Schedule Some Time at the Front Desk

I have a question for association, membership and marketing execs: How often do you pick up the phone at the front desk or in the call center?

nina simon tweet re working at the front desk

Nina Simon is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and blogs at Museum 2.0. Her “guilty pleasure” is a smart idea. She also told me she spends about ten hours a month in the galleries with visitors. That’s like a free focus group!

Imagine how those visitors feel when she talks with them. The museum is no longer an intimidating institution – although I’m sure her museum has never been considered that during her watch – her friendly face is the face of the museum.

Those of you who work in a small associations, you’re excused from this exercise since you probably answer the main line as much as anyone else in the office. But if you work in an association that has a dedicated call center or member service team, you probably only receive calls that are direct-dialed or forwarded to you. That’s a shame because you’re missing out on a convenient, cheap way to understand what’s on the mind of your members and other stakeholders.

If you don’t have the time, budget, or inclination to spend a day in the life of your member, then spend 30 minutes every few weeks in your call center. The experience will give you an opportunity to listen, ask questions, and even lay the foundation for further conversation with members you probably don’t know.

You will also set a positive example for your staff by spending time getting to know members. Let them see you on the frontline making the effort to learn about member needs and concerns. Your example could convince them to build similar activities into their week, like calling new members to welcome them to the association and learn more about their expectations, needs, and aspirations. Or, calling “old” members to find out what’s on their mind.

This simple 30-minute task is one you can put into your schedule right now. And it’s a small step that can nudge your organization’s culture into a new direction.

phone calls with members

The Mark of Cain on Association Management

The last few nights I’ve watched news stories about Herman Cain and the National Restaurant Association (NRA). I can’t help thinking about the whole ugly situation through an association management lens. I’m not going to dive into the details or the political ramifications, and I certainly don’t intend to express any political opinions in this post. I’m assuming the best and the worst to get a complete picture for purely hypothetical reasons.

Imagine, instead of the NRA, this is your association. A never-ending story about one of your past CEOs (or elected volunteer leader) ends up on the nightly news. I’m sure it’s happened before, but I doubt the past CEO was running for president.

I feel bad for the NRA staff. You know everyone there is getting the third degree from their family and friends. Even though they’re in the spotlight dealing with a haunting situation from the past, work goes on — trade shows, educational sessions, publications, lobbying, research, event planning, member service – it doesn’t stop.

The story is still unfolding but I can’t wait. I keep thinking about all the issues it raises. It provides an opportunity to step back and say, “What if this was us?”

Crisis management

Above all, it’s a story about crisis management and communication. I haven’t been paying close enough attention to know how the NRA has handled that, but I’m not writing about them, so it doesn’t matter for my purpose. Every PR professional and CAE candidate knows you need to have a crisis management plan, just like you need disaster recovery and business continuity plans.

You also need to be out in front when a crisis hits. With social media, it doesn’t take long for a rumor to turn into a full-blown disaster. Even if you’re not participating in social media, you better be monitoring social media. You’d think everyone would know this by now, but I’m sure there are some organizations that don’t even have Google Alerts on their name.

I can only imagine the tension at NRA. I’m sure the HR and executive teams are in constant meeting mode. How stressful. I hope, for their sakes, they’ve been as open and honest as much as their confidentiality agreements allow. We see how Cain suffered because he didn’t appear as forthcoming and transparent as he should have.

Make sure your staff is informed about their roles and responsibilities during a crisis and they know what’s at stake for the association mission and members. At NAHB we had an ugly episode: someone on staff was hounded by an angry group for his part on a non-profit board – a board completely unrelated to the homebuilding industry. We expected protests and media at our front door. I don’t recall anything awful occurring, but we were ready. Everyone was informed enough to understand the situation and reminded about what to do if approached or contacted by anyone.

Brand management

I got really peeved off by some of the coverage of the NRA, especially when a ratings-hungry commentator portrayed the NRA only as the representative of national corporations, like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. He called for viewers to boycott NRA members while showing a dozen member logos (mostly fast food) and a headshot of NRA’s CEO. I guess he doesn’t care about all the employees whose earnings depend on those chains. I’m sensitive about this because I know from personal membership experience that NRA also represents, assists and educates smaller restaurants, like the independently-owned one I used to manage.

No matter what you think about the NRA, brand identity is the issue here. Is it clear from your homepage and other online outposts who your members are? What they contribute to the economy and community? Could you appear more human? Relatable? Likeable? Don’t be an easy target for rabble-rousers.

Culture and counsel

Innocent or guilty, the fact that there were three allegations of sexual harassment has to give you pause, even if they’re all baseless. I can’t help thinking, what type of culture leads to this? Or maybe all was well and this is just a case of three messed-up work relationships and the resulting misperceptions. One commentator asked Cain if he was the kind of CEO who made awkward comments to employees and didn’t know it. For the record, he did say “no,” but seriously, would he even know?

If those allegations were true, why didn’t anyone say anything to him about how others perceived his behavior? Because he’s the boss? Bring in the board chair to counsel him.

It’s an ugly situation. Maybe someday a brave soul from the NRA will do a conference session about how they handled it and lessons learned. Yuck. I wish everyone over there a hasty return to business as usual.

What other association management lessons are you seeing in this story?

Social Media Monitoring: Are You Listening to Me?

Social media dwellers, yes, that’s me, throw the term “listen” around as if everyone knows what we’re talking about. Listening in a social media context means using tools to monitor the mentions of your name, your username, your company and other keywords. When you listen, you become aware of these mentions and therefore any conversation about you or aimed at you. You have the opportunity to be part of the conversation, instead of being oblivious.

Sometimes when I tweet to an infrequent or untrained Twitter user, it’s like tweeting into the void. I never hear back from them, or I hear back a week later and by then I can’t remember why I tweeted at them in the first place. They’re not listening.

This problem is complicated by Twitter’s technical bugs. I heard that Twitter missed many Mentions this past weekend — tweets mentioning your username or directed to your username. Twitter’s API, the programming interface allowing Twitter to talk to applications like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck, had problems again – growing pains. If someone directed a tweet at me this weekend with the @ symbol or mentioned my username, it might not have shown up in my Mentions column. I would have never known that someone tweeted me or that I was a subject of conversation unless I was listening, which I was.

It’s hard to have a conversation when the other person’s not listening. There are dozens of monitoring tools out there – basic ones are free and more sophisticated ones come at a price. Here are some free tools that work well for individuals or for organizations just getting started in social media.


Google Alerts

Even if you don’t use social media, I recommend you create Google Alerts for your name, company name and other keywords like the name of your blog, products, events and publications. You’ll be notified when your name shows up in blog posts, tweets and websites. If you use Twitter, create Google Alerts for your Twitter username. If you have a commonly misspelled name like mine, create searches for the frequent misspellings. In Google Alerts, select the option for real-time (as-it-happens) search results to be delivered in Feed format to your Google Reader.

Twitter Search

The first step to listening on Twitter is reading your @Mentions tab on the Twitter site or, if you use Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, reading your Mentions column. Keep this column where you can see it. Do the same for your Direct Messages tab or column. I also set my UberSocial mobile application to alert me when I get a Mention or Direct Message.

Twitter search is not what it used to be. At times it only goes back a few days. That’s why it’s better to get real-time search results sent to you instead of relying on the web page to show you results. Go to the advanced Twitter search page and create searches for your name and other keywords. Then click on the orange RSS icon to create and send a feed for each search to your Google Reader.


Lots of conversation happens in blog comments, possibly about you or your organization. I use these tools to keep up with mentions of my name and blog:

URL Twitter Mentions

You could set up a Twitter search or Google Alert on your blog’s domain but it won’t capture any tweets that use a shortened URL, like a or address. My favorite URL Twitter search tool is now Topsy. You can register your domains with Topsy and it will alert you when a blog post with your domain has been tweeted. It’s a great way to find all the tweets mentioning your posts. I find tweets via Topsy that other tools don’t catch. A similar tool is Backtweets but I’m not as in love with that one.

Twitter Favorites

If you’re curious to see which of your tweets are being Favorited by others, create an alert with to have alerts sent to your Reader.

Want to Learn More?

Here are a few additional resources to get you started.

Listening is just the first step. Now that you’re aware of the conversation about you or your organization, what are you going to do?

Your Turn

I’ve shared the free tools that I use, what about you?

  • What other free tools do you use to monitor your name?
  • Do any of these tools have shortcomings that bother you?
  • What about tools that search discussion forums or boards, like BoardTracker or BoardReader? Do you use them?
  • Do you use any Facebook-specific tools?

I Wasn’t Expecting That Reaction

I had a moment of bliss watching The Who perform last night at the Super Bowl halftime. I have loved The Who since junior high and remained an obsessive fan through high school, college and some years beyond – the type that had all their albums plus bootlegs (yes, this dates me), camped out for tickets and knew all kinds of arcane facts about them.

Last night I was just a normal fan grinning ear to ear (and got a bit misty-eyed, I admit) as they played. I didn’t expect a dynamo performance, after all Roger and Pete are well into their 60s, the only survivors of the original four, and can’t quite sing and move like they used to. But, in my opinion, they can still rock — Pete doing his windmill chords and Roger singing with passion. After the bliss and a bit of friendly sparring on Twitter about old rockers, I saw a retweet of this tweet from the National Association of the Deaf:

The phrase in question is from Pinball Wizard, a song from The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy. Tommy became blind, deaf and mute shortly after World War 2 and most of the opera took place in the twenty or so years that followed. We will all have different opinions on whether the phrase is offensive or not, whether the context matters or not and, based on that, whether the NAD overreacted or not. I want to concentrate on how the association reacted and what we can learn from that.

Their tweet got a response – about 37 people so far have retweeted or responded to it, most of them with disparaging remarks. NAD is not a complete social media rookie. They created their Twitter account last June and have 1064 followers. They also have an active Facebook page and a blog (no recent updates). Their web site has recent updates about their work with the NFL and CBS “to make advertisers who purchase Super Bowl commercials aware of the importance of captioning their content.” They do important work and are good at it.

This morning I found myself thinking again about their Twitter reaction and some issues it brings up. First, unfortunately, there’s the dreaded control issue. Did the staffer who tweeted have to seek approval before saying “the NAD will take action?” Were they authorized to say that? And if so, how did they manage to get approval so quickly? Or were they just reacting? Does NAD have guidelines for social media use? Do NAD members agree with this reaction? Only three tweets out of the 36 appear to support the NAD position. The members were not there defending them. Could this happen to your association?

And what’s the best response now? They could ignore the whole situation. 36 tweets is by no means a public outcry, although there is the possibility that someone with a much larger following than me could be writing about it right now and bring more attention to it. But more likely it’s only the prickly Who fans who care.

NAD could reply by explaining their reaction and giving us context as to why that reaction makes sense for their community. Perhaps discussing the history of their advocacy, the struggles and victories, and the need to pay attention to how we describe others. Turn it into a lesson for us. That’s hard to do in 140 characters but they could link their replies to a blog post. But 20 hours later, that hasn’t happened.

Let’s assume for a moment and for argument’s sake that this tweet was a mistake. What can we learn from this? We all make mistakes. Twitter is a fairly new evolving communication platform often blending our personal and professional lives – things can get sticky. I reacted as a Who fan, not as an association professional. Perhaps I should have ignored the RT and given them a pass, considering they’re an association and have enough battles to fight. But I couldn’t help but react – it seemed so ridiculous and wasteful to pick a battle with a 41 year old lyric. I can’t stand how litigious our society has become. I understand that sometimes legal action is appropriate, but this seemed over the top to me.

Mistakes will happen. What’s critical is how we follow up and whether we learn from our mistakes. Twitter is a public platform that’s indexed by Google, so there are more eyeballs than you might imagine who can see how you handle a situation. A mistake is an opportunity to do many different things, depending on the situation — make apologies and amends, explain a complicated or controversial issue, make friends or not. How we handle public mistakes will influence the perception that our members and the public have of us. Mistakes also help us learn how to improve our social media practices so we don’t make the same ones again.

Part of what draws us to social networking is the opportunity to learn from each other. Here’s an opportunity to imagine what you would do in their place – what if the tweet got more publicity, how you would handle the situation? How would you have prevented it? Has your association ever made what others thought was a public gaffe, and if so, how did you handle it? What did you learn?

UPDATE February 26, 2009: Thanks to Jessica Sidman at Association & Non-Profit Bisnow newsletter for doing some follow-up reporting for me. She told me about a February 25 blog post (and forthcoming video response) by NAD’s president where she explains their reasons for the Twitter reaction. They definitely did their research on the lyrics and Tommy story. The post is a good explanation with a call to action for their members to remain vigilant and educate others about how the appropriate use of the word “deaf.”

Kudos to them for the well reasoned and written response. How could they have done better? If they had posted their response earlier, it might have captured some Super Bowl momentum, and perhaps some press too. But associations are creaky institutions. We have procedures to follow, reviews and approvals, and maybe even a vote before we can take action. Our governance and departmental processes often prevent us from moving nimbly enough for the social media space.

[Flickr photos of Pete and Roger by kubacheck]

Be a Renegade – Bringing Social Media to Your Association

I know that there are many association mid-level staffers (managers, directors, etc.) who are personally engaged in social media and believe that their association could benefit from it. However they are not in a position to lead their association there. What do they do? How can they somehow work the system and get their leadership to see that social media can help their association achieve its goals and so much more?

First, they need to look over their association’s strategic plan (or mission, goals, etc.) and see where social media can fit in as another tool or strategy to achieve those goals. Pay particular attention to these areas as they can all be enhanced by social media: advocacy, public relations, member recruitment, member engagement/retention, member communication, education and events.

Set up some Google Alerts on your association’s name, acronym, and variation of name, publications, conference/trade show, chapter acronyms, competitor name/acronym, and any other keywords that will help you to listen in on what people are saying out there. Set up a Twitter Search on the same terms. You can set up RSS feeds for all of these so that you can receive the alerts and search results automatically. I use Google Reader to get my RSS feeds.

Export your member and staff list, or if that is too cumbersome, export a list of your leadership, committee members, and show/meeting attendees. Be mindful that this will exclude those whom you probably would most like to know better – your “mailbox” members (that old term should be replaced!). Upload your list to Facebook and LinkedIn, and then to a Gmail account and have Twitter search that network for you. Find out who is active and what’s on their mind. Do a lot of listening.

Also do a search for some of your leadership’s peers (both staff and members), your association’s competitors and other associations that are similar in member type to yours. Are they involved in social media? These examples can be helpful later when trying to sell your leadership on social media.

Then make a plan. Review your organization’s goals or strategic plan and note how social media tools (starting with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) might help your association achieve those goals. Only plan to take on one of these tools at a time – baby steps. Remember, you can’t just create a presence and walk away, you need to stay engaged, and that takes time and effort. Break your plan down into immediate, short-term and long-term ideas, keeping in mind that your plan will change as your association learns.

Try not to go it alone. Talk to some of the staff whom you discovered are involved in social networking. Bear in mind that many will not want their personal social media life to be known at work but they can be allies and advisors to you. Contact some of the members and ask them for advice. Tell them that you are “going renegade” and investigating options to further your association’s goals through social media – you’re just in the research phase. Ask their advice and if they would like to help. Take advantage of this intelligence-gathering opportunity – you can find out a lot about their real perception of the association, what they want/need, how they envision their association.

This is a lot of work but you will learn much from it. A huge concern to any CEO about social media is the amount of time it requires. This is a valid concern and one that you should be ready to address. It’s why I haven’t mentioned blogging as part of this plan, although it may be something to consider depending on your association’s resources. Another reason to have allies amongst staff is that you may already have in place others who can assist with this effort. Social media can not belong to one department alone. It must be integrated across many departments and can be an aid in breaking down departmental silos since it will require collaboration.

Here are some recent posts that will help you prepare for this task and for the nay-sayers.

What else does someone need to do before they bring their ideas (and a plan) to the big guns? Some of you have gone through this at your association. What advice do you have?

Everything I Know About Social Media, I Learned As A Restaurant Manager

Ok, not entirely true. I’ve learned a lot from books, blogs, Twitter, webinars and practice. But once during an Awareness Inc. webinar David Carter said, “Everything I learned about social media, I learned as a waiter.” I don’t think he expected anyone to put as much weight into that sentence as I did. It dawned on me that part of the reason I took so wholeheartedly to social media is that I’ve been operating with its principles for years. I’m going to examine some of these principles in restaurant terms, but they apply to any organization.

Word-of-mouth marketing

It’s the most effective (or potentially destructive) marketing tool for restaurants, as it is for all companies and organizations. Being the hot new place is great, but the buzz will fade unless we back it up with food and service that’s worth talking about, for years. We want to be the place that tourists mention to others traveling to our city, that friends talk about at parties, and that colleagues discuss at work. We are also aware of the lasting power of negative word-of-mouth.

Integrity at all costs

Never ever lie or mislead your staff or guests. Be honest and trustworthy. If your salmon is farmed, admit it, don’t pretend it’s wild. If you anticipate an hour wait for a table, disclose it, don’t fool them into thinking it will only be 30 minutes. Don’t date your cocktail waitresses. Have high standards. Do what’s right, always.

(photo by staxnet/Flickr)
(photo by staxnet/Flickr)

The customer is right, even when they’re not

We cringe at that old phrase, but the customer’s perception is their reality. You have to start from there. If someone has a bad experience and isn’t satisfied with our response, we have just created a walking nightmare. However, we can turn them into a raving evangelist if we figure out the right thing to do for them, and then do a little more. This is no time for egos. It’s about them, not us. How do we fix it?

It’s all about relationships

What does every restaurant want? Repeat guests. One visit is appreciated, but we can’t succeed for long if they only come once. We can make that easier if we create relationships. Be a personality not a brand.

  • Welcome your new guests. They’re taking a chance on you — make them feel appreciated and comfortable.
  • Nurture your regulars — your evangelists. They will do your marketing for you –- reward them for that. Stroke their egos in front of their friends. Give them special treatment.
  • Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated. Even better, the way you would like your grandmother to be treated – the golden rule.

Look and listen

  • Scan the room. Are your guests happy to be here? Look at their faces, their body language, their interactions, and their tables. Anticipate their needs –- that’s the key.
  • Listen to what people are saying about you and respond to it, the good and the bad. Accept criticism and learn from it. Put your pride and ego aside and make things right.

Your staff determines your success

  • Trust your gut when you hire staff. Do they want to learn? Do they really like people? Are they positive personalities? Do they care?
  • Educate your staff. Create a culture of knowledge that they will share with guests. Encourage and recognize those who demonstrate that knowledge. We had oyster-tasting contests, wine and beer seminars, and fish school. We made it fun and ended up with the smartest and most loyal wait staff in town.
  • Trust and empower your staff. Give them guidelines to follow so they can make customer service decisions on the spot. If you’ve done right by them up to now, they’ll do the right thing.

Pay it forward

Be a good citizen. Give back to the community that supports your business. Join your local chamber or business group. Find a cause that you and your staff feel passionate about and partner with that organization to raise funds and awareness. Show the world that you are more than just a brand or a storefront; you have a personality and a heart.

Were you thinking about your customers or members when you read this? If not, go back and translate these restaurant scenarios into your organization’s perspective. Before incorporating social media into your culture, make sure you are comfortable with these principles. They’ve been around forever, but in the new Web 2.0 world, you can’t succeed without them.

%d bloggers like this: