Dealing with unappreciative clients

Helping volunteers cope

It happened near the end of a long, stressful shift.

A client came up to the registration desk, and blasted the volunteer for the length of time it took to get through the people in line ahead of her.

Fortunately, a supervisor was walking by at the time. Laying a comforting hand on the volunteer’s shoulder, the supervisor explained to the client that the volunteers were all working as quickly as they could, and while she understood that the client was under a lot of stress, to please not take it out on the volunteer.

Has anything like this ever happened to you? It’s a hard thing to deal with. Unfortunately, other than posting signs asking people to be respectful of the volunteers, and stepping in when a problem occurs, there isn’t much we as leaders can do to instil appreciation—or even courtesy—in unappreciative clients.

And maybe we shouldn’t try.

Let’s face it, the clients are there because something horrible has happened or is happening in their lives and they don’t have the emotional bandwidth to care about anyone other than themselves and their families.

In the situation above, the client was one of close to 1,500 people who were evacuated from their homes at a moment’s notice because of a fast-moving wildfire. She didn’t know whether her house was still standing. Her dog had wandered off just before the evacuation order so she didn’t know whether it was alive or not. She had nothing but her purse and the clothes she was standing in. Her life was in ruins and she had to stand in line two hours before she could even register as an evacuee at the reception centre.

Suddenly a stressful shift sounds pretty minor, doesn’t it?

So, what can we do? What doesn’t work is becoming resentful, and lecturing unappreciative clients about being nicer. They are already teetering on the edge, and adding more to their emotional load will only make things worse. In fact, the only really useful thing you can do is encourage the volunteers to not expect the clients to appreciate what they do.

Help them understand the mental state that the clients are in. Teach them the value they provide is not measured by thank-yous but by the difference they are making in people’s lives—whether those people recognize it or not.

In other words, intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

I’m not in any way saying volunteers should accept verbal or physical abuse. There is no excuse for that. Just don’t expect clients to be pleasant or sympathetic and understanding of the volunteer’s situation. If volunteers can develop that kind of mindset, the clients who do have the ability to express their appreciation will seem like superstars, rather than just average people. The clients who don’t have that ability won’t be seen as terrible, but as people who need even more care and attention.

Finally, you, as the leader, need to provide the appreciation and understanding that the clients can’t. Ten fold. That’s because volunteers need appreciation, and lots of it. —just not necessarily from the clients they serve.

The client mentioned above lost her home to the fire, but her dog was found and rescued by a neighbour. Her insurance kicked in and allowed her to rebuild. And the next day, she found the volunteer and apologized for her behaviour.

As leaders of volunteers, it’s up to us to build resilience in our teams to help them deal with situations like unappreciative clients—and to thank them for their service when the client can’t.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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