06/18/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Engagement Organizations: What's Your Constituent Experience?

When was the last time you were blown away by an amazing interaction you had with a nonprofit, or with a company? When someone knew exactly what you needed exactly when you needed it? For me, it was on a call with 1-800 Contacts.

I'd just placed an order for some new contact lenses when I got a call from one of their representatives. My prescription had expired, and it needed to be updated before they could ship my order.

"Great," I thought. "Now I have to find a doctor, set up an appointment, and start the ordering process all over again." But before I knew it, the rep on the line was doing the work for me. She found an eye doctor just a few blocks from my house where I could get a discounted exam and patched me through so I set up an appointment. She even let me know that I didn't have to put the order in again -- once the exam was done, they'd go ahead and ship my lenses.

What's remarkable about that? No transfers to departments with cryptic names. No jaded customer reps agreeing with me that, yeah, sorry, it sucks, but that's the way it works. Most importantly, no need on my part to understand how 1-800 Contacts works, because it just does.

It was a good enough experience that when the optometrist's office that gave me the exam tried to undersell 1-800 Contacts on the lenses, I declined.

None of that happened by accident. It happened because they have purposefully designed their systems and processes around the needs of me, the customer.

The idea of having a Chief Experience Officer has been around for some time, and there are those that have held the title. It's not a new idea, but it is a powerful one for those of us trying to engage and inspire people in the social sector.

Now you probably can't afford to hire a dedicated Chief Experience Officer (what does that even pay?). But what is absolutely critical is that you ask yourself this critical question:

From a birds-eye view, and across all mediums (from social media to events to face-to-face interactions), how do people experience my organization?

It might be a team of people tasked with understanding this. Or it might be one person. But if you can't answer the question with ease, then odds are your constituent experience is suffering as a result.

Why is it so valuable for everyone in your organization to have a strong understanding of the experience you're trying to create for your constituents? The obvious answer is because that's what's required to get your experience right; to address the challenges and meet the opportunities that exist in your processes. But there's a second value: it gets everyone pulling in the same direction. A great constituent experience will probably require some significant work from people working in technology, marketing, programming, and management. But an experience perspective wraps each of those work streams together, and grounds them in a vision of what you're actually trying to create. Sure, you need to meet your annual departmental goals. But more importantly, you've got to make things work for your user.

Where to start? In order to create a great experience, you have to have a firm pulse on what your audience is experiencing, and regular opportunities to hear more. Do you understand what they're experiencing now? Can you draw it on a piece of paper? Do you know what they find confusing about what you do? Where are high fidelity feedback loops built into your processes? How often do you speak with them face-to-face? How many people did they have to talk to before they got that referral to your partner org they needed? How long did it take for them to get a response to the email they sent to your info account?

If you're asking the right questions, some of the answers will inevitably be hard to swallow. But the only thing worse than tough feedback is no feedback at all. It's only by understanding the people you're trying to serve that you can ground your work in real insights into what is needed, and what will work.

Of course the missions we're engaged in often aren't as clear-cut as delivering contact lenses. But too often the barriers to a great experience are wholly unrelated to our missions: It's turf battles. It's "the way we do things around here." It's the fragmented roles, personalities, alliances, grudges and arbitrary deadlines. We need to do what we can to ensure that "what our constituents need" weighs even more heavily on our decisions than internal politics and today's convenience. In order to do that, we need to have a clear, tangible vision of what the current constituent experience is, and what we want it to be. A great experience will not happen by accident.