Member Concierge: A Phone Call to Every New Member

By: Joe Rominiecki

What does it take to make personal phone calls to 1,000 new members in a year? And is it worthwhile? Terry Fong at the California Dental Association can tell you, with a smile. [Titled "Calling All Members" in the print edition.]

If you need anything at the California Dental Association, Terry Fong can help you find it—including your favorite pen.

As CDA's "member concierge," it's her job. She spends her day calling new members—each and every one, about 1,000 in a year—to welcome them to the association and ask "Is there anything we can do for you?"

Normally, the responses pertain to CDA's myriad services or in-house expertise. Except for "Dr. Pen." He loved a pen—the grip, specifically, he said—that he'd gotten from CDA and wanted another one. So Fong went "on a field trip" to find the pens, and she sent him half a dozen. It was a minor request but a chance to earn a few loyalty points with a member nonetheless.

"I've made some real friends through this process," Fong says. And that's the goal. Fong is devoted full time to being the primary point of contact for first-year members at CDA. It's a new role the association created in 2012, an ambitious effort to buttress its yearlong member onboarding program with more personalized relationships.

But how personalized can one association employee's relationship be with as many as 1,000 members? Would calling them all personally have a positive impact on engagement and renewals among first-year members? There was only one way to find out.

Welcoming Members, One by One

Since February 2012, Fong's Mondays have started with a printout of the previous week's new members, followed by placing a phone call to each one. "I try to, in two days, pound through those calls. So I could be making anywhere from 10 to 20 calls a day," she says.

She speaks with about 60 percent of the members she calls, usually for three to five minutes each. During the call, she gathers some key information that has normally been difficult to capture in an online form, such as employment status, key interests, reason for joining, and languages spoken. All of this then goes into CDA's member database.

Happy Employees, Better Service

The attitude and energy required of concierge-level service make it a job that few are genuinely cut out for—and genuine is a crucial factor.

A 2006 research experiment [PDF] led by Dwayne Gremler, Ph.D., at Bowling Green State University found that, in a service setting, "the authenticity of the employee's emotional labor display, rather than the extent of smiling, influences the customer's emotions and perceptions." In other words, customers can discern, whether consciously or not, between an employee who is genuinely happy and one who is merely pretending, and interactions with genuinely happy employees lead to more positive customer emotions than interactions with pretenders.

So, hiring generally upbeat people is a start, but treating your employees well might do even more to raise your customer-service quality. Steven Brown and Son Lam of the University of Houston analyzed a collection of 28 studies on employee and customer satisfaction in 2008 and found a consistent relationship between higher levels of employee job satisfaction and higher customer service ratings, according to Academy of Management Perspectives.

MSN Money's "2012 Customer Service Hall of Fame" illustrates a similar theme. Of the companies in the top 10—such as Southwest Airlines, Marriott, Hilton, and UPS—the online news site noted, "These are companies where people want to work." It praised their relative good pay and benefits and their trust in employees to make decisions.

In any of your member-service efforts, the key to making your members happy might just be making the employees who serve them happy, as well.—J.R.

By Thursday or Friday, Fong follows up with an email to each member she spoke with and typically includes attachments or links to resources pertinent to their discussion. The call and email kick off a planned sequence of welcome messages via email and postal mail throughout the member's first year; Fong sends a check-in email to each new member at six months and one year, as well.

As time allows, Fong also sends highlights from her conversations to CDA staff. "Terry usually sends them out on Fridays. It pops in everybody's inbox, and it's the first thing you want to open up," says Conor McNulty, CAE, director of member programs. "When I'm reading it, it's that kind of recharging email, like 'OK, this is why we do what we do.'"

McNulty says Fong knows and relates to the CDA's members better than anyone else on staff. She has been with CDA for 25 years and worked as a dental hygienist for 16 years before that; meanwhile, her husband and daughter are both dentists. (Fong and her husband met in dental school.) Her colleagues call her "the dentist whisperer."

"I've been there, seen it, done it," Fong says. "When dentists call, I have a vision of what it is like in that office every day and how stressful it could be."

McNulty admits the member concierge idea didn't emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it arose at least in part because CDA was fortunate enough to have someone like Fong—both deeply familiar with its members' work and a veteran in serving them—already on board.

"I would not hire somebody off the street for this," he says.

The Value of a Personal Connection

Twenty-five years of experience is a lot to ask, but if you can find the right person for the job, an outbound calling program may be worthwhile.

About 30 percent of associations include a volunteer or staff welcome phone call among their new-member onboarding efforts, according to the 2012 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report published by Marketing General, Inc., and it notes that associations with new-member retention rates above 60 percent are "significantly more likely" to do so.

Establishing a personal connection between member and association can build loyalty. Dwayne Gremler, Ph.D., a professor at Bowling Green State University, has studied the dynamics of relationships between customers and employees in service-provider settings for nearly 20 years. He has found a demonstrable link between employees' rapport with customers and customer satisfaction and loyalty.

"Even though today where we have all this technology and all these other things firms can provide to customers, it's still amazing to me how important the interpersonal connection really is in many contexts," Gremler says.

The two key elements of rapport, he has found, are an enjoyable interaction and a personal connection. The latter can be as simple as a shared hobby or alma mater. Fong's cheery attitude and background in dentistry fit the bill.

Telemarketing isn't the most cutting-edge of marketing tactics, but in the association context, where a member already has a connection to the organization, a phone call can build a positive impression.

At the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Peg McIntyre, vice president of member service, says outbound calling has boosted revenue and retention. A portion of AICPA's member service team calls members near expiration or potential conference attendees to remind them to renew or register.

"We had a good success rate in that because when you have someone that's trained and understands the institute, not just a telemarketer or cold caller or that kind of thing selling a product, people are very interested to hear about the conference," she says. "And they're like, 'Oh, yeah, I meant to register. It just slipped by me,' or, 'I can't go to this one this year, but what can you tell me about this other one that's coming up?' So it is perceived as a value call."

Fong says her interactions with CDA members are similar. They might be initially skeptical, but they "soften up" once she explains why she's calling. "I always frame it as, 'I'm the member concierge here, and we're here to help you, and I know that you're very busy, but what I'm trying to do is collect some information here to complete a profile on you,'" she says. "That's the word I use, and they've been open to that."

Positive First Impressions

Some early signs show a positive impact from Fong's work. New-­member retention near CDA's March 2013 renewal deadline outpaced the previous year's numbers, and enrollment in CDA's professional liability insurance among new dental-school graduates increased by 17 percent.

McNulty says those signs are encouraging, but the full impact won't be known until 2012's new members reach their third year of membership and beyond. That's when CDA's "recent graduate" discounts phase out.

For now, Fong is focusing on continuing to make a positive first impression on CDA's newest members. "It's nice to come back to do the hard work with the dentist and really talk to these people on a day-to-day basis. It's brought a great deal of joy back to my work life here," she says.

Fong estimates about 5 percent of new members have called her back later in the year with other questions. These are the ones who "get it," she says. One of them is Dr. Pen. Once fully stocked with his beloved ballpoint, he called Fong with a question about demographic information for areas of Southern California. He was interested in locations to open his own dentistry practice. Fong referred him to one of CDA's practice analysts.

After the first year, CDA's main member-service line is meant to serve as members' first point of contact, but Fong says she expects to hear from some members for years to come. "I imagine that I will still have 'Dr. Pen' as one of my good friends forever," she says.

Joe Rominiecki is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.