Customers or Members?

Three weeks ago, I held the first Amateur Radio Club Leadership Workshop here in Ann Arbor, MI. (I’ll post more about that later.) While we were talking about member retention, one of the attendees said that we need to think of the members as “customers.”

I suppose that I used to think like that, too. Give the customers what they want, and they’ll keep coming back. Now, I’m not so sure that is a good way of looking at things. There are some major differences between customers and members.

For one thing, there is a certain sense of entitlement about being a customer. A customer hands over some money, and in return, expects to receive a product or service. Do you want members like that? Don’t you want to get members to actively participate in your activities and not just consume them? If you have customers instead of members, doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on you to make sure the “product” is as attractive as possible to the “customers”?

A customer is in no way responsible to a business, but a member is responsible for the organization he or she belongs to. He should be, at least. If not, then why be a member?

The challenge is how to encourage that sense of membership, that sense of ownership. I don’t have the answer to that. What do you think?


  1. I know what you mean, I filled out an an application online 2-23 and paid the $25.00 fee with the application. A week later I got a paper copy of the application in the mail which I filled out and returned. Today is 3-20 and other than an email response 2 weeks ago from the secretary to my question.”Will be acted upon at the next board meeting” I have yet to hear anything. Really makes a new member feel welcome!

  2. You are on the right track. Unlike customers, good members will have something to offer, something to “give back,” but like customers, there is still some selling involved. You need to sell the members on the idea of coming to meetings and events. Two of the best ways to accomplish that (while treating them like customers) is to “give them what they want” – good trainings and presentations at meetings, and some good events to work at and practifce their skills, plus some social events. Meetings should not just be getting together, even at a restaurant and going over the same stuff each week.

  3. Robbie kk4hti says:

    I think you’re right on the money Dan. I think “members” are like any volunteer organization where “ownership” is the key to meaningful participation. Whether it’s the local ham club or a charitable group like the Red Cross, without that feeling of belonging, the group will go no where and eventually collapse. I agree with Tom that, to a certain extent, you will have to “give them what they want”. Although a fine line must be walked, giving them what they want must not be the “customer experience” but instead an “ownership” experience in that they must become involved in the delivery of the “product” themselves for the organization to grow.

  4. My view is that thinking of a radio club as a business that serves customers is generally misguided. It can lead to the officers of the club trying to do everything on behalf of the members, er…customers. It also reinforces the notion that the members don’t need to contribute their own time and energy.

    A better model is to think in terms of “leadership”. A good club does need leadership and it needs to happen in a way that engages the hearts and minds of the members. But its more about harnessing the skills, talents and interests of the members than just serving them as customers.

    More thoughts here:

  5. Robbie kk4hti says:

    Bob, I went to your blog. Your rules are perfect!

  6. Jack Ciaccia, WM0G says:

    I believe our ‘customers’ to be more like the customers of a Costco or Sam’s Club… ‘member customers’, somewhat different than a customer as we normally think of, like one who shops at a typical retail outlet.

    OK, now that distinction being said, member customers expect a good variety of ‘products’ to be available for their subscription membership. The same can be said of ham radio clubs. If your going to pay a fee to join then there should be some reason to belong to that club. A variety of ‘products’, so to speak.

    I have bought into this concept and our ham radio club (Boulder Amateur Radio Club, Boulder, CO) has grown exponentially over the last few years. Now boasting over 200 members with very little attrition from year to year.

    What I believe is that clubs need to offer as many different activities and events that is physically or financially possible. Products we offer to our prospective and existing members include:

    1. Monthly newsletter available as a pdf file.
    2. Monthly meetings with planned, interesting programs
    3. Web page with current updates
    4. VHF repeater
    5. UHF repeater
    6. D-Star repeater
    7. IRLP/Echolink repeater
    8. ATV repeater
    9. HF/VHF remote station
    10. A second HF Remote station w/contest grade antennas
    11. E-mail list sever w/monthly calendar notifications
    12. Youth Club (BARC Jrs.)
    13. Annual scholarship for area ham/students ($2000/yr)
    14. Young Hams 2M weekly net (open to all)
    15. Weekly VHF social net (open to all)
    16. Weekly ATV net w/ 2M voice participation
    17. Annual regional swapfest (BARCfest)
    18. Annual club picnic/BBQ (paid by club)
    19. Annual Field Day station (plus separate Field Day station/site for BARC Jrs.)
    20. Annual Holiday Dinner (individually paid)
    21. Annual club tailgate swap event
    22. Club meetings are available live via uStream for members that can’t make meetings
    23. All club meeting programs are video captured and CDs are available to membership
    24. Radio club room with test equipment available for use or loan.
    25. Radio club room with library of CD based magazines and programs available for members.
    26. Dues are fixed at $20/year for individuals and family ham members in same household
    27. Monthly VE Exams – walk-in
    28. Technician and General Class courses available quarterly or as-needed
    29. Two homebrew nights/year (show and tell)

    We have a lot of items to offer our existing club members or prospective members, and all of this didn’t happen overnight. But, it can be done as budgets and treasury allow depending on the priorities of the leadership and member inputs. As the club grows, the treasury grows along with it and the offering possibilities become more varied. The club membership must be organized enough so that members are willing to serve on committees for activities or being offered and supported. As we all know apathy can run rampant in ham radio clubs not dynamically changing.

    Where do we get our membership from? We grow a few of them through our investment into our youth club. Once they reach 18 years of age they can become BARC regular members and their first year of ARRL membership would be paid by the club.

    I would be glad to discuss individual concerns and ideas about clubs and member recruiting with anyone.

    Jack Ciaccia, WMØG

  7. Ron KC9UUU says:

    I think members would be a better term . Customers are not part of anything. Members are part of it because they have an interest in it and would be more helpful to the purpose.

  8. David KD2BTM says:

    Having been on the board of several “member/volunteer” not-for profit organizations I agree with you 110%. Customers want to pay for services and nothing more. Their attitude is “I pay dues that should be enough.”

    Even many members have a similar mind set; I’ll be a member but, let the other guy do the work I’m too busy.

    If there were an easy solution, this problem wouldn’t be so pervasive in member organizations. I think members who do get involved do so because they want to feel they are part of a “family” group with common interests. And they like the people they meet and get to know within group.

    I think this implies a social connection. So, do we need group activities of a social nature in addition to the monthly club meeting with a technical theme? Probably that answer needs to come from social scientists. I wonder what studies have been done on the subject.

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