Sarah Corney, Head of Customer Experience
‘We’re members, not customers!’
I remember being slightly taken aback by this objection from the CIPD’s Council* as I talked them through our early plans for customer experience (CX) at the Institute. Why had I seemingly caused offence by using the ‘c’ word?
Members are customers, in the sense that they buy a service from us, namely their professional membership. They may also buy additional products and services, such as a ticket to a conference or a place on a training course. And the discipline of CX has much to offer membership bodies/professional associations, because members expect a certain (increasingly high) level of service. Members expect the same ease of interaction and value for money that they get from the other – increasingly digital – products they buy and services they interact with.
By not thinking of members as customers we can fall into some traps of our own making – for example an obsession with engagement (i.e. volume of interactions) when we should instead reframe the relationship in terms of experience, and using member grades as a proxy for customer segmentation. Unlike customers of most products and services, members are less able to show their dissatisfaction by ‘voting with their feet’ and finding another provider. Which means that members can also exhibit a sense of feeling ‘hostage’ to their professional body if they’re not happy.
But Council was also right of course: members aren’t merely customers. Or rather, professional associations have a unique relationship to their ‘customers’. In many ways members have even higher expectations:
Customers want your stuff… members expect things Global Engagement Index 2016
But they can also feel incredibly invested in your purpose and your ‘brand’, perhaps more so than other brands – because it’s very much tied to their sense of professional pride, achievement and purpose.
“I am extremely proud to be a member of a trusted and credible professional membership organisation such as the CIPD.” (CIPD Associate member)
So they’re members and customers.
Having worked in customer experience for a professional body for a while now, I’ve come to appreciate that member experience (or MX perhaps?) is slightly different to CX in other sectors, in some senses it’s more complex, but in many ways it might even be more fulfilling than more conventional CX.
Moving the conversation away from ‘engagement’ towards ‘experience’
Over the past few years professional bodies have been trying to define, measure and improve member ‘engagement’ – the volume of interactions a member has with their association. Engagement per se is not necessarily the most useful metrics to define and track. A member might interact with your website numerous times a week, and open every email you send, and still be unhappy. Similarly a member might interact with you once a year to renew their membership, and be perfectly happy with their professional body.
Engagement is not a proxy for satisfaction.
Rather than engagement think experience. If you focus your efforts on raising engagement levels and the proposition isn’t right, the interactions are complex, and the service is sub-optimal, you’ll only engender dissatisfaction.
In fact some attempts at defining ‘member engagement’ sound a lot like definitions of customer experience:
Member Engagement is a strong positive feeling generated by experiences that membership has facilitated. It is about how you make the member feel about themselves and it goes way beyond transactions. Sue Froggatt, the Member Engagement ToolkitMember Engagement Toolkit
Compare that to this definition of CX from The Business Dictionary:
Customer Experience is…the entirety of the interactions a customer has with a company, its brand and products… The overall experience reflects how the customer feels about the company and its offerings.
Member ‘experience’ (or ‘engagement’ – call it what you will) therefore is about the totality of experiences a member has with their professional body, their perception of your brand and how that makes them feel.
So think about how you measure members’ emotions (how they feel about their professional body) and perceptions (what they think of you), rather than simply counting interactions. [For more on this see my earlier post Ever wondered what your members are thinking? Quantifying your membership brand.)
Members, not hostages
In the CIPD’s recent member survey we asked members why they stay in membership. The overwhelming majority of members chose ‘I need professional recognition’ far more than other options such as future career prospects, being part of a professional network, access to member-only information and benefits, and support for ongoing learning and development.
As I’ve discussed in a blog post on NPS, there are some parallels between membership of a professional body and being a customer of the UK’s privatised services (think the water companies or train companies, for example) because once you’re in you’re pretty much ‘locked in’. If you’ve worked hard (and paid money) to gain your qualification and/or accreditation, you are likely to pay your subscription each year to keep it valid and up to date.
“I have to pay an annual fee to maintain my Chartered CIPD status, which i worked incredibly hard to get but I don’t feel that I actually get anything for this fee apart from a magazine” (CIPD Chartered Member)
High retention rates don’t necessarily mean members are satisfied with your offer. It might give professional bodies a little extra breathing space to get our houses in order experience-wise, but it doesn’t mean we can be complacent about our customer/member experience.
And who wants their members to feel held to ransom?
So what happens when you don’t look after your member experience? Members who should be your biggest advocates become detractors. They tell colleagues not to bother, that you don’t represent value for money, that you haven’t got their interests at heart. Those in senior positions with a poor opinion of their professional body see professional accreditation as less and less relevant, fewer job ads carry it as a requirement, fewer senior leaders in the profession cite their professional association as a positive influence in their careers. (The CIPD doesn’t have a licence to practice, but I’d argue that even if you do you should still be looking to improve your members’ experience.)
It can be a gradual thing this loss of relevance and perception of value. But it can also happen very quickly – there’s the ever-present threat of a digital native upstart muscling into your space.
Ultimately we want proud, satisfied members – not hostages.
Purpose and pride
Professional bodies are, by definition, purposeful organisations (see Unlocking the ‘purpose’ of purpose). That heightened sense of purpose is one of the things that makes working for a professional body so special. Similarly, one of the things that differentiates ‘members’ from mere ‘customers’ is a deeper connection to your purpose, because your purpose is ultimately their purpose (or it should be).
The ‘people profession’ offers a particularly purposeful line of work:
The majority of people professionals have a strong sense of meaning in their work and believe that the profession offers a meaningful career. The People Profession in 2018 report
In our recent member survey we asked how much members feel connected to our purpose of Championing Better Work and Working Lives (generally very connected), how much it guides them in their working lives (generally quite a lot), and how much the CIPD helps them to put that purpose into practice (this, not so much). So we are beginning to understand – at least in part – where our customer experience falls short of members’ expectations.
Member experience isn’t just about optimising member journeys; it’s also about ensuring you have a purposeful brand that delivers a purposeful and supportive experience.
Purpose and pride makes for a very satisfying mix in terms of the work that I do. If “the overall (customer) experience reflects how the customer feels about the company and its offerings” (The Business Dictionary definition of CX) a good member experience facilitates and enhances members’ sense of professional pride, achievement and purpose.
“I am proud to be a Chartered Fellow. I worked hard to achieve the standards and hard to maintain my standards. I am proud of our profession” (CIPD Chartered Fellow)
Another interesting and fulfilling dimension of member experience of a professional body, in comparison to customer experience, is that ultimately we have another set of customers: the members of the public who are impacted by the work of our members.
“I’m proud to part of an organisation that has all people at its heart – not just members” (CIPD Student Member)
We have found at the CIPD that that sense of pride and investment in their professional body also means that when we’ve engaged with members about their experience they’re very keen to get involved. Potentially more so than private sector brands.
The CIPD is your professional body. If you would like to get involved in further research, please leave your name and address here: … (Final question in the CIPD’s 2018 Member Survey)
To illustrate that point, we’ve had almost 2,000 members signing up to our customer (or rather ‘member’!) panel. This was off the back of just one survey and represented one third of everyone who took part in it. This means we’ve a ready supply of members willing to help us with research, co-creation and testing – to help us build a more member-centric organisation.
Members and customers
So members are customers. But they’re also members, with a unique set of expectations of their professional body. Great CX involves ‘walking in your customers’ shoes’, experiencing their lives to understand how your product helps with some element of that life. But that can be more complex for professional bodies. And I’ll explore both of those concepts in the second part of this two-part blog.
* CIPD’s Council is made up of our Board members and a representative from each of our local branches.
As ever, a huge thank you to the CIPD’s Customer Experience team for your passion, ideas, creativity and hard work. This is your story.
This article was written by Sarah Corney FSAMP who is Head of Customer Experience, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Fellow of the Society of Association and Membership Professionals (SAMP). Sarah will co-present a member research focused session with her colleague, Katherine Patel, Customer Research Manager, on Using Research to Become a Member-Centred Professional Body at Membership Excellence 2019 (2nd May / London). Find out more here.