This week I had lunch with a former client who wanted some advice. Since we had last worked together, new competitors had entered his organization's market, sources of funding were drying up, and his client base was showing signs of jumping ship. "What should I do?," he asked in desperation.
"Have you asked your clients?" I responded. "They're the first ones you should be asking that question."
For all the pearls of wisdom that radiate from consultant gurus, none shines as bright or is as valuable as what your own clients can tell you. The trouble is that non-profits -- and most for-profit ventures, too, for that matter -- simply do not ask.
Whether it's total quality management or some other client-centered approach, every successful venture starts with the client or customer. In fact, I'll share a secret with you: I have found that grass-roots, start-up non-profits are often closer to their clients than their larger, more prestigious cousins. There are both obvious and subtle reasons for this.
Often, a fledgling non-profit is started by an individual or a group that is closely connected to the clientele the organization will serve. This person or group knows the clientele exceptionally well due, in part, to the organization's small size. From their direct contact with clients, executive staff and board know immediately what clients want or if a program does not work.
Also due to the close working relationship between clients and decision-makers, clients feel enabled to suggest new programs or to complain when needs aren't being met. This informal give-and-take is focused on client needs and is a major strength.
As an organization grows, decision-makers are frequently a layer or two removed from clients.
With additional experience, these people begin to think like "experts" and begin to hobnob with other "experts."
I have seen these experts time and again look at an issue and apply a set of solutions, then wring their hands and denigrate the client base when they fail to respond. They forget the early lessons and resist bringing in an organization's best consultants, the ones with the biggest stake in its success -- its clients.
This well meaning but shortsighted approach is, more often than not, disastrous.
The real secret to success for any organization is to stay close to the client. This involves really listening to what clients have to say about your services, not just paying lip service to the process. It's a philosophical difference that quality managers can smell a mile away. Do you want to just survive and not be hassled, or do you want your agency to rise to the top of its field by assertively ferreting out client needs and wants?
Actively listening to your markets involves much more than passively waiting for feedback.
It may involve mailed surveys to your clients or structured interviews by trained volunteers. It may involve interviews with vendors and other providers to determine what the perceptions of your agency are in the field.
All these are low-cost tactics, part of a strategy to excel.
Actively soliciting client perspectives may mean going beyond the obvious answers.
Most clients will tell you that everything is OK. You may need to persist, to ask probing questions that begin to unearth even minor dissatisfactions with your agency. You can even probe to detect what frustrates your clients in their dealings with other non-profits. If you believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, this process alone will prevent pounds of headaches down the road.
The most successful non-profits I know of take this process one step farther.
Client-centered non-profits are proactive, constantly exploring for emerging trends that enable them to anticipate client needs. Some have even caught up with their for-profit counterparts and are beginning to focus on client "wants," not just needs.
Meeting wants, as well as needs, adds an element of compassion and caring that translates quickly into market leadership.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.