Profitable Times Newsletter

Volunteer Culture

Because of their general reputation for offering interesting, unique, and high-quality products, museum stores do their part in driving visitation to the museum. But the institution itself has primary responsibility for delivering potential customers (a.k.a. visitors). Visitation can spike on the basis of many factors, including holidays, strong marketing, blockbuster special exhibitions, tourist season, and — especially for botanical gardens and arboreta — dramatic fall colors. There isn't much a store can do if general visitation is low, but that heightens the need to enhance the customer experience and maximize revenue at every opportunity. Much of that effort revolves around having sufficient staff on the floor, which for nonprofit institutions often means utilizing volunteers.

In many ways, you are ahead of the game when you are staffed with volunteers. Most of these wonderful people have been successful mothers, fathers, and spouses as well as bosses, employees, or business owners in their lives. Then, when they have more free time and decide to do some volunteer work, their experience accepting responsibility and meeting expectations can benefit the store.

There are several steps that can be taken to ensure your volunteers are productive workers. First, emphasize the importance of the store to the well-being of the museum. During these times of increasing costs and uncertain funding, I find that when volunteers understand the importance of the store to multiple aspects of the museum their focus is heightened. In addition, when they realize that in most museums visitors are likely to spend more time with store personnel than with any other museum staff member and that their store experience is usually part of the very important lasting impression of the museum, volunteers more clearly appreciate the importance of their role and strive to do a better job.

After you have laid this foundation of relevance, build on it by establishing expectations and then empowering the volunteer to do what needs to be done to meet those expectations. Perhaps the most encompassing expectation to be established is that the store is a business, and as such, a professional attitude is required from each volunteer. To those who are familiar with running a business, this phrase has a built-in set of values. Those who do not have direct business experience intuitively know that successful businesses have specific expectations even if they can't define them exactly.

Expectations can include broad generalities about customer service and sales techniques or operational specifics. Here are some examples of expectations in areas closely associated with a well-run museum store.

  • Position: When more than one person is working in the store at a time, require that only a minimal number of people stay behind the cash wrap and specifically assign the others to customer service, sales, and cleaning/stocking on the floor. Whether the store is run with one or several volunteers, sales will increase and the customer experience will be enhanced if there are specific requirements to work in front of the cash wrap.
  • Communication: Do this clearly and often. It is critical to train, retrain, and train again. Training should be primarily focused on policies and procedures, customer service, sales, and product knowledge.
  • Inspection: Be specific about what you expect and set a good example. If you have established expectations, make sure — on a regular basis — that those expectations are being met. If you don't inspect what you expect, or set a good example, the feeling that your expectations are not serious or important will quickly pervade the staff, nearly guaranteeing expectations will not be met in the future.
  • Engagement: Boredom is one of the main reasons volunteers quit or that work may be done poorly. Empowering the volunteers and giving them some leeway as to how to get things done results in things actually getting done, the introduction of new ways of doing things, and a more productive group of volunteers. Also, giving volunteers full information about the goals and progress of the store and an explanation of issues facing the store increases their involvement and can stimulate their interest in solutions.

As with any employee, it's important to have the right person doing the right job. Use an interview process to make sure potential store volunteers have the social skills necessary to engage and work with customers. Remember, some excellent volunteers are best suited to back-of-house organizational or online roles with less direct customer engagement.

Over the years, point-of-sale systems have become easier and more intuitive, paving the way for even part-time volunteers to do most of what needs to be done on the sales floor, from greeting customers to processing sales. However, if your institution limits monetary transactions to paid employees or if a volunteer is intimidated by the POS, anyone can be assigned an "ambassador" role, helping with product selection and answering questions.

Finally, don't forget to praise each volunteer's effort. Thank them for being present and engaged and especially if they do something special.

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