KEEPING IN CLOSE TOUCH WITH CUSTOMERS' CHANGING NEEDS Non-profit corporations should follow lead of for-profit companies


Keeping in touch with your customers is a familiar phrase in the for-profit corporate sector. To stay competitive today, companies must stay close to their customers' ever-changing needs.

But, how about non-profit corporations? What efforts do they make to stay close to their customers? The answer is usually not much effort at all.

Most non-profits provide needed services to their clients. Social service agency personnel work tirelessly to house the homeless, prevent alcohol and drug abuse, boost the self-esteem of inner-city youth, comfort victims of AIDS. Not easy jobs by any stretch of the imagination. Burnout is almost part of the job descriptions.

Hospitals help keep our bodies healthy, universities help keep our minds healthy and environmental organizations help keep our planet healthy. Most do fine jobs, with little recognition of their efforts. In fact, the worthy work they do is at the root of the problem.

These organizations are so busy providing services, they frequently lose sight of those they are there to help. Customer focus becomes a casualty of the daily stress the staff is under. "Hey, I don't even get a coffee break, let alone the time to survey my clients," is a typical response when pressed on how client-centered the non-profit agency is.

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of the employees of some non-profits believe that the clients are fortunate the organization is providing services at all. In these elitist cases, service recipients are not even viewed as clients, but as supplicants who should be grateful for the generosity of the providers.

State social service agencies all too often treat their clients in this manner.

Well, non-profits' executives, guess what? The times, they are a-changin'. We now live in a consumer society, where advocacy groups stand poised to expose non-profit services to the harsh light of media attention. American business has learned that to merely survive, let alone be successful, in today's competitive climate, you must focus on the client. And non- profit organizations must learn to do the same.

Just what are the indicators of a client-focused approach to business, whether for- or not-for-profit?

For one, client-centered businesses stay close to the customer. The top executives spend time with the customer, they visit the customer's business, seeing for themselves what needs drive their demand for services. They poll customers regularly to see if the company is meeting expectations.

As management consultant Tom Peters often says, the biggest favor a customer can do for you is to complain to you about your product or services directly, so that you have an opportunity to improve. Most people don't complain, but simply take their business elsewhere.

With a non-profit agency, clients don't often have the choice of going elsewhere. However, this doesn't change the importance of being client-centered at all points in the service loop.

I know a non-profit agency that frequently polls its staff and funding sources for suggestions on services they should be providing. In recent years it has been under heavy fire by mental health advocacy groups. At an awards dinner, the chief executive confided in me his frustration.

What the non-profit should do, I suggested, is continually poll and monitor its clients, then tell the funding sources, "Here folks, is what our clients tell us they desperately need. We have developed a comprehensive plan to address those needs. Will you help us?"

How many of you non-profit executives sit in the waiting room with your clients, gauging performance from the other side? How many spend some roll-up-your-sleeves time in the community environment, in the houses of your customers? Those who do report that it has opened their eyes not only to the social issues they address, but to ways they can effectively network to other service providers.

What other ways can you tell if your organization is client-centered?

Social service agencies -- how long is your waiting list for services? How long does a client have to wait in your clinic before being seen by a professional? How many forms do you burden your clients with? Is serving the client in a pleasant, humane, compassionate manner the overarching credo of your staff?

How often do you survey your client base for information? How many clients serve on your board, advisory committees, and quality review committees? Are your rules of operation geared for staff or clients? Are your client restrooms as clean and convenient as those for your staff?

Universities, libraries, churches and others nurturing the mind and spirit -- do you regularly check the satisfaction index of your customers? Do you follow them one year, five years, even 10 years after they graduate to get feedback on your performance? Do student ratings of professors really count for anything? Are youth, the indigent or illiterates on your policy-making boards and study committees?

Private foundations, corporate giving programs and other charitable funding bodies -- are your guidelines clear and fair? Are they published and readily available? Is your application process geared to make it easier for your staff to process -- or for the requesting agency to submit?

Do you keep grant-seekers informed of the status of their requests? Do you follow up on grants to see how you can improve your effectiveness? Do you ask the community for input on which charitable needs are most pressing?

We live in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. Smart non-profit organizations address their programs from the perspectives of the client. That is a commitment that must pervade every area of an organization's operations.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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