The Participant is Always* Right

Posted on October 24, 2017

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By Dawn Clark and Erin De Baets

*Well, maybe not always…

We’ve all heard that old expression, “The customer is always right,” a saying meant to encourage service providers to exhaust all measures to make and keep their customers happy.  For many of us in the event world, our customers are our participants, and whether they’re runners/walkers/riders, volunteers, spectators, or donors, keeping them smiling can be the difference between a successful event that draws people back year after year, and a one-and-done flop.

Providing a well-executed, enjoyable, and memorable event-day experience for your participants is the jewel in the customer service crown for event professionals, but chances are that you’ll interact with your participants many times before you even get to your event day. This may include marketing and advertising to generate registrations, emails and social media posts to share event info and build excitement, and if you’re very brave, a phone number and/or email address they can use if they have specific questions or concerns. And lucky for you, all of these interactions are opportunities for you to win the hearts of your participants before they even set foot on the event site.

Say Yes Whenever You Can – A lot of the time, especially with the thousand moving parts of producing an event, we might be inclined to automatically say, “No can do” when approached by a participant asking for something. And while, certainly, not every participant request can be met with an immediate, “Sure!” you can still take a second to really look at what they want, and ask yourself, “Can we say yes to this?” If you can, and the whole event won’t come crumbling down because of it, say yes. Those little wins go a long way for participant satisfaction.

Make a “No” Feel Like a “Yes” – And then again, if what the participant is asking for is simply not possible, you don’t have to leave them empty-handed. Everyone likes to feel like they’re getting something so even if you can’t give them exactly what they’re asking for, throw something their way if you can (“No, you can’t get a refund on your registration, but we can send you your event shirt.”).

Check Your Ego at the Door – If a participant is unhappy and you’re getting an earful for it, remember that their anger and frustration is not about YOU. Sometimes it’s about their emotional connection to your event’s cause (perhaps the participant themselves, or their loved one, is living with the disease that you all are out there running/walking/riding for) or some other personal struggle that you can’t see. Listen/read with empathy and respond in a way which makes them feel supported and validated. Often, all they want is to be heard.

Don’t Tolerate Abuse – You can be the exact ray of customer service sunshine that an irritated, confused, or frustrated participant needs to turn their attitude around, but under no circumstances are you obligated to put up with rude or abusive treatment. If a participant crosses the line in this way, make it clear that such behavior won’t be tolerated. You may end up losing a participant, but is that really the kind of person you want on your event anyway?

FAQs are Your Friends – If your event’s website doesn’t have a Frequently Asked Questions page, it should. Build your FAQ by getting input from people inside and outside of your event to make sure you’re including the most relevant and timely info. Even if those details exist somewhere else on your website, keep it in the FAQs too, and refresh/update as needed when info changes.

Efficiency With a Smile – It’s perfectly reasonable to have some standard responses to questions that you get a lot (they should look similar to those handy FAQs you crafted so carefully), but when you’re sending a standard response in an email, make it personal, too. No one wants to feel like the reply to their question was copied and pasted from the same email that was sent to twenty other people (even if it was).

Do Some Digging – Sometimes a participant will email with a question that you have a hard time making heads or tails of. The question might be vague, incomplete, or just downright confusing. As nice as it would be to be able to answer every email fully and completely on the first go, it’s better in the long run to make sure you fully understand what the participant is asking, even if it means an extra email or two to clarify.

Correct Without Smugness – As it turns out, sometimes the participant actually is just wrong. (“I was told there would be a unicorn petting zoo at the race. Where can I get a ticket for that?”) While it can be very frustrating to hear that there’s misinformation floating around out there, learning about it gives you the opportunity to fix it. Ask them where they got their information so you can correct what’s out there, gently put them straight, and thank them for bringing the mistake to your attention.

Help Them Help Others – If you’re in communication with a team captain or someone who indicates that they’re participating with others, invite them to share what you’re sharing. Empowering the participants themselves to pass along good info might save everyone a few emails down the road.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Feedback – Always thank your participants for their perspective and taking the time to share their experience, suggestions, etc. You can’t continue to grow, change and improve if you aren’t open to hearing things that might not be working for everyone at the moment.

Remember: your participants WANT to be part of your event! You’re not a customer service rep for the only cable company in town, dealing with disgruntled customers who couldn’t take their business elsewhere even if they wanted to. No, you’re helping folks who have CHOSEN to do your event. Even if they’re unhappy right this second, they still want to participate. Thank them for that as often as possible, and go about doing what you can to make sure they still want to participate.

Dawn Clark is wrapping up her third season as Participant Support Coordinator on MuckFest®MS, and recently began delving into the on-event role of Sponsorship and Merchandise Coordinator. Dawn loves meeting in-person so many of the participants and teams whom she’s worked with behind the scenes.  When not emailing participants or working with national sponsors on MuckFest MS, Dawn enjoys yoga & tennis with her husband, Tom, and being a homebody with the rest of the family and furbabies.

Erin De Baets has met and supported thousands of participants over her 8 years with Event 360, and she loves having the chance to interact with the fascinating, motivated, fun and passionate individuals who take part in our myriad events. She is currently the Programs and Participant Support Manager for MuckFest®MS. When Erin is not recruiting and managing volunteers, or wrangling Excel spreadsheets and reports, she’s momming her two awesome teenage daughters, out for a run or a hike, or dominating a game night with friends.

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