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Hotels and Gadget Stores - what can churches learn about customer satisfaction?

Wednesday 10th April, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

by Reverend Rachel Shock | tags: , , , , ,

Revd Rachel Shock, Nottingham’s Workplace Chaplain, question how churches measure up against the retail and hospitality industry

On a recent visit to London I visited a luxury hotel, a church and a gadget shop. These three experiences reminded me of the importance of ‘welcome’ when we visit somewhere new and prompted me to question what our own parish could learn.

On Saturday afternoon I arrived with much anticipation to one of the best known hotels in London. We had booked and as such they were expecting us. We were greeted by a smiling person who took our coats and showed us to our seats. We were handed menus and told that he would come back in a couple of minutes after we had time to digest what was written on the page. He made some suggestions about what we might look at; how the different menus worked and asked us if this was our first visit to the hotel and whether it was a special occasion. He suggested various teas that we might like to drink. We were left to chat and absorb the atmosphere and the other people in the room. After ordering, the tea and cake duly arrived in a timely fashion with the waiter making polite but unobtrusive conversation. He checked whether there was anything else he could bring us and left us to enjoy, coming back occasionally to refill and check we were alright. The ambience of the hotel far exceeded my expectation. There was a sense of history, charm and calmness that pervaded the place. Or was it simply a mixture of excellent customer service with beautiful surroundings?

The second visit was to a church on the Sunday morning. Again this was a much anticipated visit, as I had heard many positive things about this place. I arrived at the church to find a closed solid door in front of me. I duly pushed open the door to find no-one at that end of the church despite the fact that a service was due to start in 15 minutes. A group of people stood talking at the other end; they did turn round to see who might be entering their domain but it was only when I walked towards them that someone reluctantly got up and came over. I would like to say that I was greeted with a smile. Unfortunately all I got was, “I’ll find you a book.” I was escorted back to the door and, as I was handed a service book, was told “I’ll give you the easy one.” What he meant was he would give me the book specially printed for tourists with virtually all of the service (BCP) removed. What in actual fact he gave me was a very nice printed booklet explaining the history of the church and with the bare minimum of the Book of Common Prayer Service. It was a shame he didn’t just give me both books. I obviously don't look like someone who could handle a difficult book!

The same gentleman explained that everybody sat at the far end of the church and I found my place and sat down smiling politely at the few members of the congregation who were eyeing me up suspiciously (i.e. no smiles). I had wanted to visit this church for a while but more particularly recently, because it had been mentioned in a radio discussion where someone had said that the ambience of this church could not be replicated elsewhere. I was eager to experience this and decide for myself. I was actually expecting a sense of awe when I walked in and, although the architecture and history were interesting, so far the experience was disappointing.

One of the reasons I like visiting churches when I am away is so that I can assess my performance against other ministers. Do they do anything differently that helps with worship and increases that elusive ambience? Does the way they conduct worship bring an added dimension to it? Could I improve? If I hadn’t been familiar with the BCP, I definitely would not have been able to hear or understand many of the prayers the minister said that morning, not helped by the lack of microphone. The loud “Amen” from one of the members of the congregation was really my only clue that the prayer had finished. Despite my growing disappointment, the minister did rise slightly in my estimation as he helped an elderly member of the congregation back to his seat and then continued administering communion.

At the end of the service I got up and decided I would have a look around the church. I passed various people and said good morning to them but not one of them replied back. Eventually on reaching the far end of the church I became a tourist and took out my phone to take a photo, assuming that this would make someone come running if it was forbidden. Sure enough the gentleman clearing the books away came over and said abruptly “We're closing the church now.” I headed quickly out of the door where the minister was still chatting and I went to shake his hand. He said, ‘Good morning,’ but immediately followed by, “Lovely to see you again.” I stopped myself from saying “Again!? Have you seen me before?”

This is definitely not a church I would ever want to go back to again – the supposedly unique ambience was distinctly lacking for me. What on earth would somebody who wasn't familiar with the service or familiar with the Church of England think of any of this? Unlike the staff at the hotel who were uniformly welcoming and courteous, the people at this church were uniformly unfriendly and had clearly not thought to consider how they might come across to visitors. Admittedly the exceptional service at the hotel was accompanied by a hefty price tag, but do we really have to be paying to receive attention and how much does it cost for one person to smile and say hello?

My third visit was to a gadget store. I’m quite attached to my gadgets, as anyone who knows me will realise. So a visit to this particular store was also eagerly anticipated. Needing an adapter for my camera I went up the stairs to be greeted by six young men and women who were waiting to serve (not behind desks). With a smile on his face, a young man immediately asked me if he could help. Telling him what I wanted he took me over to the shelf and showed me the various options, explaining, without any patronising tone, which the best option might be. He then politely showed me how to use their new payment system and at no time did I feel that this young person thought I was anything other than an expert in these particular products. I obviously give off a sense of knowing what I am doing with my phone rather more convincingly than I do with the BCP.

Back in Nottingham the other day I looked in our parish visitor book to see that someone had come in and experienced a welcome which was less than satisfactory. Possibly no-one is to blame because we are all quick to pick fault and there are many factors that affect a person’s visit. However, I know from conversations with one or two people in the congregation that we might not be doing the best we can with the many visitors we have coming into our churches. We are just about to reopen St Mary’s to the public and maybe now is the time to have a rethink about our welcoming strategy. Is it the best that we can do or could we improve it? Is this a priority for our parish? Just like in the hotel and the gadget store, it is up to everyone to play a part in being welcoming. Next time you turn around in church and see a strange face, be brave and go and welcome the person even if you do have to apologise because they have been coming to the church for 10 years!

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