A couple of summers ago, I spent my evenings moonlighting as a waitress. It was a small, but respectable bistro specializing in thoughtfully prepared French comfort food, and the head waitressthe only waitresswas on vacation. My friend Patrick was the owner and chef, and he asked me to fill in while she was gone.
I was nervous. While I'd waited tables as a teenager, I was hardly professional waitress material. And not only had Patrick learned his trade at some of Europe and Asia's most noted establishments, he was also, shall we say, very particular about how he wanted things done. I clinked the glasses a little more jerkily than a professional waitress would as I set the tables the evening of my first shift.
"Carolyn, there is no need to be nervous," Patrick called from the kitchen where he was checking on the souris d'agneau. (My nervous energy was palpable, even from the kitchen.) "Imagine that tonight you are throwing a dinner party for a few friends. How would you receive your guests? You're not afraid of your friends, are you?"
What Patrick didn't know was that in the context of throwing dinner parties, I was afraid of my friends. Most of my friends are amazing cooks. When it comes to attending dinner parties, they expect an amazing meal. And when it comes to preparing an amazing meal, I'm not the most consistent chef de cuisine.
But that wasn't Patrick's point. (Besides, the cooking was up to him.) Patrick was presuming, correctly so, that my friends were important to me, and that when I invited them over as guests, I would naturally want to make them feel welcome, at ease, comfortable and special. I would want them to have a great experience. This was how he wanted me to approach our clientele. (Or, sorry, our guests.)
What does this have to do with church? Well, a lotespecially if we're talking about guests.
On his blog, 27gen.com, Bob Adams uses examples not only from the restaurant business, but Disney and pretty much every other success story Corporate America has known to illustrate how their best practices can apply to guest services in a church. As curator of the Vision Room at Auxano, a nationwide consulting firm, and guest experience coordinator at Elevation Church's Uptown Campus in Charlotte, N.C., Adams declares that he is on a mission to replace what he calls the V-word ("visitors") with the word "guests."
"Churches should not have visitors; they should have guests," Adams says. Visitors are one thing, he adds, but guests are quite another. Think about it: how do you feel if you are ushered to a spot marked "visitors sign here"? Now, how do you feel if you are suddenly referred to not as a visitor, but as a guest?
Church leaders weigh in
Mark Waltz, pastor of connections and multisite at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind., and author of "Lasting Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church"; "How to Wow Your Church Guests: 101 Ways to Make a Meaningful First Impression"; and "Lasting Impressions: From Visiting to Belonging," puts it this way: "Customer service or guest service anywhere equals, in my mind, customer care or guest care, which equates to personal value being communicated," he says. "God has created us with a sense of value and an intrinsic longing for personal value." When we feel a lack of that anywhere, we tend not to return to the place that made us feel less than valuable.
While we'd all like to think that we're adept at making people feel valued, Waltz points out that not everyone is cut out for guest services, and that church leaders should make sure that they are staffing their teams with the right players. He also emphasizes training: "It circles back to the Golden Rule: Jesus saying do to others as you would have them do to you," he says.
This translates into focusing on listening skills, engaging with guests at their levelsome guests, for example, are introverted and shy, while others are bold and outgoingand encouraging staff and volunteers to be empowered to look after whatever a guest may need.
It's also about putting the guest at ease, Waltz sayseven the boldest person is a little timid when they are entering an unfamiliar space. This is where things as simple as cafés or coffee stands can help immensely. "People walk in with fears and apprehensions, and they come in from various life stages related to church and God," he says. "Coffee is one of those aromas and experiences where people go, Oh, I know how to do this.'"
As strange as it may sound, the parking lot can also intimidate introverted guests. While Waltz acknowledges that things like asking first-time guests to turn their flashers on, or providing them with a special parking area are great, the downside is that these measures don't always take into consideration how someone who doesn't want all that attention may feel. In this case, do they have another option? Can they use another parking area? And if so, will there still be someone at that entrance to greet them?
Dean Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Church Facilities Managers (NACFM) and business administrator at First Baptist Church of Lubbock in Lubbock, Texas, says guest services is doing whatever it takes to remove distractions from Sunday School, worship time or during any other ministries or special events that are taking place on the church property. The challenge, he says, is what he calls the "home field disadvantage," whereby regular members overlook things not because they're lazy, but because they are so accustomed to being there.
"We see our surroundings every day, and for some reason block out the little things that might be a huge thing," Johnson notes, citing a wet or stained ceiling tile as an example. "We know that eventually we'll replace that, but a first-time visiting mom with a child that has major allergy issues will see that totally differently."
The value of fresh perspective
To design and refine the guest experience, Adams and his team members perform regular walk-throughsan exercise whereby they go through the process of becoming acquainted with the church (usually first via its website), arriving at church and then leaving, after the service, with different "guest personas" in mind. The argument for this is that the needs of a single mother with two childrenlet's say a preschooler and a child in the third grade vs. those of a retired coupleare very different. "If you are going to serve them best, you need to define personas for each of the type of guests that are coming to your church, and then create an experience, or blueprint, or journey from the first contact they have with your churchwhich is usually through a digital doorway and not a physical oneand then walk through every touch point they have with your church and say: How can we improve this? What needs to change?" he explains.
For Adams, guest services touches every aspect of how guests interact with your church, be it digitally through your website and social media, on the telephone, through literature, and face-to-face with the members of your congregation. "Every interaction your guests have is going to color their judgment about your church," he concludes. "Anything you can do to help that interaction is going to make that guest experience positive."
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