This past weekend, we spent some time at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (which we refer to as "The MIA" around these parts). We were there for a private art tour for Beatrix’s book club (yes, my almost seven year old belongs to her own book club with several school friends). It was organized by an acquaintance of one of Beatrix’s friend’s parents who also works at the MIA. The tour was based loosely on the book they had just completed reading, Charlotte’s Web. It was a lot of fun for kids and parents alike. Every time we visit the MIA, which ends up being a few times a year, we are reminded just how much we love it and express a desire to make our visits there more frequent.

As our group was gathering, putting away coats, and making general small talk before the tour began, the tour leader mentioned that membership to the MIA was now free. Entry to the museum has always been free (or an optional donation). But the membership, which gave you a fair amount of added benefits, had been a fair price for as long as I remember. He also mentioned that one still gets the same benefits formerly offered at the old entry level membership fee.

I asked him how they were able to do this. As in, how were they able to give something away free that I felt had more than fair value before. He explained that, in part, they had been seeing membership decline steadily for years while at the same time attendance was increasing. That there were several sponsors and foundations that awarded money based on membership levels. Therefore, by increasing membership they would get more money from these large organizations that would hopefully make up the loss. It made sense on one level but on another it really bugged me.

You see, a few years ago we received a family membership to the MIA as a gift. It was a great gift. We would have gone far more often as members that year but, for whatever reason, we had a frustrating and almost comical time actually trying to get the gift membership activated. In fact, it took seven months and multiple calls to several people to finally get our family membership activated. And, when we finally did get it activated, they set the membership expiration date to one year from the date of the gift. In other words, they did not offer at all to grant us the time it took to actually get the membership activated. At that point, we knew it would take even more calls and hassles to get that made right, so we didn’t bother.

But, the thing is, we would make perfect MIA members. Not only do Bethany and I love the MIA, Beatrix loves art museums and loves the MIA especially. We really believe in taking advantage of the wealth of arts experiences the metro area has to offer. We support many other arts organizations with our time, talents, and money. We are active members of other museums in town. In other words, we are exactly the sort of people who would have been paying members and likely for life…

If they had only asked why we weren’t any longer.

I wonder what would have happened, if instead of reducing the price to free, they simply called people who were members at one time and no longer were a simple question — why?. Not some pushy sales call or some temp worker with no power to right any wrongs. Just a simple call from someone who cared to listen and was empowered to "make it right" wherever possible.

We would have told them how much we love the museum, how we really wished we were members still, but that we had such a bad experience with getting the gift membership straightened out and not getting the full year out of it that it left a bad taste in our mouth.

If, then, the MIA representative would have offered something fair — like the ability to purchase a year long membership with the seven months we lost added on for free — we would have jumped at the chance and our faith and generous support of the museum would have been restored.

I wonder how many others like us there are. How many are no longer members because of some bad experience in the past. Perhaps the problem in their declining membership numbers is not because times are tight and people are cutting back. Perhaps it is because the there was a serious problem in the membership process that was never discovered and resolved. Perhaps a phone call and some good will would have turned the tide.

Asking for money is hard work. Asking for money takes courage and a belief that there is real value in what you are selling and the price you put on it is a fair one. It takes believing that there are those to whom this will be obvious and that they are your ideal first customers and that there are many just like them out there just waiting for you to ask. That, people who were once your customers and no longer are likely so for a reason and they are just waiting for you to care enough to ask why. Asking means facing the fear of failure.

Many businesses frame their first dollar bill. It is, in part, pride. A visible symbol that the business is now officially open. That someone cared enough to believe in what they had to sell. But, that framed dollar represents something deeper: That one can frame that one because they believe so strongly in what they are selling. They wont have to break open that frame to get the only dollar they will ever make. They have the courage to believe that another dollar will come along.

Making the price free is easy. It avoids the hard work. You don’t have to face rejection or get past your fear. You don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out and communicating what your value proposition is. And, even still, it assumes that you can’t convince your customers of that value and that your best marketing asset and opportunity for growth is not the people paying for and enjoying your product. Or, in so many cases — even now in the case of the MIA — it proposes that the customers are actually the product you are selling.

Instead, we happily and immediately signed up for the free membership as soon as we got home. We will certainly use it. But we would have anyway and we would have let them know if they had bothered to ask.

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