Tonnis van Dam

Why Associations should Use Polls to Address Members

One of the biggest challenges for associations running benchmarks is members’ concerns and participation. Each member depending on the industry may have their reservations which may prevent them from trusting the association with often sensitive information relating to their business. To address these and other concerns associations need to first find out why do organisations benchmark in that particular industry?

Once an association knows the concerns of members, it becomes easier for them to address those concerns. One excellent way for associations to be on the same page as their members are to run polls. Polls will help the association identify what reservations some members may have about sharing data. It will also help the association find out what steps those members are taking to measure their performance.

What Are Your Member’s Concerns?

It is unfortunate that many associations we’ve had the pleasure of dealing with have been disconnected from their members. Most associations have no idea what issues their members are facing beyond the ones making headlines in the news.

All associations need to be able to answer the following questions about their members:

  • What difficulties are members facing in the way of improving?
  • What challenges are they facing by external forces?
  • Why only a small fraction of the industry is successful while others are not?
  • How do members run their operations?

Being able to answer the abovementioned questions gives you insights into what members may prefer you do as an association. You will know what type of benchmarks needs to be run and that will encourage members to provide often confidential information for more accurate benchmarking.

The easiest way to find out more about members is to send everyone a short, yet highly focused questionnaire. The questionnaire should be focused on the association learning what would benefit members.

Once the questionnaire is developed, make sure to get feedback from members. Maybe they could provide further insight into ensuring that the questionnaire helps get more useful information.

Tip: Some members may not openly disclose their concerns. So, it would be a good idea to run blind or anonymous poll.

Address Objections

Even though businesses know all the reasons to benchmark, some may not want to share much information. However, a benchmark study can only be possible when a significant number of members participate, and that’s driven by member demand. Yet you’re still going to run into business owners who don’t want to submit any data.

Sometimes businesses don’t want associations to have the ability to look into their business. Even if you’re not outsourcing benchmarking data, members will still be hesitant because some data is clearly sensitive. Many prominent and successful businesses are scared of data leaking out into the public domain.

One way to address non-cooperating members is to emphasize the fact that you’re hiring an independent contractor for the benchmarks. Usually the term Independent should trigger them to trust and hence participate in the process. Or that you are using a secure Benchmark Tool.

Another way to address their concerns is to walk them through how their data will be handled. Draft a presentation which talks about how the benchmarking process works from data gathering to final results. If you have an ironclad data protection policy in place members will participate. Though a fraction may still be hesitant, but once you start running benchmarks on a consistent basis and they see the results, that may soon lead to them getting onboard.

Tip: A handbook that explains the association’s data handling policy has been shown to help members get onboard.

Know the Purpose of Benchmarking

Once your association knows how to do benchmarking, the next step is to identify the right purpose. Now if you’ve followed the abovementioned step, you should have a list of objectives. Depending on your industry the purpose can range from improving the industry, to enhanced customer retention and manufacturing.

The purpose of your benchmarking should be to help members improve aspects of their business that affects them the most. Take for instance if the questionnaires indicate that 70% of your members are concerned about government policies towards steel imports. An increase in tariffs like those in the United States means the cost of manufacturing would increase. However, if the tariffs were later removed, all that expensive steel would have to be sold at a lower price resulting in a loss if not barely break even.

If costs are a concern, a benchmark across the steel manufacturing industry should indicate how many businesses intend on keeping prices high and for low long? The benchmark will allow smaller manufacturers to continue manufacturing keeping in view the fact that they charge a higher, profitable price even when the tariffs are reduced or eliminated later.

Pro Tip: In our experience, the best benchmarks are those that provide insight into what members want to know. A benchmark in the instance mentioned above sort of taps into the industry’s collective wisdom to give insight into where things will move months from now. So, it allows businesses in the industry to position themselves accordingly.

Identifying Key Data Points

Remember we talked about using a questionnaire (above) to get some feedback from members as to what they want or what concerns them the most? Well if an association carried out the above-mentioned exercise, they should already have a lot of data to sift through. However, for benchmarking purposes, relevant data points need to be identified.

The trick is to translate their answers into data points, and metrics. Associations may find it useful to use the Balanced Scorecard by Kaplan and Norton to produce balanced benchmarking.

The Balanced Scorecard helps associations design a comprehensive approach to benchmarking. So, instead of solely focusing on a single aspect of the business, the scorecard will identify categories which are relevant to most if not all companies in the industry. These include:

  • Customer satisfaction – This generally includes reviews, sales performance, feedback, etc.
  • Financial Performance – Usually includes metrics like fixed cost, growth, investment, profitability, annual profits, etc.
  • Internal Business Processes – Will include identifying potential error rectification processes, structural changes, etc.
  • Learning & Growth – These metrics include employee training, upcoming changes readiness tests, new product launches or developments, innovations, etc. 

It is important to note that your association’s benchmark study does not have to focus on the areas we listed above. The idea here is that successful benchmarking should be balanced in all respects. Success is defined as the participants (those who contributed the data points) being able to analyse why their performance is better or worse than others.

To ensure actionable benchmarks, it is essential to understand the process of your member businesses and have a list of actionable KPIs (key performance indicators) for each category. That’s why we emphasize so much on getting feedback or input from members.


Associations sometimes need to educate members on how to use benchmarking for performance improvement. However, polling is perhaps the most effective way to find out what members want. That, in turn, will help you gather relevant data points, source that data and run useful benchmarks that produce actionable results.

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