What if Delta were a diocese?

| Father William Byron | March 2, 2011 | 2 Comments

What the church could learn from airline’s move to teach employees good manners

“Delta Sends Its 11,000 Agents to Charm School,” an­nounc­ed a Wall Street Journal headline in early February. The subhead read:

“Airline Ranked Last Among Major Carriers in Customer Service, So Training Targets Problem-Solving and Personal Skills.”

“What if Delta were a diocese?” I found myself asking as I read that article. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the drop-off in attendance at Sunday Masses in many parts of the country, and the drift of Catholics away from the church.

I’ve been hearing horror stories from former Catholics about bad treatment received at the hands of parish professionals. Not that those who have left are without blame. But reports of inept “customer relations” coming from so many who have had a bad experience with their priests and parish staff members have convinced me that the church, like Delta Air Lines, has a lot of work to do in improving customer relations.

One bad experience

“When a flier is frustrated,” says the Wall Street Journal story, “it takes just one surly airline agent to give a black eye to an entire company.”

The same can be said for an entire diocese or the church in general.

One bad experience with the rectory telephone receptionist can do it for a parishioner. Add to that a few pointless and ill-prepared homilies, and parishioner discontent can lead to a quiet departure from the pews.

One frustrated but still faithful Catholic said to me that he wished his bishop would “go undercover, i.e., dress in mufti and sit in the back pews for a few Sundays so that he could observe firsthand just how poor the worship experience is.”

So, what might be done?

Delta Air Lines is putting every gate and ticket agent, baggage handler and their supervisors through daylong renewed training sessions. There is a five-point “lesson plan” that Delta uses with its employees to help them improve customer service:

1. “Make it personal.” Focus on the person right there in front of you; greet each one “memorably.”

2. “Be empathetic.” Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

3. “Listen, ask, listen again.” Past experience has shown that just as customers “tune out” routine announcements, agents tend to “tune out” customers.

4. “Solve together.” Involve customers in solutions by offering them choices.

5. “Be there.” Really be present to the customer; “if you don’t remember your last three customers, you are just processing,” not serving them.

Parishioners as customers

Perhaps some diocese somewhere (or many dioceses, if the Spirit moves them) will come up with a lesson plan of their own to enhance the effectiveness and attractiveness of pastors and all pastoral associates in relating to parishioners and others who seek their services.

Indeed, the providers of pastoral services can themselves seek out potential beneficiaries of those services, if they had a few training sessions in outreach strategies organized for them by the diocese.

If an airline can do it, the church certainly can.

Speaking of the Delta program, the Journal said, “Lessons boil down to finding ways to assist customers rather than shunt them aside, trying harder to smile, and being more appreciative of their travel dollars.”

Dollars aside, dedicated parish staffs will be eager to “assist,” loathe to “shunt,” ready to “smile” and always “appreciative” of the unique value of the persons they are privileged to serve.

It will surely be worth taking time to hold a daylong diocesan-sponsored session to talk about improved “customer relations,” even though we don’t ordinarily think of our parishioners as customers.

Jesuit Father William Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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  • Angela

    Fantastic thought experiment and suggestions!

  • Tom

    While I appreciate the need for a greater charity among parish and chancery staffs, I think two things should be stated:
    1) Those who work in a church are just as human as the person on the other end of the phone. It is nice thought to think that they should be better people by virtue of their work, but they are just as prone to crabby behavior as the rest of us.
    2) This message should not stop with those who work in a church. It is extended to all people: do unto others as you have them do unto you.
    Final thought- comparing the Catholic Church to a commercial business is a poor analogy at best. The mission of the Church is to bring people to Christ. The mission of Delta is to make money, not serve people.