Customer Service is Not Just for Businesses

Poor customer service.

That’s something for-profit businesses worry about, right? You rarely hear nonprofit professionals worrying about customer service or satisfaction. It’s almost as if the nature of the mission-driven work we do makes us somehow above the concept of a “customer.”

After all, nonprofits don’t usually have sales teams in the traditional sense, and do not define their success based solely on the bottom line. You don’t necessarily hear the phrases “market share” or “pricing strategy” or “value proposition” in the nonprofit board room. We’re . . . well, we’re different.

Or are we?

For example, we may not call it conventional “customer service,” but nonprofits have a critical need for teamwork, for smooth and appropriate internal and external communications, and for anticipating and meeting the needs of those we interact with each day. In that spirit, here are a few reminders of how you can improve your service, both to staff and volunteer colleagues as well as to the people you serve.

  1. Own a question until it is answered. This means that if someone asks you something about your organization, be very careful of referrals and handoffs. “You need to speak to our events person” is a mediocre answer.
  2. Admit what you don’t know. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you by ________.”
  3. Let go of your not’s (“not my job, not my program, not my fault, not my problem”). This kind of climate keeps some organizations struggling for years.
  4. Know what your personal triggers are to losing your cool or being flustered, and figure out to minimize them. We’re all human.
  5. Ask more questions. You should do this whether you have worked at your organization 20 minutes or 20 years. It’s a sign of intelligence. In a confident, learning environment, it’s mandatory.
  6. Appreciate the difference between the rules that can be curved a bit vs. those that are rigid for a reason (legal, safety, medical, etc.). What are your organization’s “non-negotiables?” Does everyone know?
  7. Notice how often you rely on your favorite excuses (“I don’t have time, I am so tired, they expect too much,” and so on).
  8. Avoid delivering/repeating second- or- third-hand information that may not be accurate.
  9. Learn from every hiccup. Why did this problem/situation occur? What can I/we do differently to avoid having this situation occur again?
  10. When you make any kind of change, think about, “Who else is affected by this decision? Who else would need to know about this?” This is especially true for seemingly mundane decisions like changing the date of a meeting or re-assigning parking spaces.
  11. Welcome a genuine complaint as feedback you can use.
  12. Be willing to give productive feedback to others, including specific compliments. Saying “You are awesome!” to a volunteer is great, but better yet is to cite the precise behavior that was exceptional (“I admire the way you calmed that woman down and helped her with her paperwork”).
  13. Learn how to productively, properly delegate. Be specific about what needs to be done, and include the “why” on how this task affects your organization. Ask for an agreement on timing up front; we all strive to meet deadlines that we help set. And remember that you will always be more successful if you are ‘ask-assertive’ (“Do you have time to review this brochure today?”) rather than ‘tell-assertive’.
  14. Take time to loop back after a handoff or referral. Did it happen? Are you sure? Remember that in communications theory, both the encoder and the decoder share responsibility for the transmission of, understanding of, and action on a successful message. “Well, I sent Bob an email” is not the end of your responsibility when there is a problem.

1 Comment

  1. Dana Doan
    July 21, 2011

    Such great reminders and sound advice! I like them all but tips #1,8 and 11, in particular, would really ensure that we are meeting the needs of our target clients. Thank you for putting this out there. We will pass this along to our counterparts in Vietnam.

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