Authentic Service

Without good customer service, customers go elsewhere. Unfortunately, many nonprofits structure their customer service around the minimum required to match the community average.

Realizing that a nonprofit’s customer service must reach a certain level to retain customers says that the nonprofit recognizes that customer service is a potential point of differentiation. If a nonprofit is only striving to meet the average of the market, it is striving for mediocrity. That suggests that striving for a competitive advantage is seen as unnecessary and that the current level of sustainability is acceptable. However, that same nonprofit wants its donor to constantly increase their generosity, loyalty, and engagement. It wants its staff to strive for excellence. It wants its mission to be seen as relevant, valuable, and effective.

Many nonprofits have high standards for customer service but those standards are absent from the nonprofits’ cultures. Their internal services between departments and for the staff are driven by lower standards than their customer service. The services they provide to others (donors, vendors, referral sources, advocates, etc.) seldom meet their stated standards. In addition without adequate resources, it is unreasonable to expect the service standards to be met. The internal and budgetary constraints keep the service standards from being met.

Many nonprofits struggle to grow their client base or donor base. Their financial experts tell them to limit the services so that costs can be contained and the budget balanced. The cost constraints keep the standards from being met, which results in the loss of clients and in lower donor income.

It is better to allow your services team to do what is necessary to deliver great customer service. Great customer service is a competitive advantage. It attracts more clients which either directly or indirectly drives more revenue. Growing revenue increases sustainability. Having more clients demonstrates the value and relevance of your mission and services, which attracts more community support and increases donor generosity. The increase in revenue (client income and donor generosity), will ensure the budget is balanced. However, it is important to take the long view. When expenses increase this year, it may be a year or more before donors, clients, and your community realize that customer service has meaningfully improved. The increase in support is more durable (therefore more valuable) than this year’s cost saving.

Next Step:

Ensure a high service standard is applied to every action and activity

Hold your leadership (rather than the staff) accountable for the achievement of your service standards; model the behavior you want from your staff

Ensure that your service standard is met regardless of the cost

Meeting a new service requirement or an unusual service request will be expensive. Efficiency comes from repetition. Let your staff have the opportunity to become efficient. Over time more clients will seek what you are doing and the increase in clients served will more than pay for the cost of developing the service. When something new is provided to clients, it increases the value of your nonprofit to your community, enhances the relevance of your mission, adds to your sustainability, and strengthens your nonprofit’s reputation.

In some tribal societies, service is central to the tribal culture. Everyone knows that the only way the tribe will thrive is if everyone serves everyone else. Service is so deep seated in the culture that even strangers are served. Some will even take less of a scarce resource so that a stranger can have some. Their commitment to service is authentic.

I went into a nonprofit recently and in the lobby was a sign, “Our bathrooms are only open to our clients, visitors, and staff”. Clearly their commitment to service has limits. Their generosity has limits. Their compassion has limits. Their actions speak volumes about their culture and the service their clients can expect.

Your nonprofit must model the behavior it wants others to adopt. If you want your clients to receive great customer service, your leadership must be committed to providing great service to all (staff, volunteers, vendors, donors, clients, and all others). The same is true of generosity, loyalty, engagement, compassion, and all of the other attributes that are the hallmarks of a great nonprofit.

Take It Further:

Allocate funds for experimentation and innovation so the your services are always evolving

Remind your board that in order for great service to be part of your nonprofit’s culture the board must make its service the model it wants the staff to emulate


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