Customer service Engagement Marketing

Customer Service for Nonprofits: Can You Hear Me Now?

To membership-based nonprofits, listen up: the concept of the customer experience also applies to you!


Here’s the situation: about a year ago I joined an organization that serves leaders in the nonprofit field with offerings that include information & idea-exchange, e-newsletter, discounted publications, annual conference, etc. But I decided not to renew my membership since I hadn’t gotten much out of it. It was only when working on my budget for memberships that I even realized they never sent me a renewal notice.) I also realized I never received the quarterly journal promised in their new member material, and they were unresponsive when I e-mailed them with a question about one of their events.


Welcome Back!?

So I was surprised when I got a letter telling me my membership was extended for one year. I e-mailed them asking why — given my service to the nonprofit field as a professional advisor/facilitator as well as a volunteer leader, I was just a bit curious. Was it a matter of member service recovery? Or did the organization have such a great year they decided to “share the wealth” with their members?

Guess what? No response (surprise, surprise). So I sent a letter with a copy of my earlier e-mail to the organization’s Board Chair, a well-known & highly respected leader. This time I got a response (while it wasn’t directly from the Chair, at least I got through to someone). I received a phone call and letter from the staff apologizing for the situation (which was acceptable) and offering an explanation based on insufficient staffing, mis-communication with the members, etc. (which I found lame).

There’s no excuse for this treatment of members, especially given the prestigious founders & supporters of this particular organization. (Sorry, I know the power that dissatisfied customers have in spreading negative word-of-mouth and the more current “word-of-mouse,” but I’m reluctant to divulge the name of this group).

Acquisition Without Retention = Leaky Bucket

Membership-based organizations, no matter how well-intentioned their missions, won’t survive without members. They have to pay attention to the “customer” experience, and I’m not talking about anything complicated here — just the basics of being responsive to members, answering their concerns in a timely manner, communicating effectively to manage member expectations, and delivering what was promised. 

When it comes to member/customer satisfaction, this is Customer Service 101. My friend Mike McDermott and his colleague, Arlene Farber Sirkin, wrote a great book on this entitled “Keeping Members”, published by the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives (Foundation).

What’s surprising and disappointing is that there are member-based organizations out there who still don’t get it. Trust me, they won’t get my membership either.

Customer service Engagement Marketing

Internal Marketing Fundamentals – Gaining Employee Commitment (Part 3 of 3)

Welcome to the last in this series on the 3 Rs of gaining employee commitment as the foundation of internal marketing:

  • Respect – give people the tools to do their jobs [see post 3-14-05]
  • Recognition – catch them doing something right [see last post]
  • Reinforcement – continually support a customer-focused culture.

3rd R: Reinforcement

This involves supporting the importance of customer-care in both word & deed.  Consider the opportunities you have to share this message in verbal, print, and electronic communications — internal memos, staff meetings, intranet, special events, etc.  For example, you can publish success stories of staff who go “above & beyond” when it comes to taking care of customers, recognizing employees as roles models or organizational heroes.

Unlikely media

Financial services giant MBNA has the words “Think like the customer” printed above the doorways in its offices to reinforce customer empathy.

QVC, the shopping channel, has an expression of its values inlaid in the floor of its headquarters: “Customer focus: exceeding the expectations of every customer.”

And a growing number of companies now include their mission statements and/or corporate values on the back of employee ID badges.

Special events

You can also reinforce customer importance through customer appreciation-type events.  Such activities aren’t limited to for-profits — the U.S. Census Bureau celebrates Customer Service Week each October.  Census Bureau marketing staff & employee committees explore creative ways to honor the Customer Service Week event with special activities.  For example, field offices participate by creating customer-focused displays that are peer-judged on the Bureau’s intranet.  Customer Service Week program books are published & distributed featuring service success stories submitted by customers and staff.

It just keeps going & going …

Organizations that successfully cultivate a customer-focused culture know it takes continual effort beyond just using internal media or special events.  It also means management’s actions need to be consistent with its customer-focused message, whether on a daily basis or during extraordinary times.


How does your organization reinforce a customer-focused culture?  Let me know.

Gaining & maintaining employee commitment to serving customers involves an ongoing demonstration of respecting employees, recognizing their efforts, and continually reinforcement a customer-care orientation.  This is the foundation of internal marketing.

Customer service Engagement Marketing

It’s the Experience, Stupid!

I used these very words (in the title) in response to a recent post by a colleague Dana (Feb. 21, 2005) ranting about the lack of customer service. Customers have lots of choices these days, sometimes too much. It’s one of the reasons the “customer experience” has become a critical differentiator – treat customers right if you want to keep them coming back.

Too bad more companies don’t get it. I’m seeing this more & more as a business traveler. Wading through airport security … being herded on planes like cattle … and without the amenities we used to get (a small package of pretzels just isn’t enough on a cross country flight). Fellow passengers share the same frustrations, complaining about a particular airline or the industry in general.

On my last trip I heard a traveler comment about some surly airline staff. A few passengers tried to empathize with the staff given the instability of the industry and the fact that their jobs are in jeopardy. (In my experience, it’s only a handful of staff who have poor attitudes. But if they continue to to alienate passengers, their companies may not last much longer.)

My concern is for those airline staff trying to stay positive while taking care of customers. It truly is a delicate balance: as a result of cost-cutting reductions in staff & operations (needed to remain viable), airline staff have less resources at their disposal. (The good news was the last leg of my flight arrived on time; the bad news was we had to wait for baggage handling staff to unload the carry-on luggage.)

Remember, we’re also talking about employees who have taken pay-cuts, given back benefits, or haven’t had salary increases in a while. So yes, we passengers may need to be more understanding & perhaps lower our expectations a bit. At the same time, airline management needs to know it’s not a good experience – for either passengers or employees.

There’s no magic bullet for this. I just hope airline executives & managers are doing their best to be supportive of their employees — recognizing those who continue to take care of customers (despite the situation), while providing remedial attention to those don’t.

(Hint to those employees with a negative attitude: customers aren’t the only ones who have the option to leave!)

Customer service Engagement Marketing

Pop Quiz: Customers 101

Over the years I’ve developed internal marketing as an approach that recognizes the value of employees in serving customers. (Remember my mantra: take care of the employees & they’ll care of the customers.) 

You can use marketing to communicate with, educate, and motivate employees as effectively as you use it to communicate with, educate, and motivate customers. Especially when it’s based on respect — giving employees the tools they need to serve customers and each other (i.e., employees as “internal” customers).

I’m talking about the basics here … letting staff know as much as possible about your customers.  Basic stuff like:

  • who your customers are (e.g., general customer profiles & product usage)
  • what’s important to them in dealing with you
  • how they feel about your organization (from customer satisfaction surveys, complaint tracking)
  • what competitive options they have, etc.

Does any of this info get shared with employees, or is it kept for senior management’s eyes only? Excluding proprietary & confidential data, the more employees know about their customers, the better they can serve them.

Try giving your staff a quiz sometime about your customers (you can use some of the questions listed above). And if the very thought of doing this scares you, it means you have your homework cut out for you. Communicate with & educate your employees about your customers. The results will benefit everyone involved.