12 Lessons from Client Service

December 15, 2011

Posted in Fundraising, Management, Marketing, and Strategic Planning.

In my recent job change, I find myself in the first position where I’m not answering to clients. I’m not billable by the hour. It means fewer meetings and a very different kind of work. But I’ve also had an opportunity to reflect on the work I’m leaving behind. Working for clients has taught me many valuable lessons, which I’d like to share with you here.

Nederlands Architectuurinstituut | from http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-l-e-x/2151500302/

1. Research is what gives us insights to make the right decision.

Clients don’t always like paying for research, but they do hate paying for unnecessary mistakes. Research – on our donors, on our programs, on our target audience – makes us more efficient and less prone to wasting our time and money.

2. Strategy determines your tactics.

My favorite line about strategy goes, “tactics are doing things right; strategy is doing the right things.” The world of marketing is very broad – how do you know where to focus your resources? Strategy means thinking about your goals, audiences, and measurement before you decide which tactics to use. If that brochure is there because you’ve “been doing it for years” then you need to look at it again.

3. Trumping someone is a surefire way of losing.

I read an article by a nonprofit consultant recently who made a big stink about internal complainers who didn’t understand direct mail copywriting. In client service, your contact isn’t the only part of the client. You might lose if you haven’t earned trust and buy-in from the internal stakeholders. Sometimes that means…

4. Teach others to defend your work.

Nobody likes having their work crushed, especially by less experienced or qualified people. What I’ve learned is that if you can win one advocate, do your best to educate that person about why it’s good work. And get that person to defend it to the other stakeholders and critics. It helps if you…

5. Identify stakeholders before the work starts.

It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a brochure, generating a strategic plan, or making an individual donor appeal. There are stakeholders to consider. Rarely do people’s actions affect only themselves. Spouses are a strong factor in household giving, and children can be an influence at certain ages or life situations. Think about all those who may be affected and thus, who may have an opinion to lend when the decision time comes.

6. Shut up and listen.

People want to tell their stories, to be heard, to be appreciated. And that simply doesn’t happen while your mouth is flapping. Resist the temptation to show how smart or right you are, and listen instead. Don’t just hear the words they say, but listen closely for meanings and motivations. Find out what moves them and you’ll learn more about what makes them happy.

7. Shut up and wait.

Salesmen will know this one: make your pitch, close your mouth, and the next person to speak loses. Well, “loses” isn’t a great way to put it. In our business, we’re not looking to sucker anyone into making donations. But it still applies that if you feel the need to re-state your case, to defend your position, or adjust your ask before your prospect has even responded, then you’ll appear desperate or ill-prepared. Confidence pays off.

8. Be bold.

If people don’t know about you, they certainly won’t support you. Getting attention is increasingly difficult in a crowded marketplace of appeals, ads, and introductions. It’s not just advertising, either. If you go to an event and meet fifty people, what will make those people remember you (out of the fifty people they also met)?

9. Stand up for what you believe in.

In client service, we’re often asked to work on projects outside of our skill set. If it’s not a core part of our business, we have to learn to say no or we risk spreading ourselves thin, becoming mediocre in many things. Nonprofits face this challenge in other ways. Many organizations apply for grants that don’t match their mission. Sometimes a donor wants to make a restriction that simply isn’t in the organization’s interest or aligned with their mission. In these times, with real dollars on the line, we must say no and hold true to the mission.

10. Thank people all the time.

Every single time I get a thank you note, I read it and smile. The gesture takes only a moment, but it’s a meaningful thing to do. And every time, I think to myself, “I want to be the kind of person who sends thank you notes like this.” Even if it’s just an email or a phone call, find ways to thank people for their time, their contribution, their opinions, etc.

11. Respect people’s time.

People are busy, even when their schedules aren’t full. We all have a lot to get done. So be on time to meetings, use an agenda, and end on time. Don’t answer calls or get distracted by email during meetings. Respect other people’s time and they’ll be more likely to respect yours. Lead by example with this one. It’s a rare enough thing that people will notice.

12. New business comes from referrals, not cold calls.

When I started Birch Lake Studios (now defunct), I spent time each week cold calling – contacting prospective customers who hadn’t heard of me and may not even need my services. These rarely led to a proposal, and those proposals rarely led to an actual project. It was a frustrating waste of time. The easier route, I later learned, is to ask your happy clients if they could please refer you to someone else who is in need of your services. For nonprofits, our happy donors and volunteers are a fantastic source of new donors and volunteers – we just need to ask.

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