Man Holding New Member Card

Names Matter: Setting Up Expectations Without Knowing It

Marketing articles often use terms like ‘customer,’ ‘client,’ ‘consumer,’ and ‘patron,’ interchangeably. For the most part it doesn’t matter, but my friend did identify one instance where it does.

He was interviewing for a manager position at an athletic club when the General Manager began describing their ‘customers.’ My friend stopped her for clarification. “Are they customers or members?” he asked. “Because there is a difference.”

This piqued my interest. Primarily because I am a member of that athletic club. Also, I’m on the board of two organizations with ‘members.’ So, I was like: “Enlightening me wise one on the difference.”

He used one word.


Now, he knows this word makes me cringe, so he stopped me mid-reaction to explain. “Customers buy a product or service at a set price and their involvement with the business ends with the transaction. Members pay ongoing fees to access something not everyone has like gym equipment, voting rights of an organization, or discounts. They have a higher expectation of customer service because they pay for the right to belong to something.”

He wasn’t wrong.

I have since watched the interaction between the gym staff and its members. The staff is polite, but rarely does a member say more than a quick greeting, if they say anything at all. I began to evaluate the struggles of my boards with recruiting project directors and committee chairs. Perhaps once these duties were seen as a boon to membership, but in our overbooked life, it seems as if those duties should be handled by ‘someone else,’ whoever that someone else is. The response often sounds like: “Didn’t we give you money? Why don’t you just hire someone to take care of things?”

In the case of my friend, differentiating between ‘customers’ and ‘members,’ solidified how he would formulate goals, direct staff, and execute programs. These people weren’t purchasing a one-time item, they were purchasing a long-term experience along with the right to use a facility day-in and day-out. And they expect a high level of customer service that lasts as long as they pay their monthly fees.

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