We had such good feedback on this post when it was originally published in 2011 that we wanted to pull it from the archives and reshare today. Enjoy.

For the past two years I have been keeping a secret … from my bank. I haven’t committed fraud, or stashed cash away under a mattress, but I feel I haven’t been completely honest. Here it is: I’ve been a “secret shopper.” Every month, I’ve received a survey in the mail which I dutifully stuck in my car so that the next time I used the drive-through or visited the teller inside the bank, this 4-page form would be handy. After completing my transactions, I would then fill out the form while sitting in the parking lot, answering questions about how long I waited, how many cars or people were in line in front of me, whether the teller called me by my name, whether my transaction was done accurately, how friendly I felt the staff was… even how nice the building looked. Then, I’d tuck the form into the postage-paid envelope and mail it off to the customer service company that was tallying my responses.  Then, the next month, I’d do it all over again. For this, I received a few dollars for each completed, returned form. But, more importantly, I felt that I was contributing in some small way to the continued friendly and helpful atmosphere that I’ve enjoyed from my neighborhood branch. Plus, I will admit, I got a kick out of having a little secret like that.

How does this relate to volunteer engagement and membership? Well, at some point during those 24 months of clandestine service, it occurred to me that there are many ways one could use this “secret shopper” tactic. In fact, it would be a great way to learn about your own organization’s volunteer engagement and membership practices. While we most often think about our organization’s members, clients, or program participants as our “customers,” it’s important to remember that customer service applies to volunteers as well. Potential volunteers and members find us in all different ways – online, through newsletters, through our programs, and, most often, through a recommendation or invitation by a friend. But what do they really find when they find us? Do they find responsive and friendly frontline staff and volunteers? Do they receive accurate information? Do they receive the right information – meaning the most useful and relevant information? Just like my bank questionnaire, are they called by name and does the building look nice? Research – and common sense! — show that individuals who don’t have positive experiences when they first contact an organization will take their skills and their time and find another organization to share them!

In order to avoid such losses, I recommend creating your own clandestine identity, and becoming a “secret shopper” for your own organization – or better yet, engage volunteers who aren’t as familiar with the organization to do it for you! What a fun way to engage new people in an exciting mission on behalf of your cause. Here are some suggestions to help launch your Secret Shoppers’ covert careers.

1.       Check out the website and try to find information about volunteer and membership opportunities. Are they easily found on the home page? Does the website clearly identify attractive opportunities for engagement? Is it clear how to get involved? What type of time commitment would be needed? Who do you contact for more information? Are there interesting and inspiring stories of other volunteers and the impacts they have had on the community? Are there stories of members and the benefits they have gained from their affiliation with you?

2.       Contact the organization to express interest. Whether by phone, email, online contact form, or in person, let the organization know that you are interested in learning more about volunteering or joining. How easy was that to do? How long did it take to get a response? Did the response answer your questions? Did you feel welcomed and encouraged to follow through? Do you know what the next steps are?

3.       Follow up on opportunities for engagement. Is it easy to find out what volunteer positions are currently available? Can you choose or express an interest? Are you interviewed or otherwise vetted for the position? Do you feel that you are well-matched for the position? Do the positions fit your skills, interests, and availability? How long did it take from your first contact to your placement or membership? Again, are the next steps clear?

These three steps are among the first touch-points where potential volunteers and members interact with your organization. They are crucial to building a successful relationship between constituents and the organization. If these early contact points don’t go well, the relationships rarely last. Beyond these interactions, Secret Shoppers can also gather valuable information about training, support, and recognition/acknowledgement – but these three are a great place to start. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn from putting yourself in the shoes of your potential volunteers and members and spending a day (or a few weeks) experiencing your organization from their perspective. I guarantee that it will be enlightening, and I predict, based on my own experience, that it’ll be a kind of fun, too.