I was privileged to be in the audience when Dr. Adrian Sargeant recently spoke about the importance of donor retention, and elaborated quite nicely what organizations could do, specifically, to improve their donor retention rates.

One of his specific suggestions was to improve service recovery practices. Dr. Sargeant pointed out that when donors experience a problem that is quickly and expertly handled, they are MORE likely to renew their gift than they are if there are no problems whatsoever.

Service Recovery is defined as the action a service provider takes in response to service failure.

How do you handle things when problems arise? Some standard practices include Duck and Cover, Ignore it Until it Goes Away, and Keep your Fingers Crossed that Everything Works Out Alright in the End. Sound familiar?

For those who sense the opportunity that presents itself when problems strike, there is a better way to recover from service problems. In fact, there is a 4 step process you can follow, and then a two-step follow-up process as well.

  • A – Apologize
  • U – Understand
  • T – Thank
  • O – Offer Solution
  • D – Discuss
  • L – Learn

Having managed a team of those on the front line before, and having trained them in this method, I can tell you this works. Not for every person, of course, but for the vast majority, this will reduce your stress and allow you to find a solution that works for everyone.

Remember to be genuine. If you cannot be genuine in your reaction when confronted with a problem, studies tell us you are better off ignoring the problem. So when one of your donors tells you the automatic withdrawal amount was wrong, or tells you that they don’t want to be seated at that table because they just can’t stand their table-mate, or even tells you they aren’t giving any more to your organization because they felt ignored, be thankful. And be genuine in your thankfulness.

Many donors will walk out that door without giving any indication of a problem at all. The fact that you are being approached means they value your organization and your mission enough to broach an uncomfortable subject with you. Even if you are not able to make the wanted change, be grateful that they cared enough to share with you.

Let’s start with Apologize. Seems pretty straightforward, right? It is. Sort of. If you fake it and your constituent can tell, you may have just lost a donor (or potential donor) for quite a while, or even forever. Second, make a REAL apology. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you feel when a service provider says, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. You are putting responsibility back on the person who is experiencing the pain. As a representative of your organization, take full responsibility and empathize with them.

“I am so sorry this has happened to you. I can only imagine how frustrating and painful this entire experience must have been, which is made worse by the fact that you are supporting our mission, and we’re making it hard for you! I am so sorry.”

A truly successful, heartfelt apology will stop the ranting person in their tracks. They are expecting defensiveness and instead receive openness; this juxtaposition of expectations will almost universally result in a little shock and a “resetting” of the conversation; from this point, you can move forward past the anger to get to the heart of the problem.

Now you have to Understand their problem. This requires you to listen, to really listen. Not only do you need to understand their problem, you need to understand their “real” problem. Many times, underneath the facade of anger and bluster is hurt feelings that need to be dealt with, that oftentimes have little to do with the “presented” problem. Carefully listening and understanding their problem will lead to a greater appreciation of what their real problem is.

Do not forget to Thank them. This step is easy to overlook, particularly if you know you have the PERFECT solution for them. But you need to slow down and thank them, genuinely, for bringing the problem to your attention. You need to be able to look at them and tell them to you genuinely appreciate them bringing the problem to you, because you cannot fix what you don’t know is broken. If you are striving for a culture of excellence, you want your donors to know you appreciate their help.

Offer Solutions is pretty straightforward. You may need some time to consider carefully how to approach the problem after thanking your constituent. This is perfectly fine, so long as you make sure your constituent does not think you are ignoring them, or blowing them off. When you offer the solution, make sure you cover the concerns that they raised in the initial conversation. If your solution is not a complete acquiescence to their demands (which may not always be reasonable), make sure they understand your thought process, and why you reached the determination you did.

OK, now we’re ready to talk about what to do with your team, after you have offered a solution and resolved the situation as much as you are able to.

The first step is to Discuss the situation with your team. Everyone on your team has to feel comfortable discussing what happened and how to improve the process moving forward without fears of repercussions or blowback later.

After that discussion, you need to make sure your team Learns from this experience. Talk with them about what should have happened along every step of the way, and how they could have handled things more effectively, if applicable. As happens, if you are dealing with an unreasonable constituent, it’s OK to point that out; your focus should be on strategies for dealing with unreasonable people moving forward, not necessarily on the specific circumstance or event that created that particular problem.

As we have seen, there is a very definitive process you can follow when your constituents are unhappy with some level of service that your organization provides. According to Adrian Sargeant, these problems are opportunities for you to cement these donors as permanent donors. Not that you should go looking for trouble, but if trouble comes to you, be better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities it presents!

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