Before I (Ben) worked in retail, I was a youth minister for four years at a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh. Moving from one to the other as I did, I was struck by the similarities between ministry and retail. Both are, in part, about service and meeting people’s needs. Both, in another sense, are about marketing; the examples are obvious in retail, but a church must also craft and present a message to its audience in the hopes of making a transaction. The language is different (the phrase “seeker sensitive” may be the closest hybrid of ministry and retail, with its nuanced understanding of both a message to pitch and a specific demographic to target) but the means are similar. You have needs: we can meet them. This is not to say that ministry is one big sales pitch with a gloss of holy-sounding spin. It is to say that a church which fails to care for and fill the needs of its members will fail just like any business would.
What five years in retail have taught me is that Christians need work on the spiritual practice of shopping. Ask anyone who works in retail or the restaurant business when his or her least favorite day of the week is, and many will say Sunday when church lets out. Are these highly visible shoppers — billboards for all of Christendom in their Sunday best — symptomatic of all Christians? Yes and no. Yes because Christians believe we all in some small, imperfect way are representatives of Christ, and to take that lightly would be to miss the point. And no because you can’t blame everyone for a few bad apples. But I’ve had enough firsthand experiences to know it’s not just a few bad apples.
I’ll give a non-retail example first. My dad is a pediatrician and my mom a nurse, and they work together in the same family practice. My mom also works as a receptionist a few days of the week, so she’s on the front lines answering the phones. When she answers she gives her name, Donna, but not the last name. Once a member of our home church, who sits on a committee with both my parents and cheerfully greets them every Sunday, called to complain about missing an appointment for her child. My mom recognized who the caller was but did not identify herself. The caller said it was not her fault she had been unable to keep a previous appointment and that she should not have been inconvenienced to reschedule and furthermore that she knows Dr. Vore and that he would not be pleased with how my mom was obstructing her access to him, and could she speak to someone higher up who wasn’t a lowly receptionist? This begs the question: What disconnect happened in this woman’s life that someone she worships with on Sunday is the same person she can belittle and bully on Monday?
Now, we are all hypocrites. No one can escape the gap between actions and words. We all have a bad day, or an outburst we regret, or comments we wish we could take back. And Christianity is insistent on the matter of forgiveness.
It’s also, to come back to retail, about serving one another. Yet we have a culture that encourages us to think of people who serve us as disposable. They are here to meet our needs, to give us what we want. If what we want is unreasonable, there is the unspoken assumption that superior customer service will go out of its way to meet the unreasonable.
There is a legendary customer service parable, possibly apocryphal, about a man who returned a tire to Nordstrom’s. As the story goes, Nordstrom accepted the return despite the fact they don’t sell tires. The moral: Win the customer by going above and beyond what’s normal for what’s exceptional. That is undoubtedly good advice for world class customer service. But it also reinforces “The customer is always right” when it’s more accurate to say, “The customer is sometimes lying, pushy, condescending and simply wrong, but he’s still a customer.”* Where is the line between accommodating a customer and getting walked over? How do you provide great customer service yet not enable abusive customer behavior? And how do you meet exceptional needs and hold a standard that is still fair but (one hopes) profitable?
But back to Christians and shopping. Since you never hear a sermon about how to shop, let me offer a few, humble suggestions for Christians to consider when they’re pushing around a shopping cart. (Of course, we think these suggestions are good advice for everyone, regardless of spiritual beliefs. But the point is that Christians talk about being a light on a hill and spreading good news to all the world, which is what we’re called to do, yet some seem to conveniently forget that this applies as much at your local shop as it does in, say, Africa. And if we really care what people think about the church — which we should — then one segment of people who definitely need to be won over are those of us in retail.)
1. The people working in retail are people. Some are Christians too. Whether they are or not doesn’t matter. Treat them with respect. (When Jesus said “Love thy neighbor” he meant everyone, and just to be clear he said your enemies are your neighbors too.) Don’t condescend to them. Say “thank you” and make eye contact and ask them how their day is going. Forgive them when they mess up. Please please please put down your cell phone when you’re checking out.
2. Complain productively and respectfully. When customer service is poor and you feel compelled to complain (which you should), do it the right way. It is invaluable to hear how we can improve what we’re doing wrong, but the way you complain makes all the difference in how it’s received. There’s no need to make a scene. When you speak to a manager, tell them exactly what you need from them to address the situation. They’re not a human punching bag either. And if they don’t respond appropriately, figure out where you can take your complaint up the chain.
3. You can regulate too. My sister-in-law Bevin was in line when a customer checking out began dressing down the cashier. So Bevin said, “You know, acting like a jerk isn’t going to help solve the problem here.” And the other customers in line chimed in by nodding their heads up and down! Chastened, the customer stormed off in a huff. Besides illustrating the point Bevin is awesome, it’s a reminder that you’re never just a spectator.
4. Reward good customer service. Put your money where your mouth is and shop where you’re valued. Your money is your vote. At Coffee Please in Madeira on Friday mornings where Ben’s small group meets for breakfast, Lisa knows us by name and takes the food out to our tables (which she’ll push together for us). The same way that a church needs to be rooted somewhere to have real value in the community, support businesses that do the same. Places still matter. Support stores that make your town different than ours.
5. Be a good tipper. Look at where retail employees park and look at the cars they drive. They’re not driving Beamers. Sometimes they’re not even driving cars that should be on the road. If you can afford going out to a nice restaurant or a cup of joe every day, you can afford to be a generous tipper. If someone in retail is frugal enough to stash those tips away, it’s eventually going to pay for the unexpected but essential emergency like, say, new tires. (Poor customer service does not let you off the hook. There are ways to address this [see #2 above]. But when the cooks make a mistake, don’t take it out on your server.)
Enough preaching. Fellow retailers, I’m sure, can offer many additional suggestions which I’ve overlooked or neglected. I hope they do.
*=This truth needs to be told too: Nine out of ten customers are perfectly fine, and some are wonderful, at least in my line of retail. The lying, pushy, condescending and simply wrong ones are few and far between, but they tend to be slightly more memorable.
(Special thanks to Jenny, Scott, Seth, Bevin and Erin for all their suggestions and feedback on this post.)