March 17, 2010

Client Choice 2.0

We recently took the first step in an exciting new direction for our food pantry: opening up our menu so that clients can choose which foods they receive.

This first experiment (conducted on Jan 28th) received glowing feedback from clients, who really appreciated being able to select the items in their grocery bag. It was also, however, far from practical: the average time it took to distribute each bag – from the moment a client was called to the moment they walked away with their bag – was 12 minutes. (Our pantry’s normal average “cycle time” is 4 minutes.)

Carefully examining the results of this experiment, we arrived at 2 primary goals for our client choice endeavor: reduce cycle time and increase client-volunteer interaction. Our hunch was that these objectives can be best achieved together.
So last week, we took our second step in this great experiment.

This time, instead of our staff accompanying clients as they “shopped” through the pantry, we assigned volunteers to specific food stations. (These volunteers came from Elizabethtown College on alternative spring break). These helpers would greet each client at each station, politely explain the options and help clients load their bags.

People noticed this improved “customer service”. One client remarked that “this is like shopping at my own little Costco!”

Furthermore, we were thrilled to note that these stationary volunteers reduced congestion and improved cycle times. This second experiment dropped the average cycle time to 7 minutes – within reach of our standard non-choice cycle time of 4 minutes!

One result was less tangible but possibly just as important: the engagement between our volunteers, our staff, and our clients. Normally, our volunteers just sort cans and pack bags. This was a totally different experience. As volunteer Amy Yoder explained, “I used to work in a soup kitchen and they never let us interact with clients. Here I was able to talk to the people I am helping.” As a result, the room was filled with positive energy. Direct contact allowed clients and volunteers to become more connected and understand things about one another. The clients learned about the people helping them; and the volunteers began to understand why choice is so important. This is why Erin Garnaas-Holmes, BFC’s volunteer coordinator, calls client interaction ‘the holy grail of volunteering’ .

Volunteer Stephanie Carroll added, “I think choice gives clients a greater sense of self-respect. Instead of just receiving a handout, they seem really happy to have a choice. Everyone was smiling.”

We’re going to keep experimenting with client choice, and will keep you updated. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this comment: “On a scale of 1-5, I give this a 10. You have got to keep this going. I love choosing. Before I used to get things I didn’t like. I will still eat it; but it makes me happier to have my favorites. You all NEED to keep this up!”

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