I wrote a book years ago titled, First Impressions. It’s all about guest services. It’s about the guest experience.
Get this: Guest services is more than first impressions and first impressions are more than your guest services teams. Before you give due attention to your guest services ministry, before you focus on your guest services teams, you must first create and cultivate a culture of guest services.
Cultivating a culture of guest services, a culture of warmth and belonging, doesn't begin with the teams designed to greet, welcome and usher. A culture of warmth and belonging includes everyone and begins with the church staff.
Culture is the make-up of any organization. Culture holds your values and norms. Culture is the embodiment of how a group of people - your staff, your volunteers, your people - live out life together. It defines you. Culture doesn't lie, and it can't be faked. At least, not over the long haul.
Here are six key steps to developing and nurturing a guest services culture where people are warmly welcomed and invited to belong. These aren't the only steps, but they are a critical start.
1. Be honest about where you are.
When I was much younger - high school, in fact - I was a less-aware driver than I am now (My family may say differently, so let's not ask them.). A buddy and I were headed home (south of Indianapolis at the time) from Ohio. I knew our exit was off I-465 that circled the city, but I missed it. Twice. We looped Indy two times, around the entire city. Twice. I knew home was our destination, but I had know idea where I was in relationship to where I wanted to be.
Being honest about where you are presently may mean you need to determine exactly where that is. That may not sound very profound, but it may keep you from looping and looping, driving but doing little more than spinning your wheels. It's one thing to define a great (whatever "great" is) guest service experience that you maintain and even applaud, it’s quite another thing to understand what your guests say they are experiencing. Guest experience is what your guests say it is, not what you say, believe or hope it is. Your guests’ perception is your reality.
Do you know what your guest experience reality is? What’s the truth about what your guests are experiencing? How will you go about getting the truth? How will you get honest about where you are right now? Are you ready to legitimately assess what’s true?
2. Define your values.
Once you know where you are, you can determine where you want to be. That is, you can begin to shape your culture. Maybe you’ve heard “culture doesn’t just happen.” I believe it does. But “intentional” culture doesn’t just happen. If you’re not intentional about defining and shaping your culture, then a culture will emerge. It will be established. And it will be experienced.
Ever shopped online with a business that claimed their experience was easy and efficient, only to discover that the process was complicated and frustrating (And I'll bet you told a few friends about how clunky the system was.)? How many times have you been invited to experience the warmth, the fun, the professionalism of a church, cruise line, hotel or business only to find that the promise was as false as the Easter bunny? Yeah, I lost count too. Culture is the sum total of values. And values can be aspirational or they can be actualized.
Values can be stated. They can be printed. They can be posted. But talk and paper and signs don’t establish the values. People do. And leaders lead the values.
What values define your culture? How do you see people? How do you extend honor and welcome? How do you speak to and treat each other? How do you handle conflict? How do you understand growth? How is grace extended? What does belonging actually look and feel like? Do you value belonging? If so, does that value translate to accessible ways to do so?
Getting clarity on what "first impression" someone will experience in a ten-minute or hour-long span of time is one thing. But you must also get clear on what someone will experience about who you actually are. As in, all the time. Is there a chance that guests experience an initial feeling, a first impression, that is in contrast to the day-to-day cultural reality? Over time the lived-out values are obvious to everyone, and those values define your culture.
3. Develop your strategy.
Strategy incorporates your values, your beliefs, your methods, your drivers and your teams. Strategy is the “how.” How will you implement your values? How will you set and achieve your goals? How will you develop the right team? How will you accomplish your vision together? How will you get to where you want to be? How will you know when you get there?
Developing strategy begins with perspective. The kind of perspective that honestly assesses, “where are we?” But perspective also seeks to understand just how you got where you are. There are no doubt amazing gifts and accomplishments and ministry simply done right and well behind you. There are also wrong turns, poor judgments and bad hires that impact where you are. If you’re honest, there’s also a fair amount of confusion that’s never been fully addressed.
But Sunday keeps coming. Every seven days. Over and over. It's a challenge, isn't it, to stop and consider: where are we? How'd we get here? Where do we want and need to be?
Only thorough and honest perception will help you develop a strategy that is aligned with your values and mission and focused on getting you to the place you want to be.
4. Involve every team.
When I travel I experience a variety of customer care values in the hospitality industry. Hospitality may start at the front desk, but it doesn’t define the customer experience for me or any other patron. The experience is also set by the concierge, the dining wait staff and the cleaning team. When I walk through a hotel corridor and a housekeeping team member stops their work, looks me in the eye, smiles, says “hello” and asks how I’m doing, then I know this hotel gets it: every team member is on the customer service team.
Perhaps a better and even more consistent example is a cruise ship. Every team member in every restaurant, every entertainment venue, every cabin concierge…every team member delivers the experience. Every employee knows she or he is part of the customer service team. And when this happens, the experience for the guest is one of excellent personal care.
This isn’t merely about your guest services team. They play an undeniable role in creating an atmosphere and experience of warmth and welcome. But your guests’ interaction isn’t limited to your guest services teams. A family with children will encounter kids’ ministry teams, the café (if you have any kind of beverage offering) team, artists/worship team members, housekeeping teams and more.
Will your guests’ experience be consistent with every encounter?
5. Involve your guests.
Again, your guests’ perception is your reality. You may believe you know what the guest experience is, but only your guests know the truth about the experience…because it is their experience. Not yours.
How will you find out what their experience is? How will you ask?
Using your weekend guest comment / connection card is one way. So is an online survey or a focus group. Whatever the method, you must involve your guests, because they are the benefactor and the judge (like it or not) of the quality of care and excellence you’re providing.
6. Train your teams.
When I experience the hotel I described above or even when I eat at a Chick-fil-A, I know this level of service didn’t just happen. Is it important to get the “right” people on the team? Absolutely. Does it matter that there is competent leadership of the team? Yes!
But this experience doesn’t just happen. The team members don't automatically know and practice the norms of excellent personal care because they're the right hires with the right leader. What makes Chick-fil-A so different than McDonald’s? What sets Royal Caribbean Cruises apart from the Holiday Inn? Training makes the difference. Training is focused on the desired outcome. It embodies and practices core values. It is consistent and thorough. It is constant and focused on the guest experience.
You must train your teams.
Your culture is your church. Your culture reveals your values. Your culture is a barometer of health or a lack of it. And your culture is what your guests experience - their first time with you, as well as their ongoing relationship with your church.
So yes, train greeters to look people in the eye. Help your ushers remember to smile. Coach your guest services teams to identify and engage a brand new guest.
But there’s more.
Guest services must be understood as part of your church’s core strategy, philosophy and culture in order to affect change that creates a space of relationships where people are invited to belong because they matter to God and to you.