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Why is Customer Service So Important for Non-Profits?

By: Ralph Provenza, Executive Director of United Counseling Service

The primary value of organizations like ours is to be in service to others, to help others in meeting their needs. At its core, this value assumes excellence in customer service.  Outstanding customer service is a part of the philosophy of empowerment, knowing people have choices and inviting people to exercise them.customer service

customer serviceI like the work of Jason Friedman who describes customer service as a mentality, an attitude and a set of supporting management structures which make providing what the customer wants and values at the center of the organization.

Increasing competition is forcing organizations like ours to pay even more attention to providing strong customer service.  Customers (even those using nonprofit services) have a growing number of choices and are more willing to exercise these choices.  Customer service doesn’t end at the receptionist desk (where we already do an excellent job).

People seeking health care are expecting more personal attention. In response agencies and businesses are requiring all staff, not just those identified as customer service representatives, to provide the empathy, knowledge, and problem solving.    A nonprofit that doesn’t serve its customers well will likely have fewer and fewer customers and less and less of a justification for its existence.  Funders and other supporters are more aware than ever of the reputation of the nonprofits they support.

Dissatisfied customers are a sure way to lose financial support. On the other hand, positive feedback from customers can be the most concrete and validating form of program review. It can provide information to help improve services to better meet customer needs and can provide information funders and other supporters are increasingly looking at to validate and substantiate their investments.

Finally, customers who are being well served are more likely to be strong/vocal supporters of an organization, a definite advantage during difficult budgetary times.

While many non-profits  instinctively recognize the importance of satisfying customers, we haven’t always taken the time to integrate the core concept of customer service into the way we manage the whole organization, and we haven’t take the time to learn from the experience of the business world.

Employees should be recognized for offering excellent customer service; management systems should be designed to track feedback from customers as a means of improving performance; evaluations should not only include client outcomes but should also include measures of customer satisfaction.

As described by David Lloyd, of MTM Services, here are some questions we should be asking ourselves:

  • Are we asking staff to primarily serve the “system”, or to serve the individual presenting for care that the system was created for?
  • How is our internal staff to staff and program to program customer service working?
  • What is the level of internal “system noise” that takes staff’s attention daily?
  • Is our focus more on resolving the noise/crisis model or more on how we can meet the needs of “customers” today?

For behavioral health organizations  like ours, customer service may be the only differentiating factor in the future and I suggest we continue to ask ourselves these questions.


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