No app can substitute for actually talking with people

Back in 2001, when I started directing the United Nation’s Online Volunteering Service , then a part of NetAid, one of the first things I did was ask to spend a week answering emails from users. Before I arrived, the junior associates had recruited volunteers – unpaid interns – to do this, because they themselves hated doing it. They could not understand why I wanted to spend time doing such low-level administrative work myself. Neither could my new boss, who tried to give me a lecture about the appropriate work for someone directing an entire program.

I insisted, and I did it. Why? Because there was no better way for me to learn, in just a week, what the users of the service were asking and saying, what they understood, what they didn’t, and what they wanted. It took about two hours a day, total, and what I learned in that week, as well as other days when I filled in for sick staff and interns, was invaluable to creating effective strategies for the program. It also helped me better direct staff in how to support users of the service – our customers. Staff had never thought of those people on the other end of those emails, trying to use the OV service, as customers or clients, and I worked hard to change staff perceptions of the site’s users.

I worked at a professional theater back in the late 1980s. I had graduated from university less than four months before. I remember the executive director saying that he would cut any position in a time of budgetary crisis except the box office staff. He said that most of our audience would never interact personally with anyone other than the box office staff at the theater. Sure, many would get a call from the fundraising staff if they didn’t respond to the postal mailing about donating, but most – MOST – would interact personally only with someone in the box office. For most of our audience, the box office staff was their personal connection to the theater – not the actors on stage. That box office experience, therefore, should be STELLAR and have all the resources it needed to be such. That executive director made sure the box office staff was well-trained (and often re-trained), well-supported, actively supervised and well paid. And the box office staff, in turn, gave the marketing staff and fundraising staff invaluable information regularly on what our audiences were saying, information that was far more regular and reliable than any research consultant could provide.

I bring up these experiences which have shaped my approaches to communications and management of staff to this day because I am stunned at how, at most nonprofit organizations, NGOs, international agencies, government programs and more, many senior staff members are not aware of what staff on the front lines are dealing with, nor what clients or the public are saying. Yes, you should do a variety of surveys and focus groups and formal pulse-taking, and ask your staff to produce reports on what they are hearing via their interactions with your clients, customers, the public, etc., but there’s no substitute for interacting with customers yourself. That includes on social media. Why are you having inexperienced young people or a short-term intern manage your social media? Social media is about interacting, about engaging – not just one-way communication. If you had an onsite event for a large number of clients or the general public or donors, who would you have to facilitate that event – a short-term intern new to your organization, or a senior staff member? Who would your clients or the general public or major donors expect to work with them? What you would do offline, onsite at your organization with clients you should also do online.

And that brings me to apps and chatbots. I regularly see nonprofit staff post questions to online groups, trying to find a magical app or chatbot that will replace a staff member from having to actually engage with users, or replace a staff member actually having to read social media messages. TechSoup recently did a series of breathless blogs about how wonderful artificial intelligence and chatbots are for nonprofits. Yes, chatbots might reduce overhead administrative costs, but at what cost to the organization in other wasy?

  • Chatbots take away an opportunity for real people to interact with current and potential clients, donors, volunteers and others at a nonprofit organization, which denies an organization critical information that can help staff know whatcurrent and potential clients, donors, volunteers and others are saying, how they are feeling, etc.
  • They also frustrate people – many people will end their interactions with a chatbot once they realize it isn’t an actual human being and their questions aren’t being answered properly, and have a negative viewpoint of the company that uses that chatbot.

This response to the TechSoup blogs really sums it up well:

I have not ever had a satisfying experience with a chatbot. far too often there are unique situations and circumstances that cannot be anticipated or made a part of the program. It is immensely frustrating to be stuck talking to a chatbot that is only able to respond to things that are part of its program. I would rather have a little slower response and talk to a real person who listens and cares.

For-profit companies can get away with not having a reputation of listening and caring – they can still be profitable, despite such a perception. Nonprofits, however, cannot.

Not only do you need actual humans to interact with clients, donors, volunteers and the general public – you need senior staff to be doing so, at least occasionally. If these human interactions aren’t integrated into your organization’s practices and culture, and central to your strategies regarding public relations, they should be.

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