Ben Grill is Managing Director at The Insights Grill, Mahlab’s research partner since 2016. Here, he explains why it is so important for associations to be asking questions of their members right now — and the best questions to ask.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the importance of organisations having empathy for their customers right now. However, there still seems to be confusion between the meaning of empathy versus sympathy

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as: 

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

And it defines sympathy as: 

An expression of understanding and care for someone else’s suffering.

Most brands today are inadvertently expressing sympathy for their customers: offering free access to online tools or special store hours for vulnerable people, or allowing delayed mortgage payments. Those are all great initiatives, but the organisations that are going to come out of this COVID-19 era with the biggest competitive advantage will be those who come from a place of empathy and more deeply understand their customers’ evolving needs, goals and opportunities. 

So how do associations develop that ability to “share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”? 

At the very least, you brainstorm with colleagues to create what’s called an empathy map. An online tool called MURAL is one I’ve found extremely user-friendly for this task, great for long-distance collaborating, and very affordable.   

However the best way to develop empathy is to actually speak with your association’s members. 

You might be reluctant to reach out and ask them for their time right now, but market research companies are finding people more willing to talk than usual because: a) many actually have extra time on their hands; b) they’re looking for someone (outside their home) to talk to and share their experiences with; c) if you’re offering an incentive (e.g. a voucher, a chance to win, a discount on membership or free ticket to an online training) people are more eager to chat.

Here are eight questions every association should be asking its members to develop empathy:

  1. What is life like for you right now?
    Context is everything. By understanding your association members’ lives first, you can start to understand the behaviours and decisions that follow. It also helps to dissolve your own biases: Don’t assume what you’re going through is anything like your members’ experiences.
  2. What have other organisations you interact with done during COVID-19 that you’ve found useful and why?
    This question gives you perspective on what’s already being done and why they find value in it. It might also give you insight into what competitors are doing — from your usual set of competitors to the unexpected ones you need to keep on your radar.
  3. What is our association doing or providing that gives you the most value right now and why?
    Creating value for members is at the heart of associations, and what is valuable in May 2020 is likely to be different from what was most valuable in May 2019. Plus, this gives you a chance to understand if your recent COVID-19 pivots are working or not.
  4. Conversely, what membership benefits are of less value to you right now and why? What has decreased in value to you right now and why?
    As associations seek cost-cutting measures — from temporary to permanent — this question will help you understand where to direct less time and fewer budget resources.
  5. Do you intend to renew your membership? Why or why not?
    This question might be scary to ask, but wouldn’t you rather know than not know if a member intends to leave? And, ideally, what you would need to do to retain the relationship? Your churn rate will no doubt be higher in 2020; do everything you can to mitigate it head on.
  6. What can we do to best serve you right now and why? 
    All ideas are welcome! Serving members is what every association must do to stay in business. Asking this question straight will either elicit new ideas to implement as soon as possible, or confirm you are on the right track.
  7. What would you like to see us do differently post-COVID19?
    This period is an opportunity for associations to reimagine what their future might look like. Expect a lot of reinvention to happen. For instance, continuing professional development training might play a greater role as industries emerge with new standards post-COVID19.
  8. What are the best ways to reach you going forward?
    This is a very tactical question, but, as people are stood down or changing jobs, their work email address may no longer be accessible — and you will need a way to continue reaching them, be it by email, social media, phone or direct mail. Connect on as many channels as possible.    

How to do this research with members right now
You might go the DIY route and assign a project owner to have these conversations with your members. Alternatively, research agencies can help your members feel more willing to share their viewpoint in complete confidentiality. You could also work with a partner who could take that research and identify content opportunities that can create more value for members. 

Either way, the greatest risk you can take right now is to assume you know what’s going on in members’ minds. Make sure you are talking with them, not just to them. 

Like all businesses, associations are in a highly reactive mode right now as they adjust to the huge changes thrust upon them. But speaking with members and having a deeper level of empathy for them will allow associations to be a lot more proactive in managing their own destiny beyond COVID-19.

 

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