nonprofit customer serviceHow to Better Engage Volunteers with Excellent Customer Service

Volunteer engagement may feel like it’s getting harder and harder, but research shows interest in volunteerism is on the rise.

So, what gives?

How can it be that volunteer rates are booming, yet volunteer organizations still struggle to connect with talent?

It may be because volunteers are staying for shorter periods of time with one organization, creating a “helpforce” deficit. Or, it could be that more volunteers are focusing on a smaller number of organizations where they contribute time and talent. Perhaps volunteers are attracted to nonprofits that are better equipped to meet their specific needs. Or, it could be volunteers are disgruntled about how they’re treated and leave.

In any case, a recruitment a problem is, at its core, a problem of retention and competition.

There’s one solution that can help you beat the competition — nonprofit customer service excellence.

In the past, I’ve written before about how to inspire volunteers to recruit for you. This happens most when volunteers have something to really, truly rave about. Great customer service is just that thing.

Why Service Excellence Matters

A few years ago, I was in a minor fender bender and needed to contact my auto insurer. Now, mind you, I had been paying my premiums each month for years.

I was given the claims adjuster’s phone number and extension and encouraged by my agent to call him.

Corporate Robo-voice…

“Thank you for calling XYZ insurance company. For English, press 1, or stay on the line…”
[I pressed 1]

“If you know your party’s extension, press 1…”
[I pressed 1]

“Please wait while we connect you…”

“To dial by extension, press 1; to dial by name press 2…”
[I pressed 1]

“Please dial 4-digit extension now, followed by the # sign…”
[I was finally able to enter the 4-digit extension]

“Thank you for calling XYZ claims adjuster. We can’t take your call right now. Please leave a message…”

In other words, in addition to the initial call I made to my insurance agent it took SIX ADDITIONAL steps to connect with a voice mail!

I wish I could say this was an anomaly. But, most of us can recall countless times we’ve received less than stellar customer service from a company we’ve done business with.

I wish I could say that the social sector fares better. But, the public’s relationship with charities is complicated, and trust in nonprofits is, according to some, at crisis levels.

The work of the nonprofit is never over. Even more so in recent years.

Public expectations are more sophisticated, and there’s not much room for error.

If someone is frustrated by the service they receive, it’s pretty easy to share their bad experience online with an exponential number of people, thus ruining your reputation overnight.

In today’s world of budget cuts and program erosion, organizations who rely on volunteers simply can’t afford to take the customer’s views lightly.

Not to mention the fact, that we need to foster an environment where volunteers are ready and willing to help spread the word. How do we do this? By fostering an environment where volunteers can be proud of what they are “selling.”

Think of the last time you made a recommendation to friends or family. Were you willing to put your reputation on the line for a lukewarm product or service? Not likely.

Who are your Customers?

So, what do I mean by “customer?”

Customers can refer to any number of people you interact with. They can be internal to your organization or live outside it. They can be the primary person your organization exists to serve, or they can be a secondary person who also merits your attention.

Your customers can be your service beneficiaries, staff, volunteers, funders, legislators, community partners, etc.

And, you can choose any customer with whom you want to strengthen your relationship.

4 Kinds of Customers

nonprofit customer service

Customer Service in the Nonprofit Context

Customer service is defined as listening, educating, and equipping your customers, regardless of who they are in relation to your organization.

It can be described in by three simple actions:

  • Listening to your customer’s needs and desires
  • Educating them about their options and choices
  • Equipping them with resources to make an informed decision or change a behavior

Nonprofit customer service excellence helps organizations do better and can make your job easier. A purposeful approach to serving customers at all levels can also lead to better outcomes, repeat business, greater volunteer retention, and increased revenue.

Exceptional Customer Service Means …

nonprofit customer service

High levels of service can also lead to greater loyalty and can save you time and money on marketing.

Imagine if each one of your customers was transformed into a SUPER FAN, who raved about your work to friends and family.

How many more people could you reach, without spending a dime?

True customer loyalty is priceless.

The High Cost of Poor Service

Conversely, we know that poor customer service not only drives people away, disgruntled customers also tell others about it.

Consider these statistics:

So, those volunteers, service beneficiaries, co-workers, neighbors, and others that have a problem?

We’ll, that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Poor service may be dampening the reputation of your organization and you don’t even realize it.

Designing for Nonprofit Customer Service Excellence

Designing for improved nonprofit customer service and addressing issues isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money.

According to the experts, there are really only four key things customers want from those they interact with.

1) Perfect Product/Service

• Does what it promised to do
• Info was easy to understand

2) Caring Delivery

• People were friendly
• Didn’t feel overly bureaucratic

3) Timeliness

• Didn’t waste my time
• Anticipated my needs

4) Effective Problem Resolution

• Helped me better understand standard drawbacks & how to avoid them
• My complaint was handled with courtesy and tact

Setting the Stage for Nonprofit Customer Service Excellence

Amazing customer interactions are extremely rare, but you can set the stage for these experiences if you take time to think it through.

What’s more, if you are able to pull off high customer satisfaction, your word of mouth advertising will take off like wildfire.

The building blocks of nonprofit customer service excellence include the following, and I’ve added some ideas for integrating them into your volunteer program:

  • Infuse your interactions with an element of surprise — One of the easier ways to delight is to make personal welcome phone calls to new volunteers – you can assign this to a volunteer welcome team who makes these calls on a monthly basis.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver — When communicating turnaround (for applications, etc.), overestimate the time it will take and then take care of it in less time.
  • Make everything simple to navigate — Review all of your volunteer onboarding procedures – are there ways you can streamline any processes and make them feel less bureaucratic?
  • Show authentic kindness — Basic care for one another goes a long way. Consider how you can lead by example every day.
  • Rectify a problem quickly & easily — The best way to do this is to have a service recovery process that everyone uses consistently. I’ve offered one below.

6-Step Service Recovery

Even when there is an issue, we can delight our nonprofit customers, both internal and external.

Accidents will happen. Were all human. But if you fix the problem you may end up with a customer who is more loyal than one who didn’t experience a bump in the service road. Go figure!

So, the best thing organizations can do is train staff and volunteers on responsive service recovery.

Train all Co-Workers and Volunteers on the Following Six Steps:

  • Apologize – Ask forgiveness (even if it wasn’t your fault).
  • Review – The complaint with the volunteer to make sure you understand it completely.
  • Fix It – The specific problem they bring to your attention
  • Advise – Them when it will be fixed, if you can’t fix it right away
  • Follow Up – Be sure it was fixed in their eyes
  • Document – The problem & the solution. Review regularly to learn where to improve.

12 Service Ideas to Make Volunteers Feel Like a Million Bucks

Finally, below are twelve simple ideas to spice up your service for volunteers and help them feel like your highest priority.

  • Always offer the option to connect to a live person
  • Allow self-serve appointment and shift bookings
  • Spice up your “hold” music, or give them the option to hold without music
  • Make friendly reminder calls for trainings, events, etc.
  • Include team photos on your website
  • Regularly invite comments and feedback from your team via surveys, polls, comment cards, etc.
  • Take ownership and apologize for problems and solve them fast
  • Offer “freebies” (e.g., tax tips for volunteers)
  • Offer “friends & family” days to welcome the loved ones of your volunteers
  • Create an “insiders” newsletter with breaking news and kudos
  • Train volunteers on short informational “elevator speeches” so they can be confident ambassadors
  • Treat volunteers like the VIPs they are

While we think nonprofit customer service is solely outward facing, we can use this approach to improve the experiences of our volunteers as well.

When you do, you can expect greater commitment and positive word of mouth marketing that lets your community know your agency is the place volunteers will want to be.

How Do You Serve Your Volunteers?

What nonprofit customer service tactics do you employ at your nonprofit to bring about high volunteer satisfaction?