Apologizing is never fun.
But at some point, you open an envelope or answer the phone and find an upset supporter. You cringe and wonder what went wrong. Remember: how you handle this may make all the difference in your relationship with this donor. So do it right!
The first rule? No matter how strong the temptation is, do not give in to defensiveness. It might make you feel better temporarily, but this isn’t an argument. Your job isn’t to prove that you’re right.
Your job is to listen
So pick up the phone, and start listening.
You can be pretty sure that when a supporter calls or writes with a complaint she needs to be heard. So don’t jump in with excuses or explanations right away. Just listen. Listen without judgment. Try to understand the real reason she’s upset. She might say: “I told you I can only give once a year!” When what she means is “I really wish I could give more, and it upsets me that I can’t. Tell me it’s ok, please?”
Sometimes, though, you or someone at your organization really did blow it. After you’ve listened carefully and sympathetically, it’s time to apologize.
An apology followed by “but” is no apology at all. Ever.
Don’t depend too much on excuses, either. What does “I was too busy,” say to a donor? It says “you’re just not a priority”. I know your time isn’t endless. And the truth may really be that he’s not a priority. But there’s no reason to tell him that, is there?
Take responsibility when you apologize
“I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. That statement and others like it is used to subtly blame the other person. In other words, it’s not my mistake that’s the problem, it’s how you feel about it. There are better ways to acknowledge someone’s feelings. You or your organization should be the subject. Instead of “I’m sorry you feel that way” try “I’m sorry we hurt your feelings”.
Sometimes, you or your organization really haven’t done anything wrong. It’s possible there’s just a difference of opinion. That’s ok. But it’s still not a reason to argue. You can explain the reasoning behind a decision. Your donor may understand. If she doesn’t, you may have to agree to disagree. Just be sure she knows that her opinion – and feelings – are still valued. Be sure she knows she’s been heard.
Promise to do better next time when you can
If you’re already aware of the problem and have already taken steps to fix it, share that with your donor. If you weren’t aware of it, thank him for bringing it to your attention. Then tell him you will fix it. And be sure you do.
Every mistake is not critical, of course. So don’t let the small stuff get to you. But it was important enough to your donor. So treat it with respect.
One final thing – resist any temptation to push the blame off on a co-worker. That’s a weenie move. And it’s not at all satisfying to your donor, either.
Remember, the people who contact you with a problem do so because they care. Otherwise, they wouldn’t even bother. Treat them respectfully, listen carefully, and be sure they feel heard. Then thank them for caring.
Yes, exactly! “I’m sorry you feel that way” is basically an insult to the donor – you may as well say to them “I’m sorry you’re an idiot”. I once had a conversation with an elderly donor who was very unhappy about a direct marketing call he’d received, and just listened and took him seriously and spoke warmly, and he ended up making a further gift! I think donors will generally forgive an awful lot if they get responded to with respect and warmth.
Mary Cahalane says
Absolutely. Sometimes they need to vent a bit, too. That’s ok. Not always fun, but part of the job!