The term "customer service" usually brings to mind a call center fielding customer complaints for a mass retailer or service provider.
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But customer service is playing an increasingly important role in a wide range of organizations, including nonprofits. The challenging part is trying to adapt traditional customer service programs for use in an environment where profit isn't the most important goal.
If you expect nonprofit customer service techniques to look similar to customer service techniques in a for-profit venture, you're right. In a lot of ways, the two are virtually indistinguishable. Employees are trained to provide friendly, courteous service to the organization's base. The difference lies in the fact that a nonprofit's base is a little more complex than a business' base. While for-profit customer service interfaces primarily with customers, nonprofit customer service interfaces with three different categories of people: Donors, volunteers, and program participants.
A nonprofit's customer service to donors involves establishing and maintaining relationships with existing donors, as well as individuals who exhibit potential to become donors in the near future. In theory, everyone the organization comes into contact with is a potential donor. However, customer service personnel and front line staff need to be trained to identify "hot prospects", and equipped to help them take the next step. Since information is critical for donors, donor customer service largely amounts to creating opportunities to inform donors without appearing pushy or manipulative.
Volunteers are another important – but often overlooked – category of people in a nonprofit. Many nonprofits would be unable to survive without the sacrificial efforts of their volunteer base. Unfortunately, nonprofit volunteers are sometimes treated like unpaid employees, with little recognition of their vital contribution to the organization. Effective nonprofit customer service goes the extra mile to recognize volunteers and to facilitate the achievement of their individual goals.
Everyone from the CEO to the receptionist should be taught to engage volunteers in conversations that encourage a mutual exchange of ideas. Additionally, program supervisors should be instructed to provide volunteers with accurate schedules to make sure volunteers have the opportunity to be engaged in meaningful work when they report for duty.
Program participants comprise the third category of individuals in a nonprofit organization. Unlike their for-profit counterparts, most nonprofits refer to these individuals as clients rather than customers. Yet the needs of a non-paying, nonprofit client should be treated with the same importance as the needs of a paying customer in a business. Don't make the mistake of thinking it is okay to provide inferior service to your clients simply because you are offering a free service. The reason your organization exists is to serve your clients and a failure to provide adequate customer service is essentially a failure to achieve your mission.
Depending on the nature of the organization, a nonprofit can actually receive a higher number of complaints than a for-profit business. Although some of this may be attributable to the nature of your client base, it may also be the result of a perception that your organization is informal or unqualified. Don't take the bait . . . Respond to client complaints with professionalism and dignity every time.