Be Nice. Don’t Lie. 10 Ways to Improve Customer Service


I recently travelled from Cleveland to Honolulu to conduct a site visit for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. What I learned en route provided some valuable lessons in customer service, which are applicable to those working in philanthropy (who, in my experience, don’t spend much time thinking about how they can provide excellent customer service).

I purchased my flight with my Mileage Plus Visa Club card, and used airline miles to purchase my husband’s ticket, paying for his fees with the same card. As a result, our tickets were not “linked” since United provides no way for you to do this. I was advised by the United reservation agent I spoke with to call United back and have the flights “linked” so that the airline knows we are travelling together and my travel benefits extend to my husband (e.g., Premier/First Class access through security, priority board, free checked bag, etc.).

You know how the rest of this story goes:  I call United the day before my flight, and am told by a woman who sounds like she is working from a call center several continents away, that yes she has “linked” our accounts, yes my husband now has Premier access, priority boarding, and free luggage. All taken care of, she said. I tried to check us in online, and none of this was true. I was Premier, he was Regular Low Class. My luggage was free, his would cost $25.  I called back. This time I was transferred back and forth three times between United reservations and United Mileage Plus, each of them claiming that the other would need to help me. I finally asked for a supervisor who explained that it was impossible to link our accounts, given the way our tickets were purchased differently (mine on a credit card, his with United miles and the same credit card). I was advised that maybe the United representative at the airport could help me. “You have the computer, just change his ticket to be “Premier,” I politely requested. “I can’t do that,” she replied.

We flew. We landed. We checked in at the Hilton Hawaiian Village amidst sounds of jackhammers and total chaos in the lobby under construction.  At the registration desk four Hilton employees huddled around a single computer while 15 of us waited in line (I didn’t bother with the Hilton Honors line, which was moving even slower). When we finally made it to the front, the Hilton employee-in-training was friendly but poorly trained. She reassured us that our ocean view room has a view of Diamond Head (it did not). And to my dismay, the counter behind all the Hilton registration desk was a disorganized mess of old cardboard boxes, rattan boxes, and mismatched plastic containers – each hand labeled in magic marker — holding all of their supplies and things like “customer mail.” There were piles of papers, messy stacks of brochures, overflowing file folders randomly placed in between bins. This was their “back office,” a complete mess on display for all of their customers to see.

Here are 10 tips for providing excellent customer service that I learned from this experience, which are applicable to any business, nonprofit, and foundation.

  1. Educate all employees and your trustees when you roll out new programs and services.  Two different women I spoke with from the United call center had never heard of my United Mileage Plus Club card or its benefits, and no one could give me its concierge hotline number to call. If your foundation is launching a new grantmaking program or releasing some controversial news, make sure all your employees and board members are aware and have some talking points. They are your ambassadors in the community.
  2. Enable employees to fix problems immediately. No one at United was authorized or apparently had the technology to upgrade my husband’s ticket to premier status, even though everyone acknowledged the problem. This should be an easy technological fix and a priority for a customer who has been a loyal Mileage Plus member for almost 20 years.  Let your employees solve problems with your grantees creatively. Let them know what types of issues require legal approval, and what types do not. They might not always solve them perfectly, but your grantees will appreciate that your staff are partners working with them.
  3. Be honest when you can’t fix a problem. The first United representative reassured me that she had fixed everything, when in reality it was impossible for her to have done this. If a grantee comes to you with a concern, don’t reassure them that the problem will be resolved unless you are positive you can fix it. Instead, reassure them that you hear them, you understand their concerns, and that you will make every attempt to solve it, and that you will update them on your progress. If you can’t fix it, let them know why.
  4. If you offer benefits to your customers, make it easy to use them. As a United Mileage Plus member and Mileage Plus Visa Club cardholder, I should have no problem extending my travel benefits to my travel companion, no matter what combination of miles and credit cards I use to purchase our tickets. But United has chosen to set up its ticketing system so that this is impossible. Similarly, if you offer funding to nonprofits, don’t make them jump through hoops, and don’t give them an unrealistic amount of time to respond to your RFP. You are in the business of making grants, and your grantees are helping you to achieve your mission.
  5. Offer excellent customer service to everyone, equally. Within a period of 3 minutes at United security, I watched the security woman completely ignore a lower-level United employee as he shared his employee badge (she didn’t even look him in the eye), gleefully gush and chat with a group of United pilots who came through, and then glare at husband and I as we approached. My husband’s attempts to cheer her up with “Good morning!  How are you today?” did not help. All the grantees in your portfolio – including the nonprofits that need your support but lack the capacity to prepare beautifully written proposals or lack high-level connections to your foundation – should receive the same level of customer service from your staff. They might not all meet your funding criteria, but they should be treated equally and respectfully.
  6. Be nice and connect as human beings. One glimmer of helpful customer service was the United representative at our boarding gate in Cleveland. We were running late, but she smiled, told us it was no problem, and reassured us that we had plenty of time to head to the restroom first. It was a simple gesture, but I felt like I was talking to a human being who cared. As funders, it is easy to get caught up in funding criteria, grants management systems, and docket deadlines – setting them up meet our needs but not often considering the needs of our grantee partners. It is helpful to put ourselves in the shoes of those we hope will apply for our funds, and see them first as human beings who are trying to make a difference.
  7. Accompany customers toward the solution. Another moment of positive customer service was the United representative at the Premier ticket counter, who immediately understood my linking problem, and literally walked me to the computer check in screen and pressed all the buttons for me to figure out if we could solve any of the problems. She was able to get free luggage for us both, and then kindly confirmed that my Premier status would not extend to my husband. Again, I felt like I was talking to a human being who cared about me as a human being. She couldn’t fix all my problems, but she tried and she cared. You might not be able to fund a particular applicant, but can you go the extra mile to brainstorm other funders that might be a better fit? Could you pick up the phone to make an introduction, or send the grantee an email if you hear about another funding initiative? The nonprofit will know that you care, and that will make a difference.
  8. Look up.  Four Hilton employees huddled around the same computer screen, not bothering to look up at the 15 customers waiting to check into their rooms. Maybe there was a serious computer problem, but it didn’t take four people to fix and they should have at least acknowledged us.  Funders too should look up. Walk away from your computer screen, get out of your office, go visit your grantees. Find out what is happening in your community. Have needs changed? Did the line just get longer?
  9. Don’t show your dirty laundry. Better yet, clean it up.  There is absolutely no reason why customers should see every overflowing
    View Behind Hilton Registration Desk
    View Behind Hilton Registration Desk

    file folder and bin of paper clips behind the hotel registration desk.  I understand an “open air” floor plan, but if that is the case it should look like an impeccably organized display from The Container Store. I’ve walked into few disorganized foundation offices, but I have seen and heard a lot of dirty laundry. Employees who talk openly and negatively about their colleagues or about how poorly run their foundation is. Foundation CEOs who complain about specific board members. I’m all for transparency, but I would prefer to see foundations making changes, starting at the highest leadership levels, to fix organizational problems allowing for a productive and enjoyable working environment for all.

  10. Treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers – Given how chaotic the out-in-the-open “back office” was at the Hilton registration desk, it was not a surprise that none of the 10 employees were aware of which part of their hotel would be experiencing construction that day (we were trying to avoid jackhammer noise). An organized operation would issue daily “construction update” bulletins to every single employee each morning. If your employees experience disorganization in the workplace, it is highly likely that your grantees experience it as well.

Improving your customer service isn’t a momentous challenge and you don’t need to hire consultants to help you. Just ask yourself: “When is the last time I thought about “customer service” at my foundation”? If the answer is “never” or “not lately” hold a brainstorming session at your next staff meeting. Ask yourselves: Who are our customers? What does it mean to provide excellent customer service to them? Are we doing this? What are three things we can immediately do to improve our customer service? Check back in with yourselves in three months and see how you are doing, and what else you can improve, and how your organization can structurally support these improvements. I guarantee your grantees and your employees will appreciate it.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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