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Inspiring Customers: Lessons from Nonprofit Organizations

By: Terry Barber
Last updated 7/13/2010

Some of today’s corporate taglines are so inspirational that you might assume they belong to nonprofit organizations:  
• “To inspire and nurture the human spirit”
• “Your potential, our passion”
• “To improve the lives of the world’s consumers—now and for generations to come”
• “To contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world”

But instead they are core parts of mission and purpose statements proudly displayed on corporate Websites of some of the world’s most recognized brands.

As today’s brands attempt to differentiate themselves from their many competitors, more and more aspire to be truly inspiring brands. And why not? Companies that have genuinely converted from old-line commercialism to do-good capitalism are likely to forge powerful connections to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the customer. This is exactly the kind of connection business needs in order to build and sustain a loyal and passionate following.

In anticipation of a wave of businesses wading into the waters of inspiration—further blurring the lines between for-profit and not-for-profit—here are some guiding principles that I have used over the years in my work with nonprofits.
 
1. To inspire the consumer, you must help him believe in something that he once thought was impossible. This is where innovators will thrive and institutions will die. Innovators will think in quantum leap fashion. “Institutions” will think incrementally. If you have to describe your company’s dreams and ambitions only in the context of a percentage of growth, you won’t inspire anyone.

If you want to communicate a real promise, avoid inspiration busters like the following:
• “We want to be the best.”
• “We want to sell the most.”
• “We want to make a fair profit.”
• “We promise the best value for the dollar.”
 
All are noble. None is inspiring. Making me believe in something that I once thought was impossible begins with words like imagine, dream, accelerate, change, empower, and energize.

Some of the most dynamic meetings I have ever been involved in were those in which I asked my clients—nonproft organizations—“What would the world look like if you were to fulfill your mission tomorrow?” Try that for your next team meeting and you will uncover very quickly whether you have the capacity to inspire or not.
 
2. To inspire the consumer, you must show genuine appreciation for her business.  Nonprofit organizations excel at making their donors feel special. Even the average donor receives a thank-you note, and at some level, usually at the $100.00 giving level, even a thank-you phone call. By those standards, how many companies should you have received a thank-you call from?  Hey, by those standards, I should most certainly receive thank-you calls from Whole Foods, Starbucks, and American Express!

Loyalty programs are effective in retaining customers—until a better loyalty program comes along. That’s because so-called customer appreciation days are typically traps for more up-selling, and people know that. So their “loyalty” is, understandably, short-term.

Conversely, expressing genuine appreciation for the customer creates a lifelong relationship. Imagine how a customer would feel if he received a voice mail simply saying, “Thank you for being such a great customer [or client]. We are not calling to sell you anything else, only to say thank you.”
 
3. To inspire the consumer, you must help him see that he is a part of a bigger community of world changers.  One of the most powerful fund-raising terms is the word join. “Join the fight.” “Join the cause.” “Join me”—all indicate that you can be a part of something much bigger than yourself. More than ever before, our identity is defined by the communities we are a part of, even if those communities are virtual. If business can follow the lead of the nonprofits, its leaders will participate in social media for the sake of connecting customers to other customers. In so doing, customers, just like donors, will lead the way into new relationships and new markets. Create and/or tap into platforms for connecting people in and around your mission.
 
4. To inspire the consumer, you must communicate how you are making the world a better place. I recently had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala with a child sponsorship organization. This is an organization I had supported in a modest way for years, but after that firsthand look at how my dollars were being used to help children who were truly impoverished, my giving level will never be the same.

I met with a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company and saw this principle illustrated in a most dramatic fashion. Throughout the building there were maps with pushpins marking various towns, cities, and villages around the world where this company and its employees were providing clean drinking water for indigent people. The underlying message was, “What we are doing as a company is helping to make the world a better place.”

No matter what kind of business you are in, learn from the nonprofit sector that you can inspire your customers by illustrating how your company is making the world a better place.

Do you aspire to inspire your customers? Give them something to believe in that they once thought was impossible. Demonstrate genuine appreciation for their business. Help them connect with other customers to illustrate that they are part of a bigger community.  And finally, communicate how your business is making the world a better place.  These are just a few lessons we can learn from nonprofits to inspire our customers and ourselves.

About the Author(s)

Terry Barber Terry Barber is the Chief Inspirator for Grizzard Communication Group. He primarily serves the nonprofit health-care industry as well as colleges and universities in the subject area of philanthropic branding. He is the author of the book, The Inspiration Factor: How to Tap into People’s Dreams and Create A Culture of Passion and Loyalty (Inspiration Blvd, LLC, 2008).