By Eddie Pipkin

October 9, 2017

Have you had an experience of passive-aggressive customer service?  Everybody understands the concept of good customer service.  Most everybody in ministry agrees that it’s crass to think of congregants as customers.  But customers and congregants (and those who serve them) agree that many of the same basic rules of hospitality and attentiveness apply to both groups, and in both cases, we can fall short of the mark.  Passive-aggressive customer service, however, is a unique version of falling short.

All ministry leaders talk about hospitality concepts, and most develop a plan to provide (for want of a better term in this context) a satisfactory customer service experience.  We have systems in place to answer questions and help people.  We can readily identify what those systems are and how they are designed to work.  But the reality, too often, is that the systems we have in place are so cumbersome to use or so prone to produce discomfort that people just opt out.  If somebody asks, we can point to the ways that folks seek out information or get connected to ministry opportunities, but in practice, folks can be frustrated by navigating our hoops or dealing with less than pleasant people who are supposedly there to help them.

For comparative purposes, I offer up the universal bad service bogeyman, cable tv.  I happen to live in an area affected by hurricane Irma, so I had a recent chance to reflect firsthand on what it’s like to be a customer seeking service.  My local power company provided constant updates as to when we could anticipate service restoration.  You could click a nifty online map with your specific street and see projected service restoration times.  The cable guys, not so much.  From them you got a generic, unchanging message: “Sorry, we’re working on it.”  Once they finally got the cable and internet working again, mine wasn’t working correctly, so I tried to call in, only to be greeted by that maddening automated nesting doll of options that ends—maybe, eventually—in a person  . . . who then turns out not to be able to solve my real-world issue.  If you are like me, it doesn’t take much of this to wear you down: I gave up, deciding to live with subpar cable performance for a couple of weeks to see if it would magically improve on its own.

In identifying top customer service complaints, it’s easy to pick on the cable company (or the cell phone company or the health insurance company, etc.), but how often does ministry inadvertently replicate this same experience?  How often do we make it so difficult to donate, to sign up, to get a question answered, to connect to other people, or to understand what’s going on, that people just shrug their shoulders, give up, and move on?

In case you’re reading this from Mars and have never dealt with a passive-aggressive person, here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster online:

[O]f or denoting a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials.

Perhaps even more incisive is Hilary De Vries’ definition: “[T]he donning of a mask of amiability that conceals raw antagonism toward one’s competitors, even one’s friends.”  You probably have your own stories of the ministry coordinator or church front office staff member who illustrates that definition.  It is a person who says one thing, but acts differently.  If you need help in defining the specific behaviors that characterize this condition, Psychology Today is glad to provide this list:

  • Silent treatment.
  • Subtle insults.
  • Sullen behavior.
  • Stubbornness.
  • Failure to finish required tasks / requests.

Nobody actively encourages ministry leaders, workers, or staff to act in any of the ways described above, but the key to standout customer service is to routinely treat people (customers) with LOVE (defined by the 1st Corinthians 13 list of behaviors, a kind of master list of customer service goals: patience, kindness, longsuffering, encouragement, etc.)  The key, John Verlee writes in the Capterra Church Management blog, is the way we get jaded over time, answering the same questions ad infinitum, dealing with the same problems again and again:

Jadedness kills empathy.  Without empathy, it’s tough to take anyone’s problems all that seriously.  Yet just like a company with bad customer support, a church that doesn’t take each individual’s issues seriously leaves behind a trail of hurt and bitter people in their wake.  In contrast, a church leadership team who is deeply empathetic, caring, and supportive finds those who reach out to them to become even greater fans of the church and God’s movement in their lives.

If we create a subtle message that we just don’t care—that people just aren’t as important as we publicly claim they are—it is difficult to ever get them connected and engaged.  This is critical in ministry, because our whole reason for being is caring for people.  The allBusiness website for small businesses recently posted a listicle with the top 10 customer service mistakes.  It’s a list which applies as equally well to churches as to the local cupcake shop.  Here’s a summary, with my added parenthetical church examples:

  • Not being accessible. (“You can reach our music director on the first Tuesday after every full moon, but by handwritten note only.”)
  • Standing by your policy, no matter what. (“I’m sorry, that room is permanently reserved for use by the women’s Bible study circle ONLY.”)
  • Failing to keep promises. (“Somebody will get back to you about that in the next couple of days . . . this time!”)
  • Keeping poor customer records. (This is the one where they keep mailing things to your old address.)
  • Giving customers the runaround. (“I’m sorry, I’m not sure who is in charge of that.”)
  • Sending canned responses. (This is the one where you get the same pre-formatted letter to thank you for giving.)
  • Trying to win an argument. (“You should volunteer to help with this.  Everybody should feel responsible for helping with this.  You know you have the time; you’re just not using yours well.”)
  • Failing to listen to customers. (“I know you said you needed this, but let me explain to you what you really need instead.”)
  • Forgetting the basics. (This one is when we neglect the very thing we all taught our kids: the simple courtesy of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’)
  • Not training your staff. (Without regular training of staff and volunteers, we end up with the scenarios listed above.  When is the last time you engaged in hospitality training—and not just for a designated hospitality team?)

We should have a regular audit of our customer service touchpoints, both an internal checklist for leadership and a way for newcomers to tell us how we’re doing.  Here are some reminders from The Gospel Coalition with some specifics by which to evaluate ourselves (and to routinely have fresh eyes evaluate for us):

  • How easy is our automated phone system to navigate?
  • How up-to-date is our online info?
  • Do we have sensible and easy-to-use signage at our facilities?
  • Do we have obvious people who can answer questions on Sunday mornings?
  • Is our facility clean and inviting?
  • What is the reputation of our staff and ministry leaders for following through on requests and getting back to people in a reasonable amount of time?
  • What is our reputation for genuine interest in the issues and questions of those who seek us out?

You may have stories of your own about a breakdown in customer service—either stories you’ve experienced firsthand or observed from afar in ministry.  Share them here, along with your ideas for how to inspire great customer service or important points you’d like to add.  At the EMC3 website, our resources include the Shift materials, whose “Fellowship to Hospitality” chapters detail strategies for making people welcome.  Thanks for reading—we love to hear from you.