"You Want Me to Pay More Money? Now?"

By: Stephen E. Peeler

When the American Moving and Storage Association decided to raise dues, it faced a difficult challenge in getting members to buy in, in the midst of a recession.

In mid-2009, the moving and storage business was not a popular industry to enter, but I did anyway. The economy was in decline, the housing market was stalled, and corporate relocations were at an all-time low. For the American Moving & Storage Association, all of this equated to steadily declining membership and retention numbers in the 70 percent range. A perfect time to raise dues, right?

Like many associations, AMSA bases its dues on members' annual revenues. For years, we relied on members to self-assess their annual dues. When I stepped in as vice president of membership at AMSA that June, I asked, "Why do we have nearly one third of the membership paying the lowest possible dues level?" As we aimed to compensate for the economic slowdown, we realized it was time, as Ronald Reagan once said about nuclear arms, to "trust, but verify." Of course, asking one third of our members for more money was not going to be easy.

Fortunately, we had some momentum. In 2009, the association created a consumer-protection and certification program, called ProMover, to help members stand out by giving consumers an easy way to separate reputable, professional movers from unreliable ones. The program did not generate revenue, but it did engender loyalty to the AMSA brand.

As momentum built from the ProMover program, I turned my energy toward the dues schedule. First, we held back all invoices for members above the minimum dues category or with multiple locations or branches. We then subscribed to Hoovers, a Dun & Bradstreet company that verifies revenues for most companies, including those privately held, and researched each of the companies on the target list. This identified a pool of approximately 280 members representing more than $1.2 million in potential annual dues revenue. Because several companies were expected to move their dues level up more than $10,000—and 22 others more than $20,000—AMSA's president and its CFO agreed to budget for travel to each of these members. This type of request could not be sent via email or phone.

With many multimillion-dollar members in the Washington, DC, area, I began my visits locally. I set appointments with the principals, toured their facilities, met senior staffs, and then ended our two-hour visits with a pitch for more dues money. Often, chuckling or laughing aloud was the first reaction when they reviewed the association's dues schedule; most said they only paid the invoice sent to them each year without verifying their revenues. Due to the downturn in the industry, most movers had diversified beyond household moves and asked, "Why are you counting my record-storage revenue? Why count my office- and industrial-move revenues when the association offers me no support or value for these revenues?"

After some negotiations, we arrived at a revenue and dues increase that we both felt was fair and spread the increase across three to five years. This secured buy-in to AMSA's new value proposition while allowing for a gradual increase. Because these "Large ProMovers" saw the value of a strong industry association, they were reluctant but willing to support our efforts by paying more even during difficult times. As an incentive, each was given a seat on our new Membership Advisory Task Force, launched at our March 2010 annual meeting. The task force worked with staff toward several goals, including simplifying AMSA's dues structure, creating a more inclusive organization, broadening our representation for advocacy, and expanding the ProMover brand.

In summary, we identified $2.2 million in underpayment of dues and produced additional contacts within each company to market products and services to throughout the year. Asking our members for more money in the midst of the recession was a risk and a challenge, but it forced us to focus on our value proposition in a way that put us on solid footing as the Membership Advisory Task Force began its work.

Stephen E. Peeler is vice president of membership at the American Moving & Storage Association in Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Stephen E. Peeler