There’s a story about two masons at work. When asked what they were doing, the first mason replied, “I’m laying bricks,” and the second said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Similarly, Kate (not her real name) had two recent encounters with nonprofits. First, she went to an organization’s office to pick up a certificate honouring years of volunteering, only to have the receptionist rummage through files, hand her the certificate and say, “Here you go.” The same week, coincidentally, Kate began volunteering for different organization. When she arrived, the receptionist looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you for coming. We’re delighted you’re here to volunteer.”

Staff who are the voice and face of an organization play a more pivotal role than we (or even they themselves) often give them credit for. Why are these roles sometimes undervalued and how can organizations best recruit, support and work with these important employees?

Why is this role so important?

It can be argued that staff who are the first point of contact with your organization, which includes but isn’t limited to receptionists,call centre employees, and gift processors, are among the most important positions in an organization and should be supported as such.

Each staff member is your organization, says behaviour change consultant Derek Stockley. An organization can have 10,000 employees but for the customer — the volunteer, donor, client or member of the public — the one person they meet functions as the organization’s representative or ambassador.

Donna Lockhart, partner with the Rethink Group, notes that first point of contact can be anyone from a senior executive to a volunteer, but that there are certain roles that include this function as a primary responsibility. Marketer Allison Gauss says, “Starting off on the right foot can be the difference between landing a valuable donor or falling off their radar.” The same can be true for first contact with volunteers or the general public: first impressions matter.

This can be translated into very tangible terms for the organization, cautions fundraising consultant Fraser Green of Good Works. “If you contact a charity and they treat you like a queen, you might stay with them for twenty years.” In a world where donor retention and loyalty are legitimate challenges, Green adds, “Every opportunity to create donor loyalty is an opportunity to make a huge return on a small investment.”

Effectively, it comes down to customer service, even if a nonprofit’s customer base may be a more complex group than a for-profit venture’s. Staff who are the first point of contact need to be trained, for instance, to recognize their role within an organization’s philanthropic goals and to help potential and existing donors, as well as to engage with and support volunteers and clients as valued customers.

Hire right

When we asked CharityVillage followers on Twitter which nonprofit organizations in Canada had the best receptionists, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver was quick to reply that their receptionist, Kat Palmer is “amazing.” Interim CFO Jules Marshall explained: “Kat impressed me right from the start in her interview. She had lots of energy, was smiling, sincere, genuine and transparent. She had no experience as a receptionist — her background is in acting — so I couldn’t go by past references but she had the raw material to be an exceptional receptionist.”

There are qualities that are important in roles such as receptionists. Human resources consultant Gayle Hadfield, principal consultant of Hadfield HR, says these include adaptability to change, initiative and curiosity. Leah Eustace, fundraising consultant at Good Works, advises organizations to “choose people who like talking but who are also good listeners.” This is one of the prime qualities that makes Kat Palmer stand out, says Marshall: “I hear a lot from people that when they call, they feel they are being welcomed and heard. Kat gives them her full attention and follows up with them. People say they feel like a burden when they call some other places, but when they talk to Kat, they are glad they called.”

Debra Cruickshank is the receptionist, administrative assistant and donations manager at Ray of Hope, an organization working with disadvantaged, marginalized or troubled people in Kitchener, Ontario whose staff also nominated her as a top-notch receptionist. She observes the importance of being friendly and willing to meet the need of the moment, as well as possessing strong organization skills and an understanding of the entire organization and her role within it.

One of the biggest assets for employees in these roles is the ability to deal with challenging situations. Lockhart notes that this requires an ability to multitask and not be rattled, while Cruickshank is aware of knowing when to deal with a situation herself and when to pass it on. Professors Muzaffer Uysal and Vincent Magnini, who have studied customer service, note, “Not everyone is well-suited to be a front-line customer service provider.” They suggest using behavioural interviewing methods and emotional intelligence screening for applicants to these roles: “The stress of the frontline requires that providers have the ability to manage their own emotions and recognize the emotions of others.”

Sometimes candidates may see a front-line role such as a receptionist as a stepping stone to a larger role in an organization. “That can be tricky,” notes Hadfield, who advises finding out more about the candidate’s motivation and goals. “It might be good if they came into this role and were job-ready for a new role when it arose — or it might not.”

Perhaps most importantly, says Hadfield, is that the staff who are the face of your organization should “have a level of enthusiasm that matches the organization.” This does not always mean a cheerful, extroverted staffer, but one who embodies and represents well the values and mission of your organization.

Not just about hiring the right person

Organizations also owe their staff training to serve customers well, says Lockhart.

Eustace was approached by a client whose support staff felt uncertain about how to interact with donors during an annual giving campaign. She met with the staff and led a training session to equip them. Among their exercises, they discussed FAQs — what they might hear when they picked up a phone and how they might respond — as well as what philanthropy is, the role it plays in an organization, and each staff member’s role in developing a culture of philanthropy. The session, says Eustace, “increased comfort levels for the staff” as well as adding professional skills. “There’s a big difference between just being empathetic when an upset donor calls, and knowing how to hear them out, interact with them and put them through to the right person who can make a difference.”

Learning how to perceive and respond to complaints is one of the key elements of good training for front-line staff, says Green, who adds, “Whenever a customer comes to you with a complaint, it is a huge opportunity to exceed expectations and create real satisfaction.” An employee who has not been trained about this, however, may try to avoid conflict by ending a conversation as quickly as possible.

Staff responsible for an organization’s website or social media also need training in understanding their role in the organization’s relationships with its clients. This can mean learning how to use language the audience understands, making a website user-friendly and easily navigable (especially by mobile devices), anticipating questions and including information that donors, volunteers and the public are looking for.

Integrate them into team

It is vital that the entire organization think of each staff member as important to the team, says Hadfield, who describes what many call orientation as “integration” — where new staff are integrated into the team, the culture, the values and the objectives of the organization.

“Someone may be paid less,” says Hadfield, “because their role requires less education or experience or risk, but all roles need to be valued as equal in terms of fundamental importance.” Eustace agrees: “These staff don’t always get the respect they deserve. It’s important to train an entire staff team to see the important role of the receptionist and other front-line staff.”

What this looks like is not so much flowers on National Receptionist Day (May 11) as including these employees as part of the team by keeping them aware of organizational information, rather than seeing them as an extra or a department on their own.

For instance, too often, Hadfield says, “people in entry level roles in donor processing are not kept informed when big campaigns start. But when a donor calls and the staff don’t have answers, both the donor and the staff member feel a sense of disconnection from the work of the organization.”

It’s also vital to integrate the staff into the organization’s culture and values. “Kat doesn’t just sit there and answer the phone,” says Marshall. “She believes in the values and mission. She knows a lot about the organization, its people and programs and can answer almost any question.”

In order to do that, an organization needs to involve such staff in the work of the organization. “I think of Kat as being part of the finance team,” says Marshall. “Connecting front-line staff with all departments and making sure they understand their role in fulfilling the organization’s mission,” says Green, “means when there is a half-million dollar bequest, they can feel part of it.”

It can also be a matter of simple logistics, as Cruickshank states, making sure the receptionist is updated on the daily agenda of the office and the whereabouts of staff.

Empower and let them grow

“It has always been my experience in all sectors that when you give a junior staffer latitude and authority to represent their organization and be its ambassador, that is hugely motivating to them – and will help employee retention,” says Green.

Hadfield suggests organizations can do this by inviting them to serve on committees and offering them professional development opportunities to learn skills and develop their interests. It also means helping them know about opportunities within the organization and the skill path needed to move into those roles. Marshall says, “We have a long history of people who started at the reception desk and moved on to more senior management positions. We want to help talented people grow and stay in the organization. We work with that person to help them meet both our organization’s goals and their goals.”

Another key to both empowerment and retention is for organizations to listen closely to their front-line staff, who may be the best-positioned people in the organization to know what donors, clients and volunteers care about or are concerned about.

Recognize who is really responsible for what

Finally, it is important to recognize the limitations of front-line staff and the role of the organization or other staff within it. Rather than simply blaming a front-line staffer for poor customer service, Eustace says, often the responsibility lies with the organization and its lack of training.

Other times, someone else should be the first point of contact, even temporarily. Lockhart tells of a library whose manager of volunteers makes sure she is always there for a new volunteer’s first shift to welcome, orient and support them. Similarly, Hadfield notes that volunteer recognition like Kate’s should not have been left to the receptionist but instead the executive director should have made sure to be available to honour volunteers.

A New Yorker cartoon shows a castle under siege from a rival army, with a lone woman sitting behind a desk in front of the castle gates. The caption is dialogue between two soldiers, and says, “They have no military, sire — no one’s ever made it past their receptionist.” However, when it comes to nonprofit organizations, the responsibility given to front-line staff really isn’t a laughing matter – these employees provide an important first impression to donors, volunteers, clients and the general public. In fact, you might argue that front-line staff are vitally important not because of who they keep out, but instead because of who they welcome into the organization.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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