Complaint calls – a donor care opportunity


None of us like to get them – the dreaded morning complaint call. Your team has just sent out an appeal – renewal or acquisition – and it feels, at the time, the only thing the appeal letter is generating is a complaint call!

Here are  twelve things to do when you find yourself in this situation:

  1. Respond to every call. Even when it seems uncomfortable to call someone who is upset or appears to be extremely agitated, you must call them. Remember for every person who takes the time to complain, there may be ten others who are not directly telling you their feelings. Therefore, show the person who writes or calls the respect they deserve.
  2. Be prepared to address every issue on the phone. You might not be given the time to get through every issue, but do your homework in advance of the call to have answers to the typical questions/concerns.
  3. Do not try to convince the person who lodged the complaint that they are wrong (even if their facts could use a reality check). Be an active listener and respond with statements such as: “You are correct to point out”, “I really understand your point. In fact”, “We have heard this feedback before and here is what we typically do”.
  4. Apologise for the situation, but not for what you do. Fundraisers should never apologise for asking for money. At the same time, it is OK to tell the donor you are sorry they felt one way or the other.
  5. Have the CEO respond to the complaint calls. The CEO? Yes. These calls should not be considered a training ground. Instead, these calls ought to come from the top of the organisation as a way to show the donor you heard them and you are responding!
  6. Always be ready to discuss cost of fundraising. Cost of fundraising will come up on a majority of the calls. Be ready with statements such as: “Cost of fundraising is the #1 concern of our CEO, board, and leadership and we are doing everything we can to ensure we have the lowest cost of fundraising of our peer organisations. Just this year we have…”.
  7. Send a hand written note as follow up. If appropriate, send a hand written thank you note immediately after the call. These types of treatments stick out in the donor’s mind.
  8. Donor-centricity works. Give the complainant a chance to drive the solution. If the person is asking to opt out of all future communication, tell them you can offer them a few options: a) Completely removing them from your data set; b) coding their record to receive just donor communications, but no solicitations; or, c) coding the record to receive just one ask per year. Then say, Mrs Smith, we value you and do not want to lose you. May I suggest you let us send you our important updates and to ask you for money just one time per year”. Mrs Smith will likely see that as a winning option.
  9. Donor centricity, again, works. Ask the donor what time of the year they want to hear from you by offering the times you typically mail. Let the donor choose rather than choosing to send her a tax or Christmastime.
  10. Place the call the same day the complaint arrives. There is nothing worse than letting the complaints stack up and responding to them at once. First, those making the complaints get more agitated because of your non-response and second, you will not be at your best when you have to call 12 people at once!
  11. Turn every complaint into a positive. 90% of the complaint letters and phone calls may be turned into a positive. Someone who threatens to stop supporting the organisation, to stop the monthly regular gift, or, to be taken off your mailing list will likely change their mind after hearing from you. Most reasonable people simply need to get something off their chest or simply want to be heard. In the end, by hearing them and by addressing their issues, you are likely to retain them!
  12. Do not let a complaint letter drive your decision to direct market, to conduct and acquisitions programme, or to ask via a certain channel. At the end of every appeal, build the number of complaint calls in your metrics and report them to the team. If you mail 250,000 pieces and receive 6 complaints, report the low percentage of complaints and the results of the calls. On the other hand, if you get 1,000 complaints, address the issue and make the change needed.
  13. Charities should not simply gravitate to positive feedback. Keeping on top of negative feedback will give you additional opportunities to manage change in your direct marketing programme and to personalise the very impersonal world of direct marketing.