OPINION: Call responses in charities are well below par

GERALDINE PEACOCK, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

I have been both surprised and disappointed by the voluntary sector this week and have been reminded of the ongoing challenges we face to manage our reputations, meet user needs and achieve our aims transparently.

In theory, voluntary agencies are open, accessible and welcoming. Communities, either geographical or "of interest", are at the heart of what we do, as is communication. Or rather it should be.

A communications agency working mainly within the sector did some "mystery shopping" recently and phoned a number of voluntary organisations, large and small. They encountered a range of responses, many of which were neither helpful nor welcoming.

Some examples were monosyllabic switchboard operators who grunted and had no way of taking messages; press officers who didn't answer their phones or said they would call back and didn't; information line operators who said "dunno" and offered no onward referral; and fundraisers who did not know what to do if you wanted to donate shares and, again, did not get back.

I was aghast, but also embarrassed for the sector. We encourage potential donors to call us to learn more and give to our causes. If the outcomes of this telephone trawl are anything to go by, we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot.

Having got that off my chest, the experience did bring home the importance of investing in a good communications strategy and in training. After all, no organisation gets it right all the time. Providing effective and repeated training for customer-facing staff is vital, as are monitoring and feedback.

What is also important is the recognition that frontliners - switchboard operators, reception staff, information officers - are often not well paid and are seen as having little responsibility, but are also most people's first experience of our organisations. As such, their responses are vital and we do need to ensure that they are never taken for granted.

When you think of the extraordinary care that goes into getting a couple of thousand pounds-worth of publicity materials right, it seems astonishing that the same attention to detail is often not invested in the diplomatic minefield of welcoming the public into our organisations by phone.

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