COMMENTARY: The Customer Is Always Right (in Front of You)

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) I suggest that churches declare August “Customer Service Month.”

This is the time to train the many people who carry out the critical customer-care functions that will have more impact on congregational health than excellence in the pulpit or grandeur of structure.

Like it or not, modern churches are like banks and hardware stores. Their “products,” if you will, are commodities: widely available, similar from one vendor to the next, set apart mainly by the quality of customer care.

For many years, churches have tried to escape competition by claiming to be the only true expression of God’s truth and desire. That works for some _ who wouldn’t want to think oneself superior? _ but increasingly, churchgoers are behaving like shoppers who have choices, and they float freely from brand to brand.

Church leaders can bemoan such fickleness and intensify their claims of supremacy. But if they want to have a future as Christian communities, churches need to learn from reality, not denounce it as beneath them.

We could learn from Chase Bank, our family’s new banking home. Like any modern enterprise, Chase has an excellent Web site and up-to-date services. But what sets Chase apart, in my view as a customer, are the highly trained customer service agents posted just inside the front door of every branch.

They do more than say, “Take a seat over there.” They are trained to engage the customer, answer questions, resolve issues, handle certain transactions, and find the right person for further assistance.

Imagine a similar cadre of customer service reps positioned inside the church door. Imagine them trained to do more than hand out a bulletin or point toward a coffee urn. Instead, they would engage both visitor and member and respond appropriately to their different needs.

Imagine another cadre trained to respond to people after worship. Instead of a long line hoping for 10 seconds of the pastor’s time, imagine people trained in the delicate craft of identifying need, helping people talk to each other, and gathering information for pastoral follow-up.

The wise enterprise learns that technology does some things well, but not all things. At Chase, I can transfer funds and pay bills in a few mouse clicks. But when it comes to personal questions, I want a live person, not a lazy “Frequently Asked Questions” Web page.

Imagine, then, a church telephone that is answered by a person, not a machine, and a Web site that facilitates certain transactions like paying pledges and posting schedules, but invites personal e-mail inquiries for other needs.

Imagine church procedures that respond to visitors immediately, not after someone happens to recognize them several weeks later, and that provide reliable attention to pastoral cues, rather than depending on the pastor’s memory and networking.

These are trainable skills. Sunday greeters, for example, can be more than nice people wearing “Greeter” badges. They can be trained in the psychodynamics of being a church visitor and of coming to church mid- or post-crisis. They can prepare for questions and unusual circumstances.

A commitment to training should flow throughout the enterprise. From ushers to teachers, Sunday ministers aren’t just willing souls who couldn’t say no when asked. They are critical providers of the care people seek from church.

We ought to take church work as seriously as we take banking. We ought to think through our systems, especially for customer care, and train people to do it right.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

KRE/PH END EHRICH650 words

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