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Customer Service – Burden or Opportunity?

August 17th, 2011

Try as we might to provide excellent service to all constituents, problems arise. When they do, the test of an organization’s mettle lies in how it responds – which often depends greatly upon who is the first to respond.

For many nonprofits, Annual Giving is the first stop in the customer service chain for donors with a question, comment or complaint. How do you view your time spent handling various problems, inquiries, revisions, etc.? Do you hope for as few as possible and endeavor to make it go away as quickly as you can? Or, do you take the time to listen to the concerns of the constituent and resolve their issues, rather than follow arbitrary rules that you recite back to them?

It’s essential that the staff assigned to customer service roles view these encounters as a chance to connect, rather than a burden that they must endure. It will make all the difference in how the constituent views your organization.

All nonprofits certainly need to be open to constituents about how their organization is operating, where the funds are being disbursed, and answer questions to the donors’ satisfaction. However, most people are concerned with what matters to them and don’t want to be bored with details that merely come across as irrelevant excuses. There is definitely such a thing as providing too much information.

Several examples of alienating constituents with data, policies and information:

Prescott* had a donor whose name was misspelled in the (printed and mailed) annual report. Instead of ending with “I’m sorry” when speaking to this regular contributor or perhaps asking, “What can I do?” he elaborated on how they hired a new printer this year and continued by telling the donor of the missed printing deadlines, various proofings, delayed mailings, etc., in an effort to demonstrate their best efforts (and lay the blame elsewhere). None of this mattered to the donor and, frankly, in addition to being bored, she felt the organization appeared less professional for attempting to pass the buck.

Randi* had a loyal donor who had signed on to have monthly charges made on her credit card, but there was a problem with both the amounts and the scheduling not being done on the designated day of the month. Randy’s nonprofit’s software didn’t interface very well with the vendor and fixing the mistake meant calling the donor and getting her credit card information all over again, rather than telling the vendor to make an adjustment. Attempting to clarify the situation only seemed to confuse the donor, who didn’t care about software issues. The donor began to wonder if her money was going to an organization that knew how to best spend it.

Sebastian* dealt with a call from an unsatisfied donor by telling him that the problem was due to staffing difficulties that led to a temporary employee causing the problem in the first place, but that he would fix it. The donor felt that he was unprofessional to “gossip” about others in such a negative way, and also wondered how stable the organization must be, if the staff is turning over so rapidly or has so many temporary people who don’t understand their protocols.

Tom* was refunding a donor who was mistakenly charged twice when contributing online. Rather than focusing on expressing gratitude for the gift, Tom spent most of his time explaining how the problem occurred. Apparently, their website often double charges if the [submit] button isn’t clicked just right. His repeated disparaging remarks of the website’s abilities ultimately led to combat the organization’s effort to get more online giving.

Vanessa* fielded calls from several perturbed people after a mailing went out that mistakenly addressed “Mr. Smith” as still being addressed to his ex-spouse . . . at both of their current addresses. As Prescott did, Vanessa felt the need to explain and blame the mail vendor with each constituent, elaborating on the programming difficulties in the mail merge, etc. None of this detail mattered to those who called in. They simply wanted an assurance that it was fixed – and an apology.

Certainly, there are examples of constituents contacting an organization to say something positive as well, whether significant, or briefly in passing.

Do you make a point to acknowledge a note or comment included with a contribution that mentions a tribute gift, or a statement of why your organization is meaningful to the donor? Adding a personal response in the acknowledgement letter (or phone call) that shows you are listening to the donor’s needs and concerns will go a long way toward building an ongoing relationship.

Taking the time to address a constituent’s concern or problem can certainly make a favorable impression, but why wait until then? Making an extra effort to show supporters how valuable they are while things are going smoothly works wonders, too.

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Keep the base of the pyramid strong

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