Customer Service–or Church–Fails, Part III

You’d think that, faced with all the poor customer service I encountered at Sutherlands and Lowes, I might have given up in my quest for the tools that would change my life, but quitting isn’t in my nature. Instead, I pushed ahead to a place that had always seemed pretty decent to me: Northern Tool.

The life-changing item I sought there was a reel for an air hose. Are you tired of have a tangle of air hose around your compressor? Are you sick of having to return your hose after inflating tires or using tools? (Envision black-and-white footage of people struggling with hoses.) Then you need the Klutch Auto Rewind Air Hose Reel! Call soon and we’ll double the offer!

Okay, there was no cheesy infomercial, but the very item I had longed for since January was on sale. With full confidence that my experience would be far better than at my previous two stops, I stepped into the store and grabbed the box.

But then I paused to wonder. How will I connect the compressor to the reel? I found a short hose that would bridge that gap, but then I paused to wonder some more. Did this hose have the right sort of connection?

One of the benefits of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store is that you can ask the knowledgeable employees questions. So I asked a guy who seemed to be somewhat in charge. I’ll call him Nate. “Is this hose what I’ll need to connect from my compressor to the reel?”

His face let me know that my question was irritating and unwanted. “You have to know how far it is,” he groaned, not at all answering my question. He had important manager stuff to do.

“No, I’m wondering what sort of connector the reel takes. The picture shows–” I continued before Nate cut me off.

“It’ll work,” he blurted. He didn’t add the word “idiot,” but it was clearly implied. He really never looked at what I had in hand.

I tried to show him the photo on the box, but he had no interest in that. That’s when I decided to go ahead and buy the thing.

Would you be surprised to know that the hose I bought turned out not to fit? So Nate of the North not only treated me as a an annoyance, he gave me wrong information. I made a point of going somewhere else to snag the adapter I needed to make the whole thing fit.

Have you ever been in a church where people treated you like an annoyance, where the attitude, spoken or unspoken, told you that people wished you’d at least shut up and preferably go away? As I write this, I realize that I might have given that vibe to somebody in my church. He is annoying, but I’m sure that I am from time to time.

If a church is going to be better than Amazon, then it has to treat its people, whether they are long-time irritants or clueless newbies, as the valued creatures that God sees in them. How much does he value the irritant? Think of Romans 5:8:

 But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Customer Service–or Church–Fails, Part I

What do I do for fun, when I have a free day and a bit of extra cash in the budget? Yesterday, I indulged in some tool buying. Over the course of the afternoon, I visited three different stores to grab up some items that I’m convinced will make my life amazingly easier.

Although I came home with a car full of nifty items, I also found something amazing at all three stores: incompetent customer service. In reflecting over the afternoon, it occurred to me that the ways in which the employees at these places fell short reflected some of the ways that we can fall short as a church.

I’d like to start with the best person of the day. Sutherland’s is a Kansas-City-based lumberyard and hardware company. In the tool department at their Independence store yesterday, I encountered Megan.

When Megan asked me if she could help me find anything, I resisted my habit of blowing off help.

“You had these miter-saw stands on sale,” I noted. “Where would I find those?”

Megan’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, I was meaning to find out where those were.” She walked past me and looked around. Then she went back the other direction. No luck. I happened to glance up and see a similar item, all assembled, atop the shelves.

“Is that the thing?” I asked.

She couldn’t see it, which I found strange. I moved over to that section of shelves and saw a likely-looking box. “Is that it?”

Finally, Megan realized that this was the thing. She grabbed a cart for me to wheel my new, unassembled miter-saw stand to the car. “Anything else?”

I hesitated, but then asked if she had a certain air tool, a stapler. I pointed to the display item. She again knotted up her face and wrote down a number. Then she looked and she looked some more. To the left and the right she looked. After a couple of minutes, I glanced up, saw three boxes with the right brand name and realized that one of them seemed to be the proper device.

“Is that it?” I queried.

Again, she couldn’t see it. Finally, she realized that this was the item and that she’d written down the wrong number. She grabbed a ladder and fetched my stapler.

Megan was very nice and willing, but she wasn’t terribly helpful. Her level of customer service, although the best I experienced yesterday, won’t send me back to Sutherland’s in a hurry.

A church can be like that, filled with nice and willing people who don’t have a great deal to offer. Recently I argued that the church needs to be “Better than Amazon,” and I have to feel that a Megan-style church is problematic. No matter how affable, no matter how well meaning, a church that does not know things, spiritual things, that I don’t know will offer me very little. Such churches litter our land. They’re filled with nice people, by and large. Often they do valuable services for the community. That’s great, but such a church is essentially a Rotary Club with a pipe organ. It’s certainly not better than Amazon.

Is It Better than Amazon?

My mother asked recently if they sell a certain something on Amazon. I chuckled and then informed her, “Short of a live elephant, I think you can buy just about anything on Amazon.” And it’s true. Yesterday, I bought an air-powered stapler locally, but I just checked and found the same exact model–two dollars cheaper–on Amazon. The staples for that tool are available in just about length and quantity. Obscure books, pointless Valentine’s gifts, and whatever this is are similarly available.

Amazon is amazing. They have everything. You don’t have to worry about some part being in the wrong bin or the price being mis-marked. With free shipping, it’s just about perfect. No wonder bricks-and-mortar stores are suffering so much.

There are, of course, some reasons why I might go to my local big-box store rather than scrolling through Amazon’s offerings. Let’s consider some of these.

  • I can actually see, feel, try on, or otherwise experience the item before I buy it.
  • I can talk to somebody about the item before I buy it.
  • I can get the item right now rather than a day or two from now.
  • I’m lonely and I just want to get out of the house.
  • I can do the right thing by supporting local business.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about my church in relation to Amazon. Why should a “customer” come to my church rather than experiencing church online? I can watch Joel Osteen on TV. Better yet (for several reasons), I can stream Steven Furtick on my computer. Why wouldn’t I opt for this instead of going to the trouble of heading to a bricks-and-mortar church?

And it can be trouble. You don’t have to find parking at the Amazon church. Your kids won’t embarrass you there. There’s nobody with too much cologne or not enough deodorant sitting near you there. You don’t have to pretend to like people. No one will judge your clothes, your hair, your family situation, your lifestyle, or anything else. These are real obstacles.

Of course, I know the various reasons why I shouldn’t opt for the Amazon-era church. There’s Hebrews 10:25 and all that, but they didn’t have broadcast capabilities in the first century. How can I convince a potential church “customer” that my church is better than the one they can see comfortably and readily on a screen. And that question is only relevant if I can convince someone of the need to “shop” for some sort of church experience at all.

For the bricks-and-mortar church to thrive today, it needs to be better than Amazon. We, as dedicated church people shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t find our church body compelling if it does not offer something like what’s listed in the bullet points above.

We are not the Amazon church. We shouldn’t aspire to being the Amazon church. But in an age when Amazon is carving a path through retailing, we need to see them as a cautionary tale. If retailers don’t offer something that Amazon can’t, they’ll go the way of K-Mart. If the church doesn’t offer something that the Amazon church can’t, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see our attendance, our budget, our effectiveness, and our witness declining in the culture.