How a Donor is Like a Customer: A Lesson from the For-Profit World

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What is the difference between a customer and a donor? One buys goods or services from businesses. The other gives money to an organization. We tend to treat customers and donors differently, but many nonprofits could benefit from thinking about their donors or members as customers.

What should your nonprofit’s “customer experience” look like? What are the best ways you can connect your “customers” to products and offerings? And what kind of content is going to be the most valuable, useful, and engaging to keep the “customer” happy and returning?

“While it may seem odd to view and treat donors like customers, the relationship nurturing process and the end goal is no different between a nonprofit and a private sector business,” according to an article on PledgeIt.org. “Donors (just like customers) must be courted, convinced, closed and, ultimately, converted into brand advocates who will provide long-term support.”

Why does customer experience matter? It’s the process that builds the relationship between a customer and an organization. It requires an investment of time and money to do it right. It needs to be constantly monitored and adjusted. The bottom line is that businesses need their customers to survive, just as nonprofits need their donors to survive. In this case, a healthy relationship is an existential necessity.

Customer Experience (for Donors)

Customer experience (CX) includes every interaction between a customer and an organization. It begins when a customer first becomes aware of an organization. That first time they hear your organizations’ name in a conversation or the first time they see your logo online. Customer experience has defined steps; it begins with awareness but goes on to discovery, cultivation, advocacy, purchases and service. And, when it's done right, it improves customer satisfaction, reduces loss of customers, and increases revenue.

Creating a CX

1. Create a clear CX vision. Create a customer-focused vision for your organization that you can communicate both within your organization and outside of it. “The easiest way to define this vision is to create a set of statements that act as guiding principles,” Steven MacDonald in a blog post on Super Office. Need an example? Zappos has guiding values that include deliver wow through service, be humble and embrace change. Your vision should drive the behavior of your organization. “Every member of your team should know these principles by heart and they should be embedded into all areas of training and development,” writes MacDonald. At ignite: action, we also call this "finding your why."

2. Know your customers. You need to know your customers. Do you have different kinds of customers with different needs? Bring these customers to life for everyone in your organization. “If your organization is going to really understand customer needs and wants, then they need to be able to connect and empathize with the situations that your customers face,” writes MacDonald. You’ve heard about customer personas. They are a great way to bring the needs and desires of your different customers to life. Creating personas is also an important step in making your organizational mind-set truly customer-centric.

3. Connect emotionally with your customers. Maya Angelou, an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Emotions shape the attitudes that drive decisions. A recent Harvard Business Review study suggests that emotionally engaged customers are at least three times more likely to recommend products or services, three times more likely to re-purchase, less likely to shop around, and are much less price sensitive. Many nonprofits are doing work that has real emotional significance. Simply communicating your organization’s vision can build an emotional connection. As well, how you treat your customers (or donors, really) will have an emotional impact on them. Do they feel valued by you? How do they feel when they interact with you?

4. Get feedback on your CX (and use it right away). Feedback allows you to get better. Feedback lets you know how your customers feel about you. Get feedback and then tie it back into how you provide your CX. Use a survey. Call customers and ask them to share their insights. “It’s important to tie customer feedback to a specific customer support agent, which shows every team member the difference they are making to the business,” writes MacDonald.

5. Train your CX team (and keep doing it). You’ve defined your CX principles. You know what your customers think about your CX. How do they match up? If there are places where they don’t match, the next step is to identify training needs for your CX team. Develop your team through individual coaching, eLearning, or group training.

6. Also use employee feedback. You know what your customers think. Now what do your employees feel? Continuous employee feedback can “allow staff to share ideas on how to improve the customer experience and for managers to see how staff is feeling towards the business,” according to MacDonald.

7. Measure the ROI of your CX. How is all this work paying off? “The answer is in the business results,” writes MacDonald. “Measuring customer experience is one of the biggest challenges faced by organizations, which is why many companies use the Net Promoter Score or NPS, which collects valuable information by asking a single straightforward question: ‘Would you recommend this company to a friend or relative?’” A better relationship should show itself in many concrete ways. You know your customer better so you know better how much to ask them to give. Relationships should last longer (here’s looking at you, donor retention!). Both customer (donor) and organization should be getting what they need out of the relationship, including enough money to run your organization.

What Kind of Content Meets Your CX Needs?

What kind of content will make interactions with your organization more effective, easier, and more enjoyable for your customers? Content should meet customers’ informational needs, ease their life in some way, or generate joy or relief, according to Ryan Skinner, a senior analyst, B2C Marketing, at Forrester.

You can explicitly ask your customers what type of content they want to experience. Look at what your customers are searching for when they come to your website. Ask questions on surveys about what they want.

“Marketers should plan content for the entire customer life cycle,” writes Skinner. “Customers’ content needs don’t begin on a product page and end at the shopping cart… The customer life cycle is a six-step framework that gives marketers a data-driven content strategy for supporting customers’ needs.”

Here are a few tips on how to create CX friendly content:

a) Where are you failing to meet your customers’ needs in your customer life cycle? “Many brands fail to meet customers’ most basic informational needs—the foundation for a good experience,” writes Skinner. “For example, financial services and insurance firms often don’t address customers’ content needs at the discover stage, which led insurance provider Prudential to develop its ‘Bring Your Challenges’ program.”

b) “Look beyond your own touch points,” writes Skinner. “Marketers should not chase a direct relationship with their customers at all costs; many customer needs will naturally be better served elsewhere. For example, some financial providers have learned to offer a mortgage payment calculator on sites for mortgage price comparisons; here, they can answer a clear customer need in a context where customers will explicitly not want to come to them directly.”

c) How can your organization differentiate itself? How are you different? Find ways to communicate differently than other organizations. That could mean being funny in a context where humor is rare. It could mean using images where others use text. It’s all about your unique identity as an organization and communicating it.