Who Do You Serve?

By: Lisa Junker, CAE

Can you go too far in the quest for excellent member service? In this month's Associations Now case study, a manager tries to find a way to balance his employee's desire to serve with the day-to-day demands of her job.

Editor's note: See guest commentary by scrolling your mouse over the speech bubbles that appear in the text.  This month's commentary provided by Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, and Carol Vernon.

Dan rubbed his hands over his eyes. If he spent one more minute looking at the conference program, he decided, he was going to lose his mind.

He glanced at the clock in the corner of his computer screen: 6:15 p.m.  Is first thing in the morning the same as COB the night before—especially to someone who has less than a minute in him before he loses his mind? Dan shouldn't have been working this late either. He was clearly done for the night even before he realized Tracey's delay.—Mary Pat Cornett Not too late, he thought. Zoe might not even have had dinner yet if he left soon.

Then he remembered: Tracey, meetings and education coordinator and occasional thorn in his side, hadn't turned in her edits yet.

With a sigh, Dan decided it was unlikely that he'd get to eat dinner with his wife tonight. He rose and walked down the hall toward Tracey's cube. He called out a greeting when he was a few feet away; it was quiet enough in the office that he didn't want to startle her. But there was no response.

Frowning, he paused, and then walked the remaining length of the hall. Peering around the corner, his suspicion was confirmed: Tracey was already gone.

Above and Beyond

"I could have strangled her," Dan told Cameron the next day, as they sat in Cam's office. They were ostensibly there to go over the edits to the conference program (as marketing manager, Cameron would work with the outside designer to get the changes made), but they were also friends, and Dan felt the need to vent.

"Where was she?" Cameron asked.

"It turned out that she had promised to meet a member and drop off some handout materials for him for a talk he was giving. He called at four in the afternoon panicking that he didn't have anything to hand out for a talk at 6:30, and he's worked with Tracey before, so he knew she'd help him out.  Members love staff members like this and show their appreciation AND continue to come to them to get things done. They see it as service—and are never informed of any negative impact on their actions. A savvy association exec could/should find the way to explain this to members, maintaining mutual respect and allowing the member to understand more about the internal workings of the organization.—MPC She said she could pull some brochures together and print out his handouts for him and meet him halfway there."

"What, he couldn't go to Kinko's like the rest of us?" asked Cameron.  Tracey's decision to hand deliver the materials was evidently made in a vacuum. Dan and Cameron both questioned her actions: "What, he couldn't go to Kinko's like the rest of us?" They clearly think Tracey is overfunctioning!—Carol Vernon

"I get the impression he was just asking about NSTS brochures, and then she offered  Actually, she volunteered to do something impulsively without determining how it would affect other priorities—and then proceeded to carry out the new plan without adjusting the original project timeline.—MPC to save him time by printing his handouts, too." Dan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "I'm afraid to ask if she used the color copier. I'm assuming she charged it to our department."  This can sound petty, but these hidden costs add up to expense overruns.—MPC

"So how did you find out about all this?"

"When I saw she was gone, I called her on her cell," Dan said. "She answered and told me what was going on and said she was almost back at the office." This time he did roll his eyes. "Twenty minutes later, she rolls in. And she told me she was almost done with reviewing the program. Over an hour later, she's actually done. So by the time we go through our edits and get everything finalized, it's after eight."  Dan has both a challenge and an opportunity, in terms of how best to lead Tracey. Dan needs to provide Tracey with specific, ongoing direction concerning her department's overarching priorities. Equally important, he needs to help her identify appropriate ways to leverage her desire to provide excellent member service.—CV

"Why didn't you just leave her to finish up?"

"I couldn't," said Dan. "I mean, I hate to say I don't trust her, but … what if she got a question from some volunteer and decided to spend two hours doing research for him instead of finishing up the program? I knew you needed these edits first thing if we're going to make our print deadline."

Cameron smiled. "I appreciate it, man."

"Hey, I know we're already behind because of the deadlines we missed earlier this month—"  Dan has responsibility for ensuring that Tracey understands the conference-program edit deadlines, as well as her other job responsibilities. Tracey let her boss down and in turn could have potentially cost her colleagues and her association needless trouble and expense. Tracey needs to understand this is not acceptable. In addition to member service, there are other important departmental and association priorities.—CV

"Dan, I was looking for you!" The unexpected voice startled them both. Craig, NSTS's CEO, was standing in the hallway, leaning into Cameron's door.

"Sir!" Dan said. "How's it going?"

"Very good, thanks to your team," Craig said. "When I got in this morning, I had the most wonderful email." He looked down at a printout he had in his hand. "A member wrote a glowing letter about Tracey. Apparently she really went out of her way to help him. He was giving a speech nearby, and she helped him put together materials and drove out to meet him to drop them off. He said it was a lifesaver for him." Beaming, Craig handed a copy of the printout to Dan. "It's so great to hear that kind of response from a member. Tracey clearly gave him the kind of service he'll remember and spread the word about. I'll thank her personally, but I wanted to tell you, too. Good work."

"Thank you," said Dan. "I'm sure she'll be glad to hear it."

"Good work," said Craig again, before walking on.  What is rewarded is what is done. Unless the chief staff executive is made aware of the negative impact of Tracey's actions, she will continue to have every motivation to continue to drop established priorities to take on off-track helpful opportunities.—MPC

Dan looked at Cameron and shook his head. "You know this is only going to encourage her."

Cameron spread his hands helplessly. "You've gotta talk to her. She can't know there are problems if she only gets good feedback, and the members are giving her good feedback."

"I know," said Dan. "You're right."

He Said, She Said

"So, that's the big stuff I'll be working on this week," said Tracey. She and Dan were having their weekly "huddle" meeting in Dan's office. Dan had instituted their meetings about a year ago to help Tracey stay on track with her priorities; sometimes it seemed to help. Other times, not so much.  Has Dan changed tactics to do more of what worked? If not, these meetings may just be a waste of time. Meanwhile, the wrong patterns are being reinforced. Dan needs to find a way to make it Tracey's responsibility to stay on track and to face natural consequences if she does not. This makes me wonder: How did she leave that night without his knowing, if the deadline she ditched was with him? Is he her boss?—MPC

"Will you be working on your Twitter ideas for the week today?" asked Dan. "I think your last planned tweet went out yesterday."

"Oh, yes, you're right," said Tracey. "I'll get on that, too."

"I'd appreciate it," said Dan. "I definitely don't want us to go more than a day without something on the conference Twitter feed. I can get you some articles by a couple of the speakers to link to, if you need anything."  Did Dan just do Tracey's work for her in the middle of the conversation about holding her accountable? He's enabling her lack of follow-through. Dan should not take on more work to help Tracey complete hers; he should focus on his own initiatives while making her accountable herself.—MPC

"Thanks, boss," Tracey said.

"There's one other thing I'd like to talk about," Dan said.

Tracey frowned, shifting in her chair. "Everything OK?"

"Actually, I have a concern that I wanted to raise with you," said Dan. "I know we've talked several times about priorities, and I know it's something you've been working on."

"I have," Tracey agreed.

"I think these huddle meetings are going well. You usually have a good sense of what you need to focus on, and you always walk out with a good to-do list for the week. My concern is that you seem to be setting your list aside more and more often."  While providing outstanding member service is vitally important and needs to be every association staffer's concern, Tracey's overfunctioning and lack of understanding about the priorities of meeting-department colleagues', as well as departmental and organizational deadlines, comes with consequences like cost overruns and creates problems for everyone, including ultimately her members.—CV

She shook her head. "I don't get what you mean."

Dan gestured at the final page proofs for the conference program. "Like the other night. You spent hours putting together handouts for a member and driving them out to him when we really needed to get those program edits done. Or, actually, speaking of the program, the way you promised Hannah Coben that you would squeeze in her rewritten session description, even though she missed the deadline by a month. Cameron had to completely reflow the text on 10 pages, and we had to reproof all of those pages. It wasn't just extra work—it was extra chances for error to creep in."

"But she was so grateful," protested Tracey. "She's a really active volunteer, and you want to leave them with a good impression, right? I don't think talking to her took more than 10 minutes total. It definitely didn't keep me from meeting my deadlines that week."  Overfunctioners are sometimes thought of as overachievers, if they are meeting the stated goals of their organization. Tracey may have set unrealistic, and perhaps unprofessional, expectations with the volunteers she serves. Tracey and others cannot get their work done if they respond to every member's last-minute call for assistance. Customer service must be scalable and fair for all members.—CV  Did she only address Dan's second example and completely dodge the feedback on the bigger delay? And she completely disregarded the effect on her coworker. Tracey isn't getting it, and the rest of the conversation doesn't seem to make it clear enough. Dan should create more measurable, tangible outcomes for her to track.—MPC

Dan chose his words carefully. "Tracey, I know you make the members and volunteers you work with very happy. And I appreciate your instincts for customer service. But we need to think of member service as part of a bigger picture. When you don't meet your deadlines, or finish certain tasks, other people can't meet their deadlines or do their jobs. We don't have infinite resources, and sometimes we need to meet deadlines more than we need to amaze a member with service above and beyond what she was expecting. It's great when you have time to do both, and I really appreciate that you want to do both. But sometimes you should just aim to meet a member's expectations, if that's all you have time for."

Tracey leaned forward. "But we're a membership organization, aren't we? A year from now, will Hannah Coben or the other speakers remember that they got their email updates from me right on time? Or will they remember a really great experience with a staff member? They'll tell their friends about the great experience, not about the little details. Half the time they don't even know that they're supposed to be getting emails on a certain day ..."  Well said. How do you balance the absolute need for responsiveness and excellent relationships with competing demands and priorities? Is there a positive way to channel this very appropriate member-centric viewpoint? Perhaps the organization could benefit from using this approach in some way. Is Tracey in the wrong position?—MPC

Dan reined in his frustration.  Dan needs to acknowledge Tracey's strong sense of member service and desire to go above and beyond. Lots of overfunctioners have tremendous drive, determination, and energy to do good work, but they're not like other employees. Dan needs to manage Tracey differently to help her succeed at her work—and take advantage of her strong commitment to member service.—CV "That's all absolutely true. I agree. But not every deadline is moveable. Email is one thing. But if the conference program had printed late, and we missed the deadline to get everything ready for the truck, we would have had to pay to ship all of those programs to the convention center. We would have busted the budget completely, and this isn't a year when we can wave that off."

"Cameron and his designer guy could have made up the time."

"But they shouldn't have to." Dan shook his head. "Tracey, members are important—don't get me wrong. But the people we work with are important too. And if we constantly create headaches for them because we're behind or dropping the ball, they're not going to support us when we really need them."

Tracey was quiet for a moment. "Well, you're the boss. What should I do with member questions for right now?"

"Do you feel comfortable fitting them into your priority list for the week?" Dan asked.  Dan needs to communicate his expectations of Tracey clearly, help her set priorities, and establish firm deadlines. A good start may be specific directions, including setting timetables. Their weekly "huddle" meeting sounds like a good first step, but more is needed. Dan's concern that "sometimes the meetings seem to help, while other times, not so much," isn't helping the situation, and may be putting himself, Tracey, and the association in jeopardy. Dan needs to take things to the next step and create true accountability with Tracey.—CV

"The routine ones, I guess. But for the other ones, what should I do?"

"Always acknowledge them within 24 hours if you can, even if you don't have a final answer yet," Dan said. "And if you're not sure how to respond to someone, just let me know. We can talk about it."

"OK," said Tracey. She picked up her pencil and notepad. "Are we all set?"

"Yep," said Dan. "All set."

Living to Serve

"I assume you talked to Tracey," said Cameron, as he and Dan walked out to the parking lot together. "She's seemed pretty droopy all week."

"I know," said Dan, with a sigh. "I kind of feel like I kicked a puppy. Or stole her puppy."

"Do you think she understood the problem?" asked Cameron.

"I think I misunderstood the problem," said Dan. "The more I think about it, the more I think that it wasn't that she didn't understand how to prioritize. The problem is that she's a junkie."

"What?" asked Cameron, raising an eyebrow at Dan.

"A member-service junkie.  The reality is, if Tracey doesn't stay on track with her priorities and gives in to being a "member-service junkie" or only doing the work she likes, she isn't serving her association well. Providing additional supervision and support to an employee who's an overfunctioner, like Tracey, may lead to success in attaining the overarching organizational goals and priorities, including appropriate, excellent member service.—CV She loves coming in and being a big hero. And she loves the variety and the deadline pressure, you know? It's a lot more fun than checking BEOs or answering routine questions. She just doesn't like her regular job as much as she likes pulling a rabbit out of her hat."

"Well, is there a way for her to have both?" Cameron asked.

Dan pulled his car keys out of his pocket. "I don't know, man. I wish there was, but I'm not sure. And the stuff I need from her the most is the stuff she seems to like the least."  Or maybe Tracey and Dan are not able to step away from the issue at hand and look for a way to do both.—MPC  

Lisa Junker, CAE, is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, is senior director, education and meetings, with the American Academy of Otolaryngology in Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Carol Vernon is a certified executive coach and leadership and communications trainer at Yale's Campaign School for Women. She serves on the ASAE & The Center Professional Development Section Council and Membership Action Team. She spent more than 10 years working in associations and today coaches association leaders and their teams to greater individual and team effectiveness. Email: [email protected]

This article is part of a series of fictional case studies developed for Associations Now. All people, places, and photocopied handouts contained herein are hypothetical and based entirely on the imagination of the author. No real events are intentionally reflected.

What Should Dan and Tracey Do Next?

This case study is the third of a six-part series of articles that will focus around the (fictional) staff of NSTS. Is there a middle ground between Tracey's desire to go above and beyond with member service and Dan's interest in making the trains run on time? Share your thoughts in the comments below. For the previous parts in the series of case studies, see