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Is Less Volunteer Support Better Volunteer Support?
Originally published in Engage Journal Q4 2021
Digitally enabled volunteer management is not simply volunteer coordination - it is the experience of facilitating the relationship between the volunteer and the organization, initially and over the lifetime of engagement. Designing and implementing a volunteer intake and onboarding process sometimes isn’t enough to deliver an efficient volunteer program. If you find yourself scrambling to be all things to all volunteers, take a step back, put yourself in their shoes, and think about how you can design out friction from their process.
Offering successful volunteer support means being reachable, being helpful, and empowering the volunteer to be more capable on their own. Amazon.com has been credited with saying, “The best customer service is no customer service,” in other words, you have an excellent program when nobody needs to ask for help. And while the work many of us do is highly-sensitive and deserving of oversight (especially during the performance of activities!), many non-performance-related volunteer needs consume more of our bandwidth than they should.
Fortunately, this is a case when technology can come to the rescue. In this article, I reference my experience supporting over 9,000 organizers of all sizes, in all practice areas, from regions around the world. Please consider this a playbook of sorts for efficiently serving as an advocate for volunteers seeking assistance, offering them the right help at the right time, directing them to the optimal resources, and rebalancing the allocation of your own personal resources toward the activities with the highest yield for your organization through automating rote volunteer communication and problem-solving tasks.
Digital Volunteer Support
Digitally enabled volunteer management is not simply volunteer coordination - it is the experience of facilitating the relationship between the volunteer and the organization, initially and over the lifetime of engagement. There are two distinct audience segments in the volunteering support space - Organizers and Volunteers. Sometimes I’ll lump both segments together by calling them, “stakeholders,” as their needs may vary based on your program and operations.
A wise colleague of mine once said, “If the user interface needs an instruction manual, then it’s not user-friendly,” and, in my experience, I have found this mantra to be mostly true. But providing support to Volunteers, or to Organizers (individuals in a volunteer-facing role), isn’t just about giving instruction on how our technology works - it’s about helping these stakeholders maximize their own potential by setting them up for success!
Being a part of the Support team, when supporting a volunteer-facing organization, you are effectively a part of both the Volunteers’ team and the Organizers’ team. And when supporting Volunteers, one must consider how to efficiently meet the needs of an extremely large and diverse group of backgrounds, cultures, needs, abilities, and perspectives. When supporting Organizations, one must understand the needs that an Organization has, what their goals are, and how technology can be used to fit these objectives. This can be made efficient and effective through tactful onboarding methods, effective communication, self-serve resources, and many other methods you might find that best suit your Organization!
In this article, I will talk about some of the methods I have implemented to maintain an effective volunteer Support program at Golden, which serves over 9,000 organizations, 10’s of thousands of Organizers, and reaches into networks of millions of Volunteers through them. All of these stakeholders have different levels of familiarity with technology and varying severity of needs for assistance.
Planning and preparation is the key to our process. Volunteer support can look very different for Volunteers vs. Organizers, and it is important to identify how your program will handle the different kinds of requests. Audiences should be segmented, so your team can think about the voice and collective values you want to promote to the different audiences. One should ask themselves questions like:
- How will these audiences be using my technology differently?
- What issues might they encounter that cause them to reach out to Support?
- How will these issues affect retention?
Questions like these will help draw inferences about where it is wise to spend time. You can then begin preparing and storing reference materials designed for each of these audiences throughout each of the journeys they take as an archetypical (eg, a particularly common profile of) Volunteer.
It’s also important to understand that your segments will have extremely different needs. Volunteers want a fast and seamless way to express their desire to volunteer with an Organization, and these considerations should be taken into account when designing a Volunteer-facing workflow. Organizers are now utilizing program-related technology on a regular basis, and need to be able to understand how they can manage their volunteer data and share their created content without having to rely on a support response.
Strategic Time Management
Let’s talk more about where we spend our actual time. Again - we spend a lot of our time planning and preparing. Our goal here is to define:
- An intake process (where and how Volunteers express they need help)
- A triage framework (how to decide whether to answer on-the-spot or redirect elsewhere)
- A content repository (what pre-baked content do you need to immediately satisfy the most common requests)
- Digital destinations (links to send and place in your Volunteer-facing digital properties for Volunteers to get immediate answers)
- Tech tools (what tools are the best to use in your case to publish your content and disseminate information)
- Monitoring and evaluation (where do you go to keep an eye on your support program success)
It’s important to remember that your Help Center and Support resources are a living, breathing, ever-evolving organism. Your resources should update as often as the technology does, so stakeholders can understand how new features work and how they will impact them as users of your system. At a minimum, your practices should include issuing “release notes” for product and experience updates, creating internal documentation on new options / policies / processes, and hosting both live and recorded onboarding sessions with new stakeholders.
Hand-holding is inevitable in the world of Support, and you can expect that a significant amount of time will be spent answering questions. Some good news: these questions might actually be answered in the resources you carefully created during the planning phase!
You may recognize the biblical lesson, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll feed his family for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll feed his family for a lifetime.” Some days, all of us feel like we’re operating a free fishmarket. If it helps you to feel better during the dark days of freebie fishmongering, always remember, you are a fishing teacher. The fish you give away sometimes can show others they like fish, and they can motivate themselves to learn to fish, so they can enjoy more of the delicious fish. Just wrap that to-go fish in some promotional wax paper with the URL for your (self) Help Center. In order to achieve this, one should ensure that the resources are extremely accessible and that there are easy links or pages that your stakeholders can access, that are universally available on all the pages they frequent.
No matter the audience segment, several formats of informational resources should be available for access. One should expect each audience segment will consist of various types of individuals, and a successful support program will contain a diverse set of resources so that, no matter the individual, they will find the resources to be of high value. Some of your audience members might be visual learners, others might learn “by doing”, and others might require a video of the sequence actually being completed. Some highly valuable formats of resources include: how-to YouTube videos, step-by-step instructional resources for anticipated sequences that the audience members will follow, definitions of your Organization’s terminology, and answers to frequently asked questions. The FAQs should initially consist of anticipated questions, based on testing of your Volunteer-facing offering, but they should evolve based on feedback and the volume of inbound requests regarding each topic.
It’s worthwhile to anticipate the questions Volunteers may have and to create a Support flow that will direct them to your Help Center that contains the answers to these anticipated questions. The main goal of this approach is to help reinforce self-guided help (no time waiting on support means more time invested in the program!), and help all stakeholders understand early-on where the answers to their questions are located. As an additional benefit, the more you direct Volunteers to a centralized, living-and-breathing resource destination, the more attention you will pay to making your materials thorough and precise - likely producing much better answers than you’ll be able to communicate in ad hoc conversations.
Once you have mapped out these conversations and Volunteer needs, building resource libraries becomes a straightforward exercise. Begin by understanding where the Volunteers' pain points could exist and enumerate them. Then, build out stock responses to FAQ’s about these topics. Subsequently, consider your Volunteers’ environments when these questions may arise. Might it be more convenient for them to Google an answer, see an FAQ section on your webpage, or watch a video tutorial on YouTube? These are just a few of many ways your content reference libraries might take shape. These days, most folks aren’t looking to read a physical volunteer manual!
You might be thinking to yourself, it seems that I, Albert, am telling you to avoid talking to the Volunteer, since we have been so focused on deflecting the support requests. In a certain respect, you would be correct! As someone who has worked in Support for my entire career, I love being able to help our stakeholders by reassuring them, answering questions, and successfully troubleshooting an issue. We know from experience, however, that our stakeholders don’t want to have to wait on Support teams to provide answers.
Tech Enablement Tools
Employing live chat and a data-driven staffing policy can certainly expedite responses to and often alleviate inbound requests. But being able to avoid the need for a support ticket to be created is much more valuable to your stakeholders. Support teams should feel encouraged and excited to give a personal touch and speak directly with stakeholders in whatever way your Organization deems appropriate, however, it is certainly also true that if the stakeholders need to frequently submit support requests in order to get their desired end result with the technology that your Organization provides, then there is much room for improvement with the product, the planning, and/or the resources!
Let’s talk more about some ways to have a streamlined process.
An inevitable truth is that stakeholders will want some questions answered, or might miss (or not care to seek out) the resource that you did your best to make available and comprehensible. In these cases, offering a general way for stakeholders to connect with you in real time can bypass the need for a support ticket to be generated. Forewarning: you should spend some time planning to which audience segments this would give the most value, and which stakeholders might need a way to connect with you in real-time (based on the use case). Otherwise you might quickly find yourself with a bandwidth issue.
Some great ways to connect with stakeholders in real time are instant, web and mobile-based chat tools like Zendesk chat, Slack channels, or Intercom. These will grant your stakeholders the ability to get vital information quickly and can help prevent churn or provide more sales leads. However, for this to be successful, one must ensure that the agents who will monitor and answer inbound messages from the chat tools will be staffed at times that the stakeholders will actually submit their questions. If one fails to adequately staff or plan for this, then this is a negative experience since they didn’t get their answer in real time. Another great best practice would be to set up automations in these chats - sometimes the chat tools seem the most convenient to stakeholders, and they might not actually check for resources before utilizing the chat tools. Good news - the chat channel makes the resources that you create even more accessible for your audiences to access; just link to them! Eventually, your most bandwidth-consuming stakeholders will learn to search your Help Center right off the bat.
Lastly, one of the best ways to ensure that a question from one of your stakeholders is answered, without having to generate a support ticket, is to ensure that your library of resources is up-to-date and enhanced based on stakeholder feedback. For example, if you do have a resource that answers a question that is frequently asked via inbound tickets, then you can infer that your existing material either might not be clearly communicated to or easily discoverable by your stakeholders. In these cases, respectively, consider revising your resources or linking to them on relevant pages in the environments your audience segments frequent. New products or new workflows should have resources proactively published, and you should link to these resources your release notes to the affected audience segments. This relates to the, “teach a man to fish,” idiom we discussed earlier.
Establishing Support Destinations
In most other cases, Volunteers and Organizers will need to get in touch with Support teams in a user-friendly way. Using a ticketing system is an essential part of being able to manage your support program. Having a ticketing system that works for your Support team allows you to track conversation history, providing the visibility your Support team needs to respond to all inbound conversations and follow up where necessary. Perhaps the most critical component of a ticketing system is ensuring stakeholders know how to get in touch with your Support team! One method we recommend is setting a support email alias, and linking this alias (eg. email sent to email@example.com generates a ticket in your Support inbox). Virtually every ticketing software considers this functionality essential. This means that stakeholders can send a message to an email address alias that automatically creates an inbound ticket for your support teams, so the email alias can be heavily marketed/distributed, and this will make your support team accessible.
Most ticket management systems are extremely fast and easy to implement. Despite that, it will be crucial that the admins of your ticket management system devote time to truly understand how the system will work and how you can best leverage the different aspects of it. This will depend on your Organization’s needs, desires, and pre-existing technology. One should be sure that the ticketing system does not require too much time to understand, or else you will sacrifice vital time that can be devoted to other aspects of the Support program.
The Support experience doesn’t always have to begin at the inception of an issue or first sign of confusion from a stakeholder. In fact, Support resources should be used as tools to let new volunteers and Organizers know that you are committed to enhancing their experience. When you introduce stakeholders to your organization, show them you have compiled a large repertoire of information, so that they can learn how to masterfully use your technology, and thereby facilitate continuous learning, instead of leaving them waiting for spoon-fed answers. At Golden, we include resources that are related to the topics we communicate on our blog posts, emails, and link to other related resources on our help center. We also include a direct link on all of our electronic communications, so stakeholders can easily submit a support ticket and get help when needed.
Many ticketing systems also will include built-in tracking tools to tag tickets in a customized way, so that you can build inferences that will help you enhance the user experience.
Ticket Handling Procedure
Ticket handling can look extremely different across Organizations. The reason being is successful support programs understand the Support team is the “face” of the Organization, and is your chance to build a reputation in the eyes of your stakeholders. I strongly recommend you spend time as a Support team to align and decide on what your Support voice is and how you can best convey it to your audiences through terminology, grammar, and even subtleties like thanking them for their feedback or wishing them well! For example, and hypothetically speaking, if you have an audience that you are sure will consist of savvy tech stakeholders, you might want to be articulate and convey a professional tone, so they feel they can rely on you. But, if you expect to have an audience segment that is not so tech savvy (eg real life), it would be detrimental to speak in highly technical terms, as doing so will certainly confuse the audience, causing further (even terminal) frustration.
A best practice is to ensure you have resolved the stakeholder’s issue through confirmation. In the practice of virtual support, it can be highly rewarding for both your Organization and the external stakeholder to ask, each time, if they feel that their issues have been resolved or if they have any other questions for you. This creates a tone of sincerity and a desire to resolve their issue. Sometimes tone is difficult to communicate online - so your Support team should ensure to be intentional about your word choice.
Let’s now talk about saving time. Without proper planning or continuous enhancements, offering personalized support can be very time consuming. Here’s another best practice - create a set of “macros” or standard responses to frequent inbound categories with your tone incorporated in these responses. Keep in mind, however, try not to sound overtly “robotic” in appearing to have a standard response for each type of support ticket. In fact, you will almost certainly receive negative feedback if you do make this mistake. Allowing agents to make minor modifications to certain responses will allow for individualism to shine through the support interaction and create a friendly, yet professional, experience.
Analyzing tickets, setting quantifiable success metrics, and quantifying “quality” are important not only because they help enhance your program through clear and actionable insights, but they also can be used to raise standards and empower you to continuously improve your volunteer program and user experience across the board.
Metrics are not the only ways that you can analyze and measure your program, but I favor leveraging data as much as possible, so that you can quickly find areas of improvement that are needed. Some metrics I recommend examining are:
- Average response time for new inbounds
- Volume of tickets based on the category
- Changes in support volume based on the introduction of new products and resources
All of these can be made possible when correctly leveraging a ticket management system, within that system itself. Beyond metrics, there are several other ways to measure success for your program. Consider mining qualitative feedback from your support tickets to develop several case studies that present the value that stakeholders receive from your Support team and program.
Your Support program can be leveraged to ensure the intake and onboarding processes of new stakeholders follow the steps and recommendations your research suggests will maximize return value on the amount of time stakeholders spend.
Feedback and data shouldn’t only exist in ticket management systems. The ticket management system should mostly be used for tracking and visibility. In order for the feedback to be incorporated into your program and operations, this information should be stored and transferred into the project management tools that your organization utilizes, so that your entire team can have access into what the feedback/data point was, from whom it was captured, and how it can translate into an enhanced stakeholder experience.
When you incorporate stakeholder feedback into your project management system, you’ll be able to track which of your stakeholders registered the issue and how many others may have been affected. Then, create an action item to follow-up with each of the stakeholders that gave the feedback, so that you can notify them of the way we used it and demonstrate your commitment to incorporating stakeholder feedback.
That practice is also helpful for storytelling, the concept of the Support team conveying information to your other internal teams, so your colleagues understand why a change should be made and buy-in to the changes. New feedback is not always “cut and dry”, and will require judgement from your teams of how to best approach a certain data point or challenge. I recommend that you have discussions with your teams in an organized manner to discern how this might fit into your company’s roadmap.
I hope this high level overview has been helpful, and, of course, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have!