True confession. I’m the guy you do not want to sit next to on a flight. I like to “chat” with people. I’m infinitely curious and I love to learn about and from others. Recently a client had me traveling to North Carolina and on the return flight I found myself sitting next to a woman who owns and manages Liberty Tax Service stores in Pennsylvania. I learned two things from her on our brief flight that absolutely fascinated me. First, she told me the Liberty Tax Services corporate office has found that a person walking into one of their stores will decide within the first six seconds whether he or she will get their taxes done by a Liberty Tax preparer. Count it…1…2…3…4…5…6. In that brief time, a prospective client decides “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” Liberty Tax Services apparently takes the challenge of making a strong first impression very seriously. The company’s mission statement says a lot: “Set the standard, improve each day and have some fun!” Mission statements can be just words so it is helpful to see that the company’s principles are supportive (scroll beneath the mission to read the principles).
The real evidence of this mission statement was held by my seatmate. I asked her what she did to create a climate that won over people in such a short time. She begins with her staff. She works to create a warm, friendly, and fun culture where people want to work and spend time. For example, she has monthly movie nights for staff. It started quite by accident when she wanted to do something simple that would reward her staff for some extraordinary effort. Her folks liked it so much they decided to continue and so it does. It says a lot that people who spend so many hours in the office, especially in peak tax season, will come back just to hang out, watch a movie and eat popcorn together. In this way she also models how to welcome customers and help them feel at home. Her offices have also set up a special area for young children to wait and play while their parents are doing the grown up thing of having their taxes done.
The second thing I learned really floored me (or, at least it would have if I could have moved in my cramped seat enough to actually fall to the floor). This needs a bit of context. If you have a Liberty Tax Service nearby you may have seen someone dressed up like the Statue of Liberty standing by the roadside waving and flashing a sign for the business. These folks are known as “wavers” and, honestly, I’ve never imagined this would be a pleasant job…except for extreme extroverts. In fact, there can be a lot of turn over but what I learned is that good wavers are worth their weight in foam Statue of Liberty hats. My seatmate had done analysis of what drives new business into her offices. Fifty percent of her new business comes from the wavers, particularly if they are good wavers (energetic, friendly, engaging, etc.). I was really stunned. I just never thought a waver (I didn’t even know they had a name) would make that much difference but, according to this owner/manager, it does.
The welcoming culture of the Liberty Tax Services office actually begins at the curb. The way the waver engages passersby can say, “Come on in. You are welcome here. We’re glad to see you and to help.” Once potential customers, enticed by the siren call of the waver, get in the door, they need to feel the love in six seconds or less.
As with many of my inflight “chats,” this one got me thinking about how nonprofits esteem their clients. Since nonprofits, specifically direct service organizations, often provide services that are not provided anywhere else it is easy to take clients for granted. After all, where else will they go? Since nonprofits are not usually competing for business and staff are not being paid on commission, it can become too easy to forget the humanity of clients. Isn’t this humanity really what nonprofit work is all about? After all, nonprofits exist to promote the greater good for the people – humans – in a society. A performance or outcome orientation of key funders may pressure nonprofits to measure their success through the logic of ROI (return on investment) but this needs to be resisted as much as possible. Nonprofits are, well, not supposed to make a profit because they are continuously reinvesting in the greater good. This reinvestment includes creating and maintaining offices, programs, events, and services that are welcoming to clients and honors their humanity.
As I was writing this blog posting in my head, the Harvard Business Review posted a blog in which the author, Sam Ford, encourages companies to rediscover their own humanity by developing genuine customer empathy. He writes in his closing paragraph, “Only when all employees…work to truly understand the world from their customers’ points of view can we truly call ourselves ‘customer-centric’ and a ‘social business.'”
This is true for nonprofits and, even more, it is essential if nonprofits are to be agents of the greater good to all human beings.
Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus