Customer Service for the Saints

by Cal LeMon

If Home Depot and Lowes are geographically close to each other and you need to buy a hammer, pick up some potting soil, or purchase a leaf blower, which of these big box home-improvement stores will earn your business?

Research suggests you will determine your answer by the memories of your last customer service experience at either store. Price will come in a poor second to “They treat me like I am invisible,” or “It takes forever to find someone to help me.”

Does this basic customer-service principle have anything to do with the saints who regularly receive your ministry?

Before answering this question, what is your response to these questions? Are parishioners leaving your congregation to worship in another fellowship? Was their decision driven just by theology or dogma?

I guarantee that scintillating theological debates about amillennialism and pedobaptism will not hold any holy water when compared with, “No one from the staff visited me when I was sick for 3 weeks,” or “The pastor can never remember my name.”

As an outside consultant who assists congregations in designing and implementing a strategic plan, I often propose that they determine their customer service quotient (a numerical score indicating the congregation’s competence in offering outstanding customer service). I am often rebuffed with the reframe, “Excuse me, Cal, but Christians are not customers.”

“Why not?” I ask.

The reply usually is, “Well, the gospel is not sold on some Walmart aisle.”

“You are right,” I respond, “the gospel is not sold with Diet Coke, disposable diapers, and lawn fertilizer, but like Walmart, is it not true the church has a product, a delivery system, and … customer evaluations?”

I hear silence.

The Christian Consumer’s Collective Unconscious

We file each episode of life into an area of our neocortex called the hippocampus. This brain file drawer opens every time we have an experience. The hippocampus stores this experience, glued together by a few million synapses, creating a lasting impression. And, this filed impression will determine whether we return to the same pharmacy, restaurant, vacation destination, or place of worship.

Impressions become belief systems and, whether this is a belief in our Lord or the fashion selections of Lord and Taylor, our memories are the residue of our belief systems. Memories (our collective unconscious) will determine whether or not we come back for more.

The people who sit facing you, in your Greek class, sanctuary, mission station, house church, or college classroom, are constantly creating and editing an impression of you and your message. This collective conscious will determine your Kingdom customer service.

Four Expectations of the Faithful

Your customers bring with them four nonverbal expectations.

First, they want customization. Customization is your hard work to make sure you specifically mold the good news around the uniqueness of your customer’s real life.

If you want to know the trade secret of Facebook and MySpace, do not look any further beyond the millions who have plastered their picture, name, and story for the world to see.

Second, your consumer wants added value and excellence. This is where choices appear. In the church, I call this process cycling of the saints. When people of faith have choices, they look for a comfortable spiritual home saturated with excellence. They eagerly gravitate to proclamation percolating with precision, competent spiritual education for their children, and vibrant worship. If these religious consumers do not find what they are looking for, they cycle to another expression of the body of Christ.

Third, your customers want fast response and delivery. The obsolescence of technology has fermented a new impatience in all of us. From refusing to wait for a traffic light to turn green, a drive-thru food order shoved out a small window by the time you pull forward, or a painfully slow Internet connection, our world spins in nanosecond precision.

The recipients of your ministry are expecting the church to answer their voicemail, e-mail, and text messages with the same timeliness with which they sent them. These denizens of the digital age are expecting the church to deliver on promised deadlines. The “I will get back to you somewhere in the future” excuses no longer hold any holy water for the faithful.

Fourth, and this is nothing new for the church, your parishioners are expecting they will not get lost in your crowd. Megachurches, mega-Christian education, mega-missions or anything mega-kingdom of God have a liability … success can depersonalize the adherent into a cold statistic.

If I am a digitized name appearing on a rapidly expanding database (a name no one on staff can remember or correctly pronounce) and find out today my brother has pancreatic cancer, I need to be served by someone in a faith community who genuinely cares about me. When big loses people, flesh-and-blood hurting people — the lost leave.

Extraordinary Epistemology

If you buy a new shirt at a Nordstrom Department Store and want to immediately wear it, they will not hesitate to iron that shirt in a backroom.

If you purchase an L.L. Bean backpack and come back from hiking in the Rockies with a torn zipper from a rock, you can send it back to them and they will either fix the zipper or just send you a new backpack.

If your flight on Southwest Airlines is delayed due to a mechanical malfunction, the airline may give you a free ticket anywhere in the United States to compensate you for your time.

As a consumer, I have been surprised with service … service I was not expecting … and I eagerly became their best salesperson.

Corporate America believes they can win the competition wars by just exceeding customers’ expectations.

So, what is the surprise you have for those who receive your ministry today?

Surprising your customers begins with identifying your ministry’s core expectation. In other words, what are the basic deliverables when you serve others?

Preaching, teaching, visiting the sick, marrying and burying … you know, the basics.

Extraordinary makes its appearance when you follow up your preaching with a set of e-mailed questions you send on Tuesday to prod parishioners into practicing what they learned from God’s Word on Sunday morning.

Extraordinary is a personal handwritten note of appreciation for a church leader who spent an entire evening in a hospital waiting room with distraught parents whose son was severely injured in an automobile accident.

Extraordinary may be driving 300 miles to attend a college graduation … of an emerging adult who used to attend your fellowship.

The message of the gospel has always been about God showing up when we least expected Him. Our Lord has always practiced extraordinary epistemology.

It’s the Little Things: Service and Servanthood

It is a profound, heart-stopping moment.

The brawny, smelly fisherman, Peter, has been tagging along with Jesus of Galilee for several years, and it looks like his devotion will finally pay off with position and power.

The dinner is progressing nicely, and it looks like the Man will be making some major announcement about adjustments to the Kingdom’s flowchart, and Peter is sure he will move up with a direct, dotted line to the Mover and Shaker of the Universe.

And then, Jesus, for some weird reason, takes off His business suit and dons a large towel, normally worn by the hired help (John 13:1–17). Peter’s Lord asks him to extend his feet. Peter responds, “Hey, Master, what are You doing.… You know we have hourly wage folks for this kind of thing.”

Jesus responds, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (verse 8).

Our faith drags us to feet. Service with a smile … and a towel.

The incentive for us to offer extraordinary customer service in the Kingdom is not dictated by Walmart, Walgreens, or Wally World. The church should not get jerked around to emulate the giants in commercialism.

At the same time, why should the church practice less than exemplary service? You see, Kingdom customer service was here long before Walmart staff started wearing vests emblazoned with, “How can I help you?”

The Church trademarked that question 2,000 years ago outside an empty tomb.