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Ways to retain your new members

Some basic measures can help ensure new volunteer firefighters will stay longer and be able to make it through the tough times

By Jason Zigmont

We often spend our time trying to figure out how to recruit new members, without giving enough thought on what to do with them once they actually call.

In business words, we spend a lot of time marketing but fail to focus on the sales aspect. We do not work on closing the sale to land and keep new members. In business there are entire courses on closing the sale, but some basics can help increase the amount of prospective members that are turned into long-term members.

Part of the reason why we fail to work on “selling” new members may be a natural reluctance to being “sold” something. Departments should focus on helping prospects “buy in” on volunteering. Helping them buy in is not only part of getting them to sign up as a member, but it also sets the tone for their entire career with the department.

The goal is to help show them the benefits of membership, what is required of them, and gain a personal commitment to volunteering. The challenge is that the reason why we all buy in varies, which can make landing new members difficult.

First step in process
The first step is to make sure to hit while the iron is hot and to start the “sales” process as soon as someone shows interest. In many departments you almost have to beg to join and the process may take months, which may cause the prospect to go elsewhere or lose interest.

Some may believe that if a prospect isn’t eager and goes away after two months of trying to join, then they weren’t into it anyway. But it’s often the case that we ourselves ran them away.

Phone calls and e-mails (you do have your phone number and e-mail address posted in the public domain, right?) from prospects should be returned ideally within 24 hours, no later than 48. The goal is to keep the momentum and enthusiasm going, as we know it will be a long haul toward being an active firefighter.

After first contact is made, the prospect should be assigned a mentor who can help them buy in to membership. The inclination may be to have the Chief fill this role, but there may be better options.

In an ideal world, the best mentor would be one of your more senior members but not necessarily an officer. The trick is to find a senior member who has the right attitude and is good at building relationships.

To find the right mentor for prospects, you may even look into the ranks of your lifetime or retired members as they often know all the history of the department and have a true love of the organization. Lifetime members may also no longer be an active firefighter but may appreciate this opportunity to give back.

The mentor should have the goal of demonstrating the benefits of membership while explaining the requirements and commitment needed. Although many departments may have LOSAP programs or the like, the true benefits of membership are often less tangible.

For example, the benefit of fellowship is often overlooked but is a key component of being a lifelong volunteer. Training is not only a requirement but also a benefit. Don’t forget all of those company events and tradition that is part of the package.

‘Try before they buy’
With a mentor assigned and the basics explained, how about inviting the prospect to “try before they buy?” Have the prospect come along for a ride along. Have them attend at least a meeting and a drill. It is probably not possible for them to actively participate, but at least they can see what a “normal” membership is.

If the timing works out, how about inviting them to your next picnic or social event also? The goal is to help the prospect make an informed decision.

Caution is needed to make sure the prospect sees the positive parts of the department while explaining the benefits and requirements of membership. If you pick the wrong mentor, or expose them to the wrong person, they can get a jaded picture.

The worst thing that could happen is putting the prospect with a mentor who is too busy complaining about the department and its members to show the benefits. This may be inadvertent, but in departments we get too used to beating the proverbial dead horse and complaining, which can turn off prospective members.

After the prospect has participated in events and met with the mentor, then it may be time to meet with the Chief, file an application and join. At this point they should know why they want to join and have appropriate questions. They should also be prepped for whatever questions the Chief and membership committee may have of them.

The end result? A prospect that has “bought in” and made an informed commitment. An informed commitment means that they will stay longer and be able to make it through the tough times, which is what every department needs of its new members.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of VolunteerFD.org, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’
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