Backward Approach to Conducting a Member Opinion Study

By Roger Hietbrink, Founder and Principal Consultant, Cornerstone Decision Support

Conducting a study of member opinion starts with a "need-to-know." The most common need is, "Are my members satisfied with their club experience?" The least reliable way to get this information is through random comments made by membersduring day-to-day interaction. This vocal minority may or may not be representative of the membership as a whole. There are many methods available that are more reliable.

An easy way to prepare for a member opinion study is to think backward! Whether it's a study about overall satisfaction or interest in a new service you want to offer ask yourself the following questions:

  • What will I do with the answers I get from an opinion study?
  • What answers do I need?
  • What questions will I need to ask to get the need to know information?
  • Who should be asked these questions?
  • How should I collect the member opinions?
  • How should I analyze the information?

If your "need-to-know" is not clear don't do a study until it is! Avoid asking "nice-to-know" questions that will not contribute to management decisions you need to know how you will use the information you get from any question. Many clubs use the study findings for committee guidance. Some use the findings to help the board make policy decisions. A member opinion study can take most of the guesswork out of decision-making. Successful club management is a combination of science and art. Use the science to help you make choices; use your artful style to decide how to communicate your decisions.

If it is member satisfaction that you "need-to-know," decide what aspects contribute to overall satisfaction with the member experience of an amenity and ask how satisfied members are with each aspect. For example, food and beverage satisfaction is strongly influenced by food quality and staff service, two of many influencing variables. Don't wear out your members; investigate the fewest variables that will lead to important decisions.

There are essentially two types of opinion studies. The first is qualitative and uses "word answers" to reveal how a person thinks or feels about a topic. It does not represent the opinions of anyone other than the person giving the opinion. It's best to conduct this type of "qualitative interview" in person to explore the issues that may need investigation on a club-wide basis. Such one-on-one and focus group interviews help develop the second type of quantitative questions. These questions use a scale where numbers are assigned to semantic response options such as "very satisfied" or "very dissatisfied" to convey opinion. Quantitative questions enable the analysis of opinion within a large group, such as 'all golfers' or 'all members.'

A well-crafted survey instrument is vital to the outcome of your study. Have a qualified researcher design your survey that guards against the various types of bias that can distort your findings.

Study opinions of members who possess the information you need. For example, it you want to strengthen your new-member assimilation process, study the opinion of those who have joined within the past year. Another example is with a club's child care service. While many like to weigh in with an opinion, restrict the study to those who currently use that service. If not, you will get more "hear-say" information versus qualified user opinions.

Many members still like paper questionnaires; however, more and more are becoming adept at using the Internet, which makes online questionnaires easy and less expensive to use. The larger the study sample, the better the analytical options, so consider offering both paper and online options. For best results in qualitative studies, use a trained objective interviewer or facilitator to collect this information in person or over the phone.

The value of a member opinion study is in the analysis and interpretation. Consequently, judgments about differences in opinion among member segments can lead to decisions about operational changes. A scientific analysis process involves statistical testing to reveal whether mean scores from member segments that look different are truly different. While many of the online data collection tools are convenient and inexpensive, they fail to provide the statistical tools that reveal important insights that can prevent misinterpretation and incorrect decisions.

Many consider the analysis and report to be the conclusion of a study. However, it's only the beginning of the reason for doing the study which is to make decisions based on scientific research. The board is usually the first to see the report and hear the consultant's presentation, followed by the anagement staff. In each, the group is facilitated by the consultant to discuss what they interpret the study to be telling them and what actions are implied. Finally, the membership receives a two-page summary and, in most cases, a presentation of the findings, when appropriate. And, subsequent club newsletter articles can then inform members how the study findings have led to improving the club.

After all, members like to know that their opinion counts!

The Value of Opinion Research in Strategic Planning

By Roger Hietbrink, Founder and Principal Consultant, Cornerstone Decision Support, Inc.

Strategy formulation is critical in today's challenging club industry, which serves members of different ages with diverse expectations. Decisions about how to deploy club resources over a five-year period to fulfill the mission, satisfy member expectations, and attract new members requires different types of input. Opinion research is a key source of planning information and market intelligence that leads to better strategic and operational decisions.

A goal common to every club is value creation, a fundamental principle in market-based management. Club resources (revenue, facilities, and staff) must be used to create social and recreational programming that is of higher value than the available alternatives. Opinion research, such as focus group interviews and surveys, offers club boards and managers valuable insight into what's most important to members when judging value and how satisfied they are with elements that contribute to a valuable membership experience.

Strategic planning committees need reliable information from interviews and surveys with members, club leaders, and managers to identify issues and the changing needs/expectations of the membership. Too often, programming decisions are influenced by the vocal minority of a club, those individuals who are eager to voice their opinions to club leaders. The silent majority within the club needs a voice in the strategic and operational planning process, as well.

Qualitative research involves individual and small group interviews with a random sample of members, and is effective in revealing:

  • Issues currently on the mind of different demographic segments of the membership
  • Insight about the elements that are critical to membership value
  • Aspects that detract from satisfaction with specific amenities
  • Long range planning issues that influence renovation and refurbishment

Quantitative research involves surveys to collect the opinion of all members, and is effective in measuring:

  • Opinion about the issues revealed in the interviews
  • Club elements that have the strongest influence on overall satisfaction (value-drivers)
  • Satisfaction and dissatisfaction with amenity experiences relative to expectations
  • Variance of opinion among the different demographic segments within the membership
  • Support or opposition to suggested facility renovations

Years of club studies indicate that service quality received from staff is the most important value-driver. Quantitative surveys offer a reliable measure of staff performance in each club amenity.

Statistical tools, such as factor analysis and regression analysis, can identify the two to three variables that account for the greatest variance in satisfaction with the overall membership experience. This is critically important information for strategic planning processes that result in long term goals to be implemented by the management team and club staff. Operational planning incorporates employee opinion studies to assess the staff perspective about working conditions, job elements, communication, and overall job satisfaction.

Successful clubs depend on recurring dues and program revenue to achieve a sustainable business model. These financial outcomes are lag indicators of a club's success. Lead indicators are measures of member participation in social and recreational activities – and their opinion about the value of their experiences. Such experiences depend upon the implementation of creative programming by capable managers and employees. The combination of lag and lead indicators becomes an effective outcome measurement of the club's implementation of the strategic and operational plan. It also contributes to the ongoing refinement of the plan.

Successful clubs use opinion research to stay ahead of the trends, as opposed to reacting to them. It is an inexpensive investment into finding the future direction that satisfies the diverse expectations of the membership and positioning the club to attract new members.


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