Customer service: Can churches get it right?

Customer service: Can churches get it right?

I was in a hotel 500 miles from home when my Apple iPhone refused to recharge.

I felt strangely stranded, unable to manage my business, to communicate with family or to negotiate the scheduling intricacies of the trip.

I went to a nearby AT&T store, the carrier that handles iPhones.

"Can't help," said the clerk. "Try the Apple store."

I drove 20 minutes to an outlying mall, found the Apple store.

"Can't help," said one clerk. "I'm a trainer. Try the concierge."

Can't help, said the concierge. Make an appointment with the "Genius Bar." (Don't ask.)

I drove across the street to another AT&T store, steaming and prepared to abandon Apple technology. "Sure, glad to help," said the clerk. He pushed some buttons and fixed the problem. I immediately felt better about my iPhone and confident about the trip.

Lesson learned: every enterprise ultimately depends on customer service. Good technology can't run faster than poor customer service.

Clever marketing can't erase a bad shopping experience. Customer loyalty won't survive surly clerks, endless telephone trees, unanswered e-mails, and return and warranty procedures that favor the vendor.

Customers have too many other choices. They don't need to endure clueless systems and irritable staff. Just consider the reputation U.S. automakers got for slick sales staff, bait-and-switch "closers" and point-of-sale pressure to tack on unwanted extras.

In my consulting work with churches, time and again I see the cumulative impact of poor customer service:

Uninterested ushers;

Parishioners who form tight circles;

More attention paid to setting the table than to greeting guests;

Fussy liturgy designed for insiders;

Facilities with poor signage (or websites);

Congregants who fight with each other;

Music that pleases only the trained musician;

Clergy who don't call — the list is long.

When I ask former congregants why they worship elsewhere or stay home on Sunday, that's the list they recite, detail by detail. Some were hurt, some were offended. Some said, "Who needs this?"

It wasn't doctrine or change that drove them away. In a world of many choices, the quest for faith simply won't tolerate poor customer service. People stay where they are treated well - and leave where they aren't.

Pay attention to details, I tell church leaders. Look at how you respond to visitors, for example. Reconsider the maze you impose on anyone asking for care. Watch people's faces sag as they sit through worship. Don't let the prickly long-timer force you to stick with methods that clearly aren't working.

Be customer-driven, not provider-driven, I tell them. Visit a successful church and see lively gathering spaces, helpful signage, friendly greeters, cheerful atmosphere, worship designed to help people worship, leaders who are excited and not dodging bullets — that list is long, too.

This is more than advice for institutional leaders. I think it applies to us as individual believers, as well. It is good to tolerate difficult people and to place ourselves in challenging situations. But we don't have to tolerate institutions that thwart us and clearly are serving only themselves.

Enabling isn't the same as loyalty. No faith community will be motivated to serve effectively as long as its constituents excuse mediocrity.

In order to expect more, of course, we ourselves have to give more.

For we play both parts: "customer" and "provider." We cannot receive what we aren't willing to give.

The Rev. Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project http://churchwellness.com. His website is http://morningwalkmedia.com. 

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