Moments of Truth – Customer Service and Volunteer Engagement

rob-jackson-200x200Rob Jackson, Director of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, has written this guest blog for the September edition of our newsletter ‘Shared Agenda’. We hope you enjoy it.


Whilst it may not be immediately obvious, customer service is an essential aspect of leading and managing volunteers. As American colleague of Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) Jerome Tenniell says in his recent article for Nonprofit Information:

“Having a great experience as a volunteer plays a vital role. It leads to a volunteer either being retained, or moving onto the next organisation. It’s important to recognize that volunteers are essentially “customers” of volunteer opportunities. The volunteer opportunities are what the volunteer is seeking and ultimately shopping for.”

This isn’t a new insight but it is an aspect of volunteer leadership and management that is often overlooked.

American Authors Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch rightly said many years ago that:

“In some ways volunteer involvement resembles any customer service relationship. Those volunteers who feel that they receive good service are likely to continue with the agency, and those who do not feel as though a good relationship has been established are likely to leave. This relationship is most fragile in its early stages, and is particularly fragile when the prospective volunteer is in first contact with the organisation, inquiring about the possibility of volunteering.”

In their 1999 study of volunteers attempting to contact VIOs by phone in the USA, Hobson and Malec found that: only 49.3% received an offer of assistance (‘May I help you?’); 70% did not receive the name of the staff person answering the phone; 26% were not referred to the appropriate agency contact person; when the contact person was not available, only 49% were asked for their name and phone number; only 30% received call-backs when a message was left; and in 16% of the calls, prospective volunteers were not thanked for contacting the agency.

Closer to home I can still recall the Volunteer Centre which, within this decade, thought three weeks was an acceptable period of time for someone to wait for a response after enquiring about volunteering!

So what can we do to provide better customer service to potential volunteers when time and money seem less available than ever?

A good place to start is the lessons from Jan Carlzon’s excellent book Moments of Truth. Carlzon says we need to understand what our customer (i.e. the prospective volunteer) wants so that we can find ways to give it to them, creating what he calls ‘moment of truth’, the critical points of contact at which the customer tends to form judgments about the quality of service.

So consider the following aspects of a volunteer’s journey with you:

  • The prospective volunteer’s initial approach to your organisation
  • The process of first interviewing and matching the volunteer with a position
  • The ongoing working relationship of a volunteer with your organization
  • The follow-up by your organisation with volunteers who have completed their volunteering

As you think through these areas, consider:

  • What perception is likely to be formed by a volunteer during this interaction?
  • Are these different for different markets e.g. young people, baby boomers, employee volunteers etc.?
  • What can be done to shift that perception in a more positive direction?

People’s expectations of the customer service we provide when it comes to volunteering are no different to those of any other organisation they engage with. Being a charity or non-profit group is no excuse. We need to create those moments of truth that will get the volunteering experience off to a flying start.


About Rob Jackson

Rob Jackson is Director of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, a consultancy and training company that helps engage and inspire people to bring about change. Rob has more than two decades experience working in the voluntary and community sector, holding a variety of strategic development and senior management roles that have focused on leading and engaging volunteers.


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