Many years ago, I was working with employees of MBNA Bank at their branch headquarters in Newark, Delaware. Over every door in the building, in big block letters, were the words, THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE CUSTOMER. I was struck by that phrase and with the idea that putting yourself in the shoes of your customer would enable one to provide higher quality service and achieve mutually satisfying results.
We don’t often think of applying the principles of customer service in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. It somehow feels too corporate or non-spiritual. But maybe we should start. In my work as Growth Consultant in the Central East Region, I find that many congregations are not as welcoming as they think they are. Certainly, across our region and across the country, we Unitarian Universalists are not as welcoming as we need to be. So perhaps the adoption of a customer service orientation is not such a bad thing. As my mother used to say, “It couldn’t hurt.”
Here are a few suggestions for enhancing customer service in your congregation:
1. Pay Attention
When I was in Virginia recently, I walked into a Boston Market. As soon as I entered, I heard, “Welcome to Boston Market. How are you today?” This refrain was repeated, with some variation, every time a customer walked in. It wasn’t tiresome because the greeting was sincere. The employees seemed truly glad to see another customer enter the restaurant …and, truth be told, when it was said to me, I did feel welcomed. I was immediately reinforced in my decision to eat there.
Visitors to our congregations don’t just want to be greeted. They want to be welcomed. Taking an interest in every new person that walks in the door conveys the message that they are special. The initial encounter doesn’t need to be long, but greeters should smile, shake the hand of the visitor, make eye contact, and say something like, “I am very glad that you are here today.” Exchanging names is an effective way to make a connection. “My name is Mark, and you are?” Providing basic information that the visitor needs (location of the sanctuary; of the bathrooms; where they can drop off their children, etc.) is essential, but inviting the visitor to ask questions (“Is there anything I haven’t told you that you’re wondering about?”) empowers the visitor and assures that their every need is being met.
Paying attention to the visitor, of course, is not the sole responsibility of the greeter. Those who are serving as ushers should not just hand out the order of service, but should likewise shake the hand of the visitor and greet them warmly. And in truly welcoming congregations, it is also the responsibility of every member to greet the stranger. (But what if I’m not sure if they’re a new visitor, you ask? There’s nothing wrong with saying, “We may have met, but I can’t recall. My name is Mark and I’m glad you’re here today.”)
2. Exceed the Customer’s Expectations
When convenience stores first unveiled the touch screen devices for ordering sandwiches, deli items, soup, and so on, I was struggling one day with the technology and finding it difficult to order my chicken salad sandwich. The clerk behind the counter noticed my struggle (it must have been my loud whimpering) and asked if he could help. I told him that I was lost and wanted to start my order all over again. He asked me to wait a moment and then came around the counter. He first showed me how to reset the machine. Then, asking me what I wanted, he proceeded to punch a bunch of screens and complete the order. The receipt popped up. He handed it to me and said, “You go pay for this and by the time you get back, your sandwich will be ready.”
What an example of excellent customer service!! The clerk not only met my expectations. He exceeded them. I would have been happy with him just telling me over the counter how to reset the machine. That would have met my expectations. But in several ways, he exceeded them. He left his station and came around the counter. He showed me how to reset the machine and how to correctly place an order. And he grabbed the receipt and handed it to me with a friendly “this will be waiting for you when you get back.”
In our congregations, we need to make sure that we are not just meeting the expectations of visitors, but that we are exceeding them. Visitors expect to be greeted. Let’s exceed their expectations by truly greeting them with sincerity and authenticity. Let’s greet them in the parking lot and several other times before they get to the sanctuary. Let’s recruit our youth and young adults to be greeters to both other youth and to adults. Let’s ensure that someone in the congregation accompanies the new visitor to the sanctuary or the cradle room or the classroom. Let’s compel ushers to not only hand out orders of service, but to accompany visitors to a seat in the sanctuary, especially if they are late arriving and seats are hard to find. Let’s have greeters stationed at the front door after the service for those who don’t stay for social hour to shake their hands and thank them for coming.
Thinking about what we need to do to welcome visitors and then doing one thing more is how you exceed expectations and provide great customer service.
3. See the Congregation Through New Eyes
You know the clutter that piles up in that one corner of one room in your house? (Of course, in my house, it’s piled up in several corners of several rooms.) The clutter that, after a while, you tend not to notice is even there? This is known as the “dirty sock” syndrome. Leave a dirty sock in one spot long enough and it becomes invisible. But when a guest enters your home, it’s usually the first thing they notice.
So it is in our congregations. Supplies, materials, discarded boxes can accumulate in one part of the building and after a while, we don’t notice it. But you can be sure your visitors will. So take a tour of your building and see it as if you are seeing it for the first time. Notice the sofa in the lounge area that has several cuts in the fabric; the conference table that is fraying at the edges; the stains on the lobby carpet; the artificial Christmas tree lurking in one corner of Fellowship Hall. And then get to work, sprucing up the place as if guests are arriving any minute…which, by the way, they are.
We sometimes receive company surveys after purchasing items such as a car or an appliance. Even if we don’t respond, we appreciate the effort of the company in asking, “How did we do?” Or more importantly, “How are you doing?’. Following up with visitors to our congregations is another example of excellent customer service. It’s an opportunity to thank them for coming and to invite them to the next service. For my money, a postcard is the best way to go. It’s quick, inexpensive and personal. A simple message can have a great impact, something like, “Dear Alice, Thank you for being with us yesterday. I hope you felt welcomed. Next week, our sermon is entitled “Finding Spirituality on the Baseball Diamond”. I hope you can join us.” And if you can make it more personal, so much the better. “PS: I hope your son got back to college okay.”
In his book Encounters at the Counter: What Congregations Can Learn about Hospitality from Business, Alan Johnson draws the connection between customer service (hospitality) and spirituality when he writes, “Divine love shapes our lives and the relationships we have with others. This is true in our congregations; it is true at the counter! From the web of connection that is made through the disciplines of spirituality, the blessings flow as hospitality is extended.” Extending ourselves through good customer service practices ensures that a congregation grows in spirit as well as in numbers.