January 13, 2010: We woke up to the news that a huge earthquake had devastated Haiti. Many of the clients at the Somerville, Massachusetts agency where I worked had family in Haiti. So did some of the staff. In those early hours, none of them knew for sure whether their loved ones were alive or dead.
We wanted to help. But what could we do?
First, we spread the word about the disaster to our staff, Board, and email list.
Second, when our state funding agency turned to us and asked what we could do, we responded within the hour.
Third, we collected food and clothing for our new clients: Haitian refugees who started arriving in Somerville. We helped their families find them places to live.
Finally, we helped raise funds for Haitian relief from our donors using our newsletter and email.
What our agency did was great customer service.
Each of these four responses served a different set of customers–because those are the “customers” a nonprofit has to serve.
- Internal: As Sybil Stershic points out, nonprofits have to take care of our own staff to make sure those employees take great care of our funders, clients, and supporters. A Haitian employee told me, “When I saw how this agency responded, I knew I was working in the right place.”
- Institutional: The funders used our information to tell the public how they were helping Haiti. We served the funders by making them look good–giving them yet another reason to keep funding us in the future.
- Clients: Clients are a nonprofit’s most important customers. If we served them poorly, the staff would know, the funders would eventually know…and all the PR in the world wouldn’t make up for it.
- Donors: We gave our donors a chance to do something about Haiti right away, and a trusted channel through which they could provide their gifts. That served them well and made them identify with our agency more strongly.
For nonprofits, customer service is the best marketing.
“Customers” and “marketing” aren’t words that nonprofits use. But nonprofits DO serve customers, as the examples above have shown.
And we DO engage in marketing. We communicate with the purpose of moving people to support us and our causes. But what we do communicates better than what we say.
As Laura Click says, “Every interaction and touch point with customers can be scrutinized or applauded and then shared with the world….every employee can make or break a customer’s experience.”
Do your employees know the different kinds of customers you serve? What are their actions saying to their coworkers, funders, and donors, as well as to their clients?
P.S. Haiti is still in desperate need of help. Consider donating to Project ESPWA.