4 Valuable Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn from For-profits

I believe that the nonprofit and for-profit sectors can learn a great deal from one another. Over the past several months, I’ve had some experiences that have confirmed this belief. I’d like to share two negative and two positive encounters I’ve had with the for-profit sector and reveal the lessons I learned that can help any nonprofit organization.

Under promise, and over deliver.

I ordered a roast-beef sandwich to go from Au Bon Pain. While I’m not a frequent Au Bon Pain customer, I’ve been one for many, many years. I was looking forward to my sandwich. When I got home, I unwrapped my lunch, and took a big bite. Something wasn’t right. I spit out the bite. There was a piece of paper. I opened my sandwich and found a sheet of deli paper!

Ok, if you make thousands of sandwiches, you’re bound to a make a mistake sooner or later. However, rather than just let the incident slide completely, I thought Au Bon Pain should know about the situation. I thought they might have a new sandwich guy who might benefit from some additional training. So, I called the “800” number on my receipt.

I was not looking for anything. I just wanted to inform the store about the incident so management could be aware and take any action they deemed appropriate.

The customer service representative was very nice. She took a detailed report and said she would pass it along to the store manager. Then, she added that she would have the store manager call me personally. I wasn’t expecting that, but I thought it was a nice move.

Unfortunately, days went by without any call from the Au Bon Pain manager. So, I began to get annoyed. I thought, maybe the customer service rep didn’t pass the report along.

I called the “800” number once again. A new customer service rep took down the information again and also apologized that I had yet to receive a call from the store manager. The rep reassured me that the call would come by the end of the week.

Well, months have gone by, and I still have not heard back from Au Bon Pain.

What started out as a fairly minor problem has turned into a bad customer service situation. Au Bon Pain twice promised me that the store manager would call. Yet, I received no call. This could mean any number of things. For example, it could mean that neither report was passed on to the manager. It could mean that the manager received the reports but simply did not care.

In any case, Au Bon Pain broke its promises to me. As a result, I will no longer do business with them. I have plenty of other food service choices. I don’t need them.

If the original customer service rep had simply told me she would pass along my complaint to the store manager without promising a follow-up call, I would have been fine. I would have felt my voice was heard and that the company was taking appropriate action. Instead, I was promised something that was not delivered. Twice!

All for-profit and nonprofit organizations should under promise and over deliver. If the customer service rep did not promise me a call from the store manager, imagine how pleasantly surprised I would have been if I nevertheless received a call from the manager. Au Bon Pain could have retained me as a loyal customer.

The corollary to “under promise and over deliver” is “do not make promises you can’t keep.” If you’re going to promise something, make sure you have a system in place to ensure the promise is fulfilled.

Make it easy for people to reach you.

I enjoy green tea. I like the taste, and I like knowing it’s good for me. When my wife was diagnosed recently with Ovarian Cancer, we began to do some research into good nutrition. The Center for Advancement in Cancer Education recommended Dr. Lee’s Tea for Health. The company sells an organic green tea that it says has an unusually high anti-oxidant content.

I ordered some of the tea. It’s good. But, I had some questions. So, I called the company before 5:00 PM on a weekday. No one picked up the phone. Instead, after several rings, I was placed into voice mail. I left a detailed message and requested a return call.

Well, weeks have gone by. I have not received a return call. While I’ll continue to do business with the company because of my confidence in the product, I certainly won’t go out of my way to recommend the company to others because of its deficient customer service. You’ll notice, for example, that I have not provided a link to Dr. Lee’s website here.

All for-profit and nonprofit organizations should make it easy for people to reach a live person. Make sure your phones are answered. When this is not possible, make sure to return phone calls promptly.

To make contacting you easy, make all of your contact information available. Include your mailing address, phone number(s), and email address on your business card, in your email signature block, and on your website. Don’t make donors and prospective donors hunt for your contact information. When they do reach out to you, regardless of the medium, be responsive. They’ll appreciate you for it, and will be more likely to support your organization especially if you’re able to answer their questions.

Surprise people.

Let me be clear. Not all surprises are good. But, if you can surprise someone with something positive, you’ll have a very happy person.

As you know from my roast-beef story, I’m a meat eater. But, I also like the occasional vegetarian meal. The Vegan Tree is a terrific, casual vegetarian restaurant around the corner from my house. My wife and I have gone there a couple of times before the name change from The Loving Hut and the addition of some new menu items.

The food and service were great as always when we returned recently. As we were enjoying our meal, our waitress brought us over a little something extra. She gave us a free sample of their garlic potato sticks. They were quite tasty. Unfortunately, garlic doesn’t really agree with us, so we won’t be ordering that side dish anytime soon. But, we greatly appreciated the gesture.

When we finished our dinner, we were prepared to be good and just get the check without ordering dessert. But, our waitress had other ideas. She offered to bring us a small dish of vegan ice-cream, on the house. How could we say no? Again, we appreciated the gesture. The “ice-cream” was very good, and something we’ll be likely to order in the future. The gesture was both good marketing and good customer service.

All for-profit and nonprofit organizations should find ways to pleasantly surprise people. For example, you might invite donors to an unexpected recognition event or behind-the-scenes tour. Or, you might send donors an unexpected lapel pin. Any small, unexpected gesture can go a long way toward building loyalty.

Make doing business easy and pleasurable.

My wife and I recently visited the new European Republic café near our home. They have great soups, a broad assortment of wrap sandwiches, frittes with 20 toppings, and other goodies. We ordered at the counter. While I wandered off to look at the beverage refrigerator, my wife paid for our order with a credit card. I returned to the counter with an Israeli pear beverage I had never had before. Unfortunately, I discovered that my wife had already paid. So, I started to return the beverage to the refrigerator case.

The owner saw what happened. He told me to keep the drink, on the house. I thanked him and told him he didn’t need to do that. And, I walked toward the refrigerator. But, the owner insisted. He really insisted, though in a very warm way. I kept the pear beverage which, by the way, was excellent. We spent some time talking with the owner. The beverage was a nice ice-breaker.

Rather than making us take-out our credit card again or forgo the drink, European Republic made it easy for us, made a very friendly gesture, and added to our pleasure in more than one way. We’re new and, immediately, loyal customers.

All for-profit and nonprofit organizations should find ways to make it easy and pleasurable for people to engage. Does a live person answer your organization’s main number or does a machine? Is your website easy to navigate? Is it easy for folks to donate online?

Try to discover what it’s like to do business with your organization. Call your main number and see what happens. Visit your website. Use your organization’s services. Put yourself in the public’s shoes.

When your organization receives complaints, don’t be defensive. Instead, make sure to track the issues, respond to the individual, and deal appropriately with any problems. Complaints are useful feedback that can help us provide better service in the future.

If you want to attract and retain support, make it easy and pleasurable for people to interact with your organization.

Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal from for-profit and nonprofit organizations. (You might want to check-out “What Can Fundraising Professionals Learn from L.L. Bean.”) Today, I’ve shared just four lessons I’ve learned from the for-profit sector. What good lessons have you learned?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


UPDATE (March 19, 2012):  In fairness to Au Bon Pain, I want to share that I heard from the company today. I congratulate Au Bon Pain for taking notice of my blog post, and for reaching out to me. I received an email from Donna Alsheimer, Hospitality and Communication Manager. I will respond to her and keep you posted about how she handles the situation.

15 Responses to “4 Valuable Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn from For-profits”

  1. Michael, this blog post is especially instructive and valuable, since truth be told MOST nonprofits (yes, I absolutely, positively, unequivocally said MOST) absolutely STINK at customer service.

    Since the tax laws level the playing field for all of us, excellent customer service is one of the few ways to stand out.

    However, as an abdonimous-American, I would be very happy to see fewer food references in your anecdotes.

    • Jeff, thanks for being the first to comment on this post. I completely agree with you. I think most nonprofits have horrible or non-existent “customer” service because they have an entitlement mentality. They think, “We do great, meaningful work. So, people should support us.” What they don’t seem to understand is that they are likely not unique. Donors can fulfill their same philanthropic aspirations elsewhere.

      My blog post “10 Tips to Save You from Becoming a Horrible Warning” (https://michaelrosensays.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/10-tips-to-save-you-from-becoming-a-horrible-warning) really addresses the service problem with one particular nonprofit I once supported. Sadly, as you pointed out, they’re not alone.

      The good news for nonprofits is, that with very little effort, they can really stand-out in a positive way.

      As for my food references, now that you mention it, I think I was hungry when I wrote the post. Next time, I promise, no food references.

  2. Michael,

    Love this particular blog today because it has so much to do with my philosophy and history in sales and customer service, which in reality is what a good development professional is. Some of the best development professionals that I know came from the private sector as former sales and customer service professionals.

    I spent five years working for a catalog company that was well known for selling high quality items and providing excellent customer service using a customer centered approach. When I made sales, I was trained to build rapport with the customer, find out what really interested them, and guide them to products that they might enjoy. It increased sales and loyalty to the brand. People would call back and ask for me personally, even though any of my coworkers could take their orders.

    Toward the end of the fourth year at the company, the owner sold the company to a holding company that owned other catalog businesses. The new owners instituted new procedures that alienated the customers. It started making the workers try to aggressively market a “savings club” product that charged your credit card on a monthly basis whether you used it or not. It started charging a higher rate to return items. It limited the time you had to talk to the customer. The result of the changes? Sales dropped, customers complained more, and the business started failing.

    Unfortunately, I have seen the same thing happen with a number of nonprofits. Many have switched to making grant writing a priority, trying to get as many as possible, and have given up on using a a donor centered approach. They have stopped trying to build the relationship with long time donors. In the end, it will be their undoing.

    • Richard, thank you for sharing your insights. When I’m teaching seminars, I frequently talk about the importance of being donor centered. After one speaking engagement, a participant approached me and said, “I guess what you were saying in there was just pretty much common sense, right?” I thought for a moment and then replied, “Yes, you’re right. It is common sense. And, when it becomes common practice, I’ll stop talking about it.” So many nonprofit professionals know the way they should act. Unfortunately, so many don’t act according to what they know they should do. Interestingly, in my experience, they also don’t like being reminded of this little fact.

  3. Nail hit squarely on the head! Nice job Michael. Customer service, stewardship, donor relations, whatever you wish to call it; the key to the 2nd gift is how you handle the first one.

    Good job!

    • Gary, thank you for your kind comment. In the nonprofit world, we call it “development.” That implies there is much more to the process than simply asking. Without solid stewardship, we would simply be doing “begging.” Thanks for underscoring this.

  4. Ain’t too proud to beg, if necessary, Michael. Sorry. Can’t help myself. Oops; there I go again. Must be Motown on the brain.

  5. Michael, what you are describing is more than customer service, it is relationship building. Non-profits and for-profits can’t build their organization just by increasing a contact list. Relationships need to be cultivated and nurtured if the organization expects to grow. This means the human interface is critical. Too many companies and individuals hide behind e-mail today. It is very easy to be anonymous both as a donor and an organization. Face to face or voice to voice communication is more important than ever.

    • Judy, thank you for commenting. You’re absolutely correct. What we do really does come down to relationship building. Fortunately, so many nonprofits do such a bad job of it that it takes very little effort to stand-out in a positive way.

  6. This is a great post, and the essence of true development. Not only have you described all the things that go into creating a terrific, positive, bonding donor experience, you’ve done so in a compelling and personal fashion. That’s the way to build relationships. I’m a fan!

  7. Reblogged this on Unleashed Abundance and commented:
    This is an excellent historical post from Michael Rosen’s Blog. Those of you who are nonprofit leaders and fundraisers – do you study the for-profit world? If so, what have you learned? If not, do you think you should start?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: