your prospects are hearing so you can improve their experience, build a more fruitful relationship with them, and improve your membership growth.


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About the author

Sarah has a soft-spot for component relations professionals (CRPs), creating amazing experiences, and having a good laugh. She focuses her time at Billhighway on building and delivering chapter-focused resources, creating unique experiences for CRPs through webinars, events and the one-of-a-kind Component Exchange (CEX). Sarah is passionate about exploring new ideas and trying new things. What we really want to say is Sarah is a component bad@$$ who is sure to put a smile on your face.