We can try to avoid making choices by doing nothing, but even that is a decision.
– Gary Collins
Volume 73 | Issue 6
November 2005

From the Executive Director: Creating outstanding customer experiences

In all of my travels I don’t think I have ever visited a more naturally gorgeous location than Sundance, Utah, the recent site of an executive leadership retreat presented by the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) and The Center for Association Leadership. The lack of financial resources and the scheduling of inopportune times out of the office have precluded my involvement in any professional development in recent years. So, I was excited about visiting a magnificent location and attending a program featuring a well-known leadership author and consultant.

It is not easy to get from Bloomington, Ind., to Sundance, Utah. It requires an hour of driving on both ends of the departing and arriving airports, five hours of flying, and three hours of layover time at two hub cities. It is no wonder I became grumpy after being wedged into a window seat, with the middle seatmate acting as if the armrest was entirely his, and the guy in front of me reclining so his head nearly rested in my lap. As the journey progressed, I questioned my decision to add this nonessential trip to an already brutal fall travel schedule. I was getting close to eating my own arm after consuming only one measly bag of chips and a small bottle of lukewarm water the entire day, when I finally arrived in Sundance exhausted after the 10-hour ordeal.

My mood immediately changed when I stepped out of the van and was surrounded by golden aspens blanketing a canyon beneath the snow-laden caps of Mount Timpanogos. Centuries ago, the Ute Indians retreated to this canyon to escape the summer heat and hunt the abundant game. In 1969, Robert Redford bought the land and rejected advice from investors to fill the canyon with hotels and instead pursued his vision for environmental conservation and artistic experimentation. True to Redford’s dream, Sundance has not become the playground of the rich and famous and is not commercialized like Aspen or Vail.

The combination of the surrounding beauty, the high elevation, and the thin mountain air literally took my breath away, and I immediately felt a sense of calm come over me. I was actually excited about the first educational session even though it was now 9 p.m. my time. Unfortunately, it was during this opening session when all of my high expectations came crashing down around me.

The educational component of the retreat was a disappointment from the beginning. Immediately I became frustrated with the facilitator and her inability to manage the group. To begin the seminar, each of us took our turn sharing one organizational challenge with the rest of the group, as instructed. My eyes glazed over when I clocked one of the participant’s responses at 22 minutes. In addition, much of the facilitator’s presentation was anecdotal, and what little research she did share, she never cited. I was also disappointed with the caliber of the 16 participants. I had erroneously assumed since my colleagues were all experienced association executive directors there would be far more intellectual and philosophical dialogue. However, the seminar turned into a new-age show-and-tell gripe-session, as we all sat in a circle around flickering candles in a semi-darkened room. It didn’t take me long to replace the extraordinary landscape with dollar signs, as if I was watching a meter on the dashboard of a taxi cab ticking away uncontrollably.

A good night’s sleep did nothing to improve the quality of the next day’s offerings. We were given four hours in the middle of the afternoon for reflection and journaling, and spent the rest of the time paired with a partner who had unknown credentials whose task it was to provide feedback about my new-found revelations. By the end of the second day, I had reached my limit and was not only in no mood for contemplation—I could no longer even appreciate the stunning setting. So, I packed my suitcase and left a day and half before the seminar was to have ended.

All the way home I constructed in my head the letter that I was going to write to ASAE. I was about to test their new value proposition, promise, and guarantee, which the organization had spent much time publicizing:

  • ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership connect great ideas and great people to inspire leadership and achievement within the association community.
  • Our promise is to provide exceptional experiences, a vibrant community, and essential tools that make you and your organization more successful.
  • Our guarantee is to provide truly exceptional offerings and service, and we won’t be happy until you are. If any programs, products, or services of ASAE & The Center do not fulfill our promise, we will make the situation right or refund your money. (ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, 2005, A6 4–6)

Back in the office and before I had a chance to finish my ding letter, the ASAE seminar coordinator called to find out why I had left early. She listened intently to my feedback and asked probing follow-up questions, while never becoming defensive in what I believe was an honest effort to gain legitimate feedback for improvement. At the end of the conversation, she offered to refund my money in full or give me a credit for another ASAE program in the future. To say I was blown away by this response was not an overstatement. ASAE was not just talking the talk, and they completely diffused my less than enthusiastic feelings about the seminar as well as the sponsoring organization. They had turned an unfortunately negative occurrence into a highly positive experience.

This incident has led me to begin thinking not only about ACUI, but about what each of you do on a daily basis in college unions and student activities around the world. According to branding guru and writer Stan Slap (2005):

"Your company, like every company, sells two things. You sell a product, and you sell a process—a service experience—that a customer goes through to buy that product. Your product doesn’t stand alone; it combines with the process to determine a customer’s decision to purchase, repurchase, and recommend to others. Any product is a souvenir of the experience of buying it. (p. 1)"

Over the years, ACUI has developed dozens of programs with the intent of providing outstanding content, speakers, and education. When possible, we have tried to also locate our programs in places that were of interest to our members. But what I have learned from my recent experience is that our programs have to be more than glitzy, high-quality promotional materials or a wonderful locale. For our members to maximize their return on investment, we have to focus on the entire experience from the moment they receive the first notice of the program, through registration, while they are on site, and during our follow-up after they get home. After all, if our members give us an “A” on the program, but an “F” on their experience, we’ve only worked at a “C” level, which does not maximize our members’ return on investment.

College unions and student activities face similar circumstances in that students are not perceived as the customer in many departments on campus. Think about how long students have to wait in line to get a parking permit. If they were treated that way at Starbucks, the coffee company would not be on every corner. Students come to the university for the collegiate experience. Students may be satisfied with the product they receive in the classroom, but if their extracurricular experience is sub-par or nonexistent, have we really educated the whole student?

Successful organizations understand that the process, the experience, is just as important as the product. They drive the same level of commitment and resources to ensuring that the process meets the same stringent quality standards of their products. While it is more difficult in the college setting to identify the product and the process, they both exist in today’s collegiate world.

We have an opportunity as college union and student activities professionals to set the example on our campuses by providing top-notch experiences, in addition to high-quality programs, products, and services. But we have to expand our definition of what programs, products, and services we provide. While it is easy to point to the food in our food court and the checkout procedure as our product and process, what about the experiences we provide to student employees and student leaders? Slap (2005) goes on to say:

"The service experience is a driver to your business, not an afterthought. It belongs as a line item on your profit and loss statement, right below cost of sales, and right above marketing. After all, what part of your income doesn’t ultimately depend on customer reaction?" (p. 2)

How many non-profit entities, associations, or college unions make the experience this kind of priority? ACUI hasn’t, that’s for sure. It is our hope that this will be the impetus for ACUI to reexamine our commitment to members’ experiences as we develop our own value proposition, promise, and guarantee.

Marketing consultant Sybil Stershic (2005), advises:

  • Customer service must go beyond customer satisfaction; customers must be delighted with their experience with your organization.
  • If you can’t ensure nearly every customer who interacts with your organization will be delighted, don’t bother promoting anything until you’ve made the necessary changes.
  • You do not determine your brand; stakeholders determine your brand through the expectations they have about the benefits of your organization based on their experiences over time.

The bottom line is that everyone is getting busier and has more on their plate than ever before. If people are going to invest their money and time, we must find a way to ensure that the experience is second to none in every interaction we have with our constituents.


ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. (2005). ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership unveil new brand. Retrieved October 24, 2005, from http://www.asaenet.org/GeneralDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=11873
Slap. S. (2005, August). Fix the future: Do something about your brand before it does something about you. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Association Executives, Nashville, TN.
Stershic, S. (2005, September). Nonprofit Marketing Boot Camp. Materials presented at the American Marketing Association's Nonprofit Marketing Boot Camp, Chicago.