The ugly side of the quest to uphold professional standards
Ok, let me put this out there right away. This is the ugly version of Customer Experience. I mean there is nothing positive about this one at all.
The example centres on a Canadian professional association that purports to give members savings, discounts, and access to information resources and professional development. This one is about a retired member of the profession who got treated like an outcast.
And let me be clear, this association makes the ground rules for membership pretty clear. To hold the professional moniker, one must be a member. It is mandatory. There is no alternative, no competing association to consider. One must endure some pretty rigorous training and keep up with professional development. Dues must be paid annually. They are well over $1000 a year, near the high end among professional membership associations. For those fees, I would expect the services and the experience to members to be high end also.
Like some other Canadian associations, this one places a high priority on its brand and its image with the public and business. As Canadians, we all benefit when we can trust those letters that follow someone’s name in the profession. It communicates the quality of professional work done to uphold the standards of the association. This is noble and most worthwhile. But is there not a corresponding duty to serve and support those professionals who carry that moniker and pay those hefty dues?
Let me come back to my example. This person worked for more than 30 years in the profession and held that moniker. She diligently paid those membership fees every year. She kept up with all of the hours needed for professional development to improve her skills and keep up with changes in the industry.
She decided to begin retirement in her early 50s. Not sure if she might return to work at some time in the future, she chose to continue paying her annual dues to the association. She was not eligible for the retired membership rate, which only kicks in for her a few years down the road. She was ok with this.
Things took a bad turn when it came to her professional development. Remember, in her profession, you have to keep up, or risk losing that moniker. She asked about this. She was told by a representative of the association that the combination of her years of service with the moniker together with her age meant that she did not need to continue with professional development. This was corroborated on the member’s section of the web site for the association. I will repeat that – two different sources (channels in this case) pointed to that same policy. That was in 2017.
We fast forward to 2018. She was ready to renew and pay those dues. The web site showed the same text. Ever cautious, she decided to contact the association again about any requirements for professional development. This time, the answer was different. She was told, in no uncertain terms that she must:
- take professional development courses and pay for those out of pocket;
- pay her dues in full; and
- make up for the missed professional development hours from 2017, and submit a plan outlining how she will make those up in 2018.
To make matters worse, due to some goofy registration system that renews her membership in April, but claims she has received member benefits for six months already (it is really not clear what those benefits are), they claim that she is already six months behind in her membership dues and must pay those immediately. If not, she risks being labeled a delinquent. And for the record, this association is fond of shaming delinquents for a range of transgressions, publishing their names in the magazine for the association. I really thought this scarlet letter stuff disappeared with the stone age…
She asked about the inconsistency between this policy and what is stated on the web site. She was told the web site was incorrect. There was no mention of the need to fix the web site. There was no discussion about a promise previously made to her by the association.
Shocked and frustrated, she wrote the association to tell them that her 2018 dues would not be paid. She looks forward to being labeled a loser in their professional book of shame. Just like that, the case is closed.
My colleague, Sam Fiorino, recently noted in a post on the important role of market research in professional associations that members want to be part of a true community and feel like they deserve to be there. This association did the opposite. They made her feel like an outcast. They did not think of her perspective at all – that critical outside-in perspective needed to understand the customer experience.
Some balance is in order. It is ok to promote strong standards and compliance for the profession. It is ok to make membership mandatory. It is ok to collect dues for membership and professional development to maintain those revenues. It is ok to change a policy. It is ok to make a mistake in communicating information to members about a policy change. But must all of this come at the expense of the member and their experience? Does the experience of members need to be this bad to make those other ends meet?
Andreas H. Noe, MBA, BComm Marketing, is a founding partner of Phase 5 and has more than 30 years of experience in marketing research and consulting. Andreas leads Phase 5’s Customer Experience and Market Insights teams.