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Service with a smile

Improving your organization with customer-smart skills

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

Laura MacLean (right), a fosterer for Anjellicle Cats Rescue, chats with a couple interested in her foster kitten.Good service isn’t limited to adopters—you need to be available to your volunteers as well. Here Azure Davis (right), founder and president of Ruff Start Rescue, talks to one of the group’s foster parents about the dog in her care. Good rescuers know that the work isn’t just about happy animals, but about keeping people happy as well. That means responding to those emails from potential adopters—even the ones you’re not sure about. If you’re encouraging adopters and volunteers to contact you—and why wouldn’t you be?—you need to make sure you’re getting back to them in a timely manner.

In 2011, an Ohio-based pet blogger was awarded a grant of $1,000 that she could give to a rescue group of her choice. She’d heard good things about one local group, and sent an email to its executive director.

She never heard back.

After several unreturned emails and phone calls, she gave up and chose another local organization, which promptly responded and invited her over for a tour. Not only did this second rescue group receive the sorely needed funds, but the blogger later featured the group on her site, giving it even more publicity.

One thousand dollars—that’s what poor customer service cost the first organization. How much is it costing you? In donations? Discouraged volunteers? Lost adoptions?

Customer service matters. As rescuers, it’s easy to forget that in order to help our organizations grow and be able to place more animals, we have to take care of people, too. With more than 10,000 animal welfare organizations in the U.S. and Canada, we’re competing with other groups for donor dollars, for publicity, for adopters. But one thing that can make an organization stand out from the crowd is great customer service. Your reputation is one of your organization’s most important assets. It can get you get more donations, more volunteers, more foster homes, and more adoptions—or it can do the opposite. And while the animals can’t always tell the full story, the people can—and boy, do they talk.

Retooling Our Thinking

Micah Solomon, a best-selling business author who’s written extensively about customer service in the digital age, advises that improving your customers’ experience is “the No. 1 way to build a bigger, more successful and sustainable business. … The customer experience is the one thing you can control and use to reliably build the profitability of your business.”

As nonprofits, we don’t always think in terms of “profitability.” But we should, and we should seek to run our rescues like businesses. Just imagine that your “profits” are successful adoptions, more donations, and more community support, and “profitability” takes on a whole new meaning!

When most rescue groups think about “customers,” their thoughts go directly to the animals in their care. But as Jan Elster, author of Animal Friendly – Customer Smart: People Skills for Animal Shelters (, explains, the animals are really our beneficiaries, not our customers. If you want your rescue group to be there for the long haul, you have to start applying good customer skills to the people your organization encounters.

Elster explains that it’s not the traditional approach to customer service that animal welfare groups should be pursuing. We’re not selling scarves, after all, and in our world, sometimes, the customer may be wrong.

“Customer service has the feeling behind it that the customer is always right, that we need to do everything to make the customer feel that they are superior, etc., etc. And I don’t believe that,” Elster says. Instead, she advocates working “customer smart,” which allows us to manage the interaction so that it’s positive. “Meaning,” she adds, “we can get our business done without anyone flying off the handle.”

So how can we control interactions with customers to our advantage? Elster recommends making people feel three things during an interaction:

  1. Welcome. Let people know that you’re really happy they’ve come to (or contacted) your organization. Setting the initial tone will lessen any anxiety, and set you up for a positive interaction.
  2. Important. Let the person you’re interacting with know that they have your undivided attention. Don’t answer your cell phone if it rings, take off your sunglasses, and actively listen.
  3. Comfortable. There are two kinds of comfort—psychological (meaning you put the customer at ease, and don’t make them feel like you’re judging them) and physical (meaning you sit in a quiet, comfortable area, and offer them a glass of water if possible).

Elster notes that being able to encourage these feelings in people isn’t an easy feat and takes strong interpersonal skills. It will take some practice, so try out different methods until you find one that works for you.

Email, however, is a completely different beast. Words can more easily be misconstrued when people don’t have the same contextual clues—such as tone or facial expressions—to decipher their meaning. Elster advises being extra-gentle when writing emails by avoiding saying anything that you wouldn’t want to say face-to-face, and minding your sarcasm.

And if you do end up in a tense situation, Elster warns not to talk back—as much as you might want to—“because then you have two egos in battle, and each needs to escalate to beat the other one.” And that one interaction gone sour can ruin your organization’s reputation.

The Right Stuff

Kathryn Willis, director of Anjellicle Cats Rescue in New York City, has experienced the impact of having good people on staff to implement strong customer service practices. A few years ago, the group did around 50 adoptions a year. In 2012, it did more than 900. Now it receives applications to foster and adopt every day, along with donations from around the globe.

Willis credits this growth, in large part, to finding the right combination of people who agree on how to run the rescue, which has helped the group build a good reputation. “People know about us,” Willis says. “They know who we are, that we take a lot of cats, and that we’re doing great work. Our volunteers, our fosterers tell their friends. Word-of-mouth is really important.”

She notes that it took the rescue a couple of years to find the current staff who are aware of the benefits of good customer service practices and are mindful to use them. Willis recommends hiring people who act professional and aren’t easily upset. Those who want to make people happy, rarely get ruffled, and show patience and empathy are likely to be great representatives. You also want to ensure that staff are confident and passionate about the group’s mission. She recommends steering clear of people who appear unpredictable, angry, or don’t have a background of dealing with a diverse range of people and the many issues they may bring to the table.

Good customer service has been key to the longevity of Good Mews Animal Foundation, a cage-free cat shelter in Marietta, Ga., that’s been around 25 years. The organization’s facility is a bit difficult to find, explains Nancy Riley, community outreach chair. To compensate, Good Mews has to rely on word-of-mouth. “Being a nonprofit organization … we rely completely on our donors for our existence. … We have some loyal and faithful donors, and we absolutely treat them like they’re part of our community.”

In fact, she says, “There are a lot of people that we get checks from or that join our monthly giving program who probably have never been to our shelter, but they’ve heard about us and they support our cause and they see that we’re doing a good job.”

There are countless ways you can employ good customer service in your organization. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Be responsive. One of the top complaints people seem to have about rescue groups is that they never hear back from them. There are few things more frustrating than reaching out with a question or applying to adopt and feeling like your communication has fallen into a void. Failing to respond quickly to inquiries costs rescue groups adopters, volunteers, and donations.

As the adoptions committee chair of Good Mews, Michelle Kirkham holds herself to a high standard: She responds to all adoption email inquiries within five hours of receiving them, often faster. She thinks it’s good customer service to answer right away; it prevents potential adopters from getting frustrated and turning elsewhere to find a new pet.

Willis agrees. “I think that the first and foremost thing you need to do is to acknowledge someone immediately. … Regardless of what anyone is asking you about, whether it’s a cat or your policy or your application, you need to acknowledge them and say, ‘Hi, thank you for your inquiry, this is how we do it or this is what we would need from you to adopt a cat to you.’”

While an immediate response simply isn’t feasible for most people, it’s a good idea to have a policy to respond to all emails and phone calls within 24 hours—even if the initial response is simply a friendly, professionally worded automatic reply. This means that whoever serves as the organization’s initial point of contact must be able to respond quickly. Kirkham says she sits at a computer all day, so it’s easier for her to pull off her herculean feat.

Multiple representatives at Anjellicle Cats Rescue have access to the group’s main email account so that inquiries get a fast response. They mark each email as “answered” or “in progress” to ensure that more than one person isn’t responding to the same query. And responding can be a team effort. If someone doesn’t know the answer to a question, Willis explains, “we acknowledge the inquiry, and let the individual know that we’re looking into it. Then the emails are forwarded to three to four different people, and we figure out the best response as quickly as possible.”

Azure Davis, president of Ruff Start Rescue in Princeton, Minn., has set up an automatic response that provides everyone who contacts her with the email address for every department within the group (veterinary, adoption, fostering, surrender). The automatic reply also instructs the sender to respond with an email with the subject line “Urgent” if it requires immediate attention. Davis also tries to give people an idea of when they should anticipate her response, which helps manage their expectations. With a full-time job in addition to her rescue work, she receives more than 200 emails a day, and says that without an automatic response system, she would lose her mind.

And remember that responsiveness isn’t just for adopters. I’ll never forget a cat adoption event I attended where a woman charged in with a dog. She was fostering for another rescue group, but hadn’t been able to get ahold of a single person to let them know that the dog was sick and needed immediate medical attention. She had no idea what to do, and no one from the organization was helping her. What are the chances that she’ll foster for them again? Or recommend the organization to her friends?

Provide accurate information. Riley notes that Good Mews takes a lot of pride in the descriptions its volunteers write about the cats. “Michelle spends time really getting to know these cats, so that she can write an accurate description of their personalities. … We try to make our descriptions as accurate as possible. So if it’s a shy cat, or if it’s a cat that needs to be in a house on its own, or if it’s a cat that tends to be a little cranky sometimes, we tell it like it is. To me, that’s important that the adopter knows exactly what they’re getting.”

Providing accurate information also means making “self-service” easy for your customers. They’ll want to know as much information as possible about your rescue group before they decide whether to get involved, either as an adopter, a fosterer, a volunteer, or a donor. Having detailed, current information on your website can help them get an idea of what you’re about—and it can save you time, too, since many people will look online for information before calling. Is your adoption process clearly outlined on the website? Do you have an FAQ section that explains your mission, who you are, where your animals come from (without bashing the source—your partnering shelters are customers, too!), where you’re located, and other basic information that adopters, donors, and volunteers may need?

Get to know your customers and listen. When people come to a Good Mews adoption event, they’re met by a greeter who’s there strictly to welcome people, make them feel comfortable, and gather information about what they’re looking for while showing them around, says Riley. The greeter finds out if they’re looking for a kitten, an older cat, a playmate for a current pet at home, or just there to browse. Once armed with that information, the greeter hands the person off to an adoption counselor, who then takes a closer look at which cats might work for this potential adopter. Even if you don’t have a bricks-and-mortar facility, having friendly greeters at adoption events to help people feel less lost can go a long way toward winning them over.

Stay calm and professional. No organization is immune to its share of ornery customers. It’s how you deal with these people that can set your rescue group apart.

Kirkham notes that the adoption counselors at Good Mews Animal Foundation are specifically trained to handle situations where the customer is upset. First and foremost, she recommends, apologize to the person. Just saying you’re sorry can have a profound effect. If someone is upset because of a policy, the adoption counselor will explain that policy and why the rescue group believes it’s in the best interest of the cats. If it’s a situation where the organization won’t adopt to the person, depending on the reasons for the denial, counselors may recommend other places, such as the local animal care and control agency, where the person might still adopt a rescued pet, instead of driving them toward a puppy mill or breeder. But, Kirkham says, the adoptions counselors will never be rude or dismissive.

Willis agrees that an apology will often assuage an angry customer. When something falls through the cracks, she says, “Someone from the organization will tell the person, ‘I’m sorry that no one got back to you about this, but I’m going to check with someone.’ Most people realize that we are an all-volunteer organization, and that we do have jobs and that we can’t be on top of everything 24 hours per day, but we try, and usually people can understand that.”

Be accessible. Remember that your work is about forging relationships with your adopters, fosterers, volunteers, and donors. Riley notes that when people walk into her organization’s facility for an adoption event, “We’ve got places where people can sit and let the cats jump in their laps, or go in the kitten room and play with the kittens. So we try to make it as interactive and comfortable an experience as possible.” By making it fun and welcoming, people feel part of the Good Mews family from the beginning.

Say thank you. While all donors are thanked, Good Mews Animal Foundation goes the extra mile for larger donations. Riley says that for donations of more than $150, the organization sends a handwritten note on a nice card. She believes that practice helps personalize the experience and lets donors know their donation is appreciated.

And volunteers—the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization—also need to feel the love! There are a million other things people can do with their time, and they choose to give it to your organization, free of charge. As Willis notes, “The important thing is to thank everybody all the time for anything they do. People need to be acknowledged. It’s the one thing that you can give them that money can’t buy.”

Anjellicle Cats Rescue throws a big party every year, inviting all its fosterers and volunteers. “We try to make it a fun evening for everyone,” Willis says. “We always try to tell them how much we appreciate them.”

Think about your organization’s customer service practices and what you can do to improve. The payoff will be immediate and will help improve nearly every aspect of your rescue group, from adoptions to volunteer recruitment to fundraising. As Willis notes, “Good customer service practices took our organization from a good one, and made it into a great one.”

About the Author

Abby Volin is the former Public Policy Manager for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where she focused on policies and programs that protect pets and keep them in their homes. In her previous role at HSUS she developed programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs and challenges experienced by rescue groups. Prior to joining The HSUS, Abby worked as a litigator and was involved of all aspects of operating a rescue group in her spare time.