7 Simple Steps to Creating a Useful Membership Survey

The distinctive challenge for club managers is meeting the needs of one customer/owner at the expense of another customer/owner. All clubs have those who are vocal with their opinions, however do not represent the view of the entire membership.   The most valuable resource for a club manager is to gather those opinions and collect factual data.

As the culture and the demographics of the club constantly change, gathering the data and keeping it current can be challenging. Surveying the membership is a one great way to measure their satisfaction and wants. It is also an excellent way for a new manager at a club to not only gather some input, but is a way to introduce themselves to the membership and open up dialogue.

However, developing a survey that actually generates usable and actionable data is more difficult than it might appear. While it needs to be viewed as a tool used to gather data to be used in decision-making, what is gathered does not represent a conclusion in itself. It is not the answers to the surveys that are truly of interest, but rather how these answers provide insight into the larger issue or question that necessitated the survey in the first place. To develop a survey that generates useful and actionable results, consider the following seven steps:


This may be the most important step of them all. Permission must be granted from the owner, Board of Directors, General Manager or immediate supervisor to create and send out the survey. Employers do not like surprises and negative feedback from the members especially when they are unaware that a survey has been sent.


Determining a main goal is pretty obvious, but many clubs spend time, resources and funds to send out a survey to the membership without a clear statement of what they are trying to accomplish. This will usually result in meaningless data and misleads the members.

As a rule, survey objectives need to be deep and narrow instead of broad and shallow. The survey should focus on the issues so the results will be specific enough to be actionable and a plan can be developed.   For example, if a club is realizing an unsustainable operating loss, club management may decide to solicit input of the membership to determine why members are not using certain billable amenities (such as catering, dining room, private functions, tennis, fitness, golf, and entertaining outside guests, etc.) This survey will be considered to be too broad and shallow, it will cover a lot of area but very little of the results will be specific enough to be actionable.

With some analysis from the manager or committee, they could narrow down the losses to identify the primary source or sources. For example, if the food and beverage operation is identified as the main source of losses, a highly specific survey focused on the level of importance and the level of satisfaction that members have with specific areas within the food and beverage operation could then be created. This type of objective would be considered to be deep and narrow with the results being specific enough to generate an action plan.


Once a survey objective has been created, develop an unedited list of all of the questions that are desired to get answered. The only rule should be that every question should address the objective. This rough draft process of developing questions is best accomplished with a designated committee. Each member will have a different perspective on the issue in question and these perspectives will make for a more thorough survey and create leadership “buy in” into the process.

Also, the questions should specifically address the survey objective, but you may want to identify “demographic” questions that will be needed to segment the results and them more actionable. For example, is there need to understand the responses by age, gender, years of membership, category of membership?


Once the list of questions has been developed, the wording of the questions needs to be refined to prevent the three most common mistakes in survey development- Ambiguity, Bias and Simplicity.

The first mistake that people make when developing surveys involves the issue of ambiguity. For example, the following question is highly ambiguous and likely to generate highly misleading results:

How much red meat do you typically eat?

The time frame should be considered in this question. Per day? Per week? And how is “red” meat being defined? Is pork included? And depending upon the answers provided, options such as “a lot” or “not very much” are clearly open to interpretation.

Consider another question:

How would you rate the quality of the golf course?

Again, the answers to this question could be highly misleading. Is the respondent supposed to address the course condition, design or the service?

Ambiguity can be avoided by:

  1. Create wording that is clear and concise
  2. Provide definitions where there is any room for interpretation
  3. Isolate one issue within the question

Another common mistake, and the one that is most difficult to identify, is bias. Generally, a member survey is necessitated because of an issue or opportunity facing the club. Although difficult, survey questions must be crafted in such a way as to prevent any pre-conceived ideas regarding potential solutions from biasing the respondent. Consider the following question-

We need to make some decisions about our clubhouse. It is very tired, too small and requires substantial physical improvement, and it has been a long time since we undertook a major re-decorating project. Do you favor:

  1. Remodel the current clubhouse
  2. Construct a new clubhouse
  3. Leave clubhouse as it is currently

The wording of the question is clearly biased in favor of doing something (options a or b), and the usage of words like “too small” and “requires substantial physical improvement”, would likely have driven respondents to option b. The author who developed this survey question was either consciously or sub-consciously steering respondents toward a particular response option. To ensure accurate and actionable response data, bias needs to be omitted wherever possible. This survey question should have been reworded as follows:

Consider the current clubhouse and which of the following statements most closely reflects your views?

  1. The clubhouse should remain the same
  2. The clubhouse should be remodeled (size will remain the same)
  3. The clubhouse should be remodeled and expanded
  4. The Club needs a new clubhouse with the current clubhouse removed

The revised survey question as well as the response options uses neutral words and avoids biasing the respondent towards a particular option.

The final mistake that is commonly made in developing survey questions involves the issue of simplicity. Questions should not be so complex or outside the typical members knowledge base as to be unanswerable. The following question would be an example:

Last year, the food and beverage operation lost $80,000. Do you consider this to be acceptable?

Most likely, members are professionally engaged in for-profit enterprises where operating losses are generally not acceptable. However, in a club environment, certainly one with a large membership and/or a multi-million dollar food and beverage operation, an $80,000 loss may be perfectly acceptable. This question would be considered inappropriate for a member survey due to most members not having a proper perspective to evaluate this issue. This issue would be more appropriately addressed through a dedicated committee or the Board rather than through a member survey.


The format of the member survey is almost as important as the wording of the questions. The three most common issues associated with the way a survey is formatted involve:

  1. Length
  2. Structure
  3. Placement of Demographic Questions

A member survey will probably get more attention than the average club mailing received by the members. If the survey appears to be intimidating or too long, members are less likely to take the time to complete it resulting in disappointing data.   On the other hand, if the survey does not incorporate all of the questions necessary to gather the information needed, the time and effort used to create and mail the survey will have been wasted. As a rule, a survey should be about two pages in length plus a cover letter explaining why participation is important and to explain the survey’s objective.

Where possible, grids and tables and matrices should be incorporated with radio buttons or check boxes aligned rather than multiple choice questioning. This alternative structure can ask the same questions, however, in a more condensed layout. Since this layout takes up less space, it will appear to be less time-consuming for the respondent.

Here is a scenario-

A club is evaluating its food and beverage operation. It is desired to learn why a member would choose a restaurant versus dining at the club. Here are sample questions along those lines:

  1. When selecting a restaurant, how important is the quality of food?
  • Very important
  • Important
  • Not important
  1. When selecting a restaurant, how important is the atmosphere?
  • Very important
  • Important
  • Not important
  1. When selecting a restaurant, how important is the variety of menu selection?
  • Very important
  • Important
  • Not important

These answers should provide actionable information but they are structured to take up large spacing and probably take longer to complete. Consider instead this structure:

Please indicate how important each of the following items is when selecting a restaurant:

Not Important Very Important
1 2 3 4 5
Quality of Food O O O O O
Atmosphere O O O O O
Variety of Menu Selection O O O O O


Most surveys include questions that ask for basic demographic and/or club usage information. These questions enable important final segmentation analysis of the final results and their location is important too. Generally, questions regarding age, income, membership type, number of children, etc., should be asked at the beginning of the survey instead of the end. The rationale is twofold. First, these questions can serve as “warm up” questions for respondents. These are usually easy questions and do not require much thought. It also helps to focus on their club experiences and away from their bills, work, dinner, kids, etc. Secondly, there is a higher probability that these questions will not be answered if they are left at the end. The respondents may experience fatigue after offering opinions across a variety of topics and not bother to provide answers to questions they perceive as less relevant.


No matter how carefully the questions are worded to eliminate ambiguity, bias, and simplicity, no matter how clear the instructions, chances are that someone will misunderstand items in the survey. This can result in misleading results and lower response rates. To minimize misunderstandings, be sure to pretest the survey. This sounds simple, but many clubs fail to include practice testing into their schedule.

Take some time and take a small sample or group of members and ask them to complete the survey. Generally this should be done in their own home to simulate as close as possible the survey experience of the larger membership. Have these members make comments on the survey about words or concepts that were unclear. The feedback from the pretest is then used to further refine and improve the survey.


The number one issue that club managers have when considering a survey is in how to maximize response rate. The first item is setting expectations. The average response rate for mailed customer surveys by private industry is approximately 20%. While the private club industry does not have published statistics, a general rule is that 40-75% is typical depending on the size of the club. Response rates in this range will generally provide statistical validity.

There are three “best practices” that should be followed to maximize the response rate:

  • Include a personalized cover letter that includes information regarding the survey objectives, how the information will be used, a few words about the importance of the member’s input, and contact information if the member has any questions. This letter should be addressed directly to the member and using their name, versus as “Dear Member,”.
  • Consider using services such as Survey Monkey. This makes the process of returning the survey almost effortless. Unless a preaddressed stamped envelope is provided for mail-in returns, making members pay for postage and searching for envelopes will always depress response rates.
  • Include a return by date. This simple request will accomplish two things. First, members will be more likely to respond right away if they have a deadline. Secondly, providing a date will minimize the time period over which the responses will be received.

Surveys represent an important tool through which to obtain factual data regarding the opinions of the club’s membership. Although it is easy to react to the points raised by a vocal minority, it is important to remember this is to the club’s larger membership base to provide the data upon which to make the important decisions regarding the club’s future. By following these steps, a survey can be developed and executed that will generate a strong return rate and the desired data.

Contact Carol Pence by calling (510) 706-1583 or via e-mail at CPence@pgahq.com.

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