Last week we decided to resign from our membership in a local club. While there were certain things about the services that had disappointed us, the main reason was that we were not using the facilities and didn’t want to continue paying a fairly healthy monthly dues assessment. We had an equity membership so we needed to sort out how to return the membership to the club and whether or not we would be eligible for some sort of redemption amount. I sent an e-mail to the president, membership director and general manager of the club. A day later I received an e-mail back from the general manager acknowledging our request to resign and informing us that based on the bylaws we would need to continue paying monthly dues for another two months. He also said that if there was any particular issue that we had with the club that he would like to hear about it in order to improve the experience for other members. All of this was fine; however, his message was written to “Mr. and Mrs. Gutterman” and this reminded me that one of the things that had bothered us was that he, as the general manager of a fairly small club that thrived on relationships, had never taken the time to introduce himself to us and develop a personal connection even though he had several opportunities to do. As the general manager, that’s his job. His predecessor had been just the opposite: he knew everyone and treated everyone as if they were the most important person in the club.
The president of the club eventually wrote to us also and dutifully expressed his regret that we were leaving. He was a “volunteer” who we did not know and I feel that those folks do enough without being saddled with the responsibility of knowing all of the members. I wrote back and thanked him but also said that based on my reading of the bylaws the general manager’s statement that we owed additional dues was incorrect. I had previously asked the general manager to check on this with someone and copied him again on my message to the president. Well, it eventually turned out that we didn’t have to pay the additional dues, but the point of the story is that I never heard directly from the general manager again. The “details” were delegated to the controller in the club’s office. The president did write back one more time to say that he had heard everything had been sorted out and to wish us well. We never heard from the membership director who, like the general manager, had been around the club for a fairly long period of time and had not reached out to introduce himself to us.
I know all of this is not “life and death” and my issues with a couple of people at a club are not high on anyone else’s list of things to think about. My point, however, is that when someone acts the way that the general manager did they give people the impression that they really don’t care about developing and maintaining a service relationship. A sustainable entrepreneur necessarily starts with a very small group of clients or customers and she needs to treat each of them as if they are the most important. They may not be, at least in terms of current or future revenue potential, but they are the first stop on building a strong brand and reputation. Don’t leave relationship building to others in your organization: make time to do it on your own and coach others on how to do the same. And, although it will be difficult in some cases, be present and engaged when a customer or client decides to leave. The general manager’s handling of the dues question and delegating it without explanation left a bad taste in my mouth and makes it difficult for me to recommend the club to others, at least while he’s supposed to be the face of the club in terms of services. Also, the general manager, and sustainable entrepreneurs, should not assume that a departing member, client or customer is gone from their lives for good. Time and experience has shown that former business partners may return to the picture in the future, often in a position of being to provide an opinion on how they were treated in the prior relationship. So, when a client or customer leaves it isn’t “good bye”, it’s “until we meet again”.
Alan Gutterman is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Project, which engages in and promotes research, education and training activities relating to entrepreneurial ventures launched with the aspiration to create sustainable enterprises that achieve significant growth in scale and value creation through the development of innovative products or services which form the basis for a successful international business. Visit the Project’s Library of Resources for Sustainable Entrepreneurs to download handbooks, guides, articles and other materials relating to sustainable entrepreneurship and keep up with the Project’s activities by following Alan on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.