The Customer is Always Right?

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

When I was in high school and college I worked a number of retail jobs. One of my mentors was Don Morgan; Don was a sharp businessman. He operated several convenience stores in his lifetime. The store where I worked got a tremendous flow of business.

Don kept the place spotless. He expected everything to be shipshape, even the cooler and storage rooms in the back that no one ever saw. He learned, repeated, and memorized the names of all his customers, and thus, taught me to do the same. When someone came in for coffee, we also memorized their order: two creams and one sugar. The next time that same customer came in their coffee was ready and waiting on the counter to their astonishment.

customer is always rightDon was always friendly, kind, and really, really smart. He checked and double-checked his inventory and orders. He kept the products on the shelves fronted at all times. No task was too menial for him. He set the example by doing the dirtiest jobs himself first. It created a culture in which we also all wanted to jump at the hard jobs first, to keep him from doing them.

We were always expected to be in a good mood. He didn’t care if it was five in the morning or 10 o’clock at night. He didn’t care how much sleep you got or how tired you were. We were expected to give the customer 100%: a smile, good service, and an abundance of kindness. Occasionally he would buy a dozen donuts and give them out to customers for free with their coffee. He created raving fans and an atmosphere of expectation.

He taught me a lot. “Always give police officers free coffee and food. The police are your friends. A store with a constant police presence is less likely to get robbed.” We got to know all the police officers by name, and consequently, we learned a lot about the community. This was his version of re-rooting: tuning in to the community.

“If you ever get robbed, give them all the money in all the registers and anything they want from the store. There’s nothing in this building worth your life.”

He taught me more about hospitality than just about anyone else, perhaps with the exception of our friends in Peru and the Central African Republic. I have, however, struggled with one thing over the years. One of Don’s mantras was “The customer is always right.”

The customer is always right. This is, in a sense, foundational for hospitality. If the customer said the coffee tasted old or cold, you didn’t argue, even if you had just made a fresh pot; you poured it out and gave them a fresh cup. If the customer said you shorted them a bag of chips, you gave them a new bag of chips and wrote it off of inventory as a business expense. He did not want us arguing with customers – err on the side of grace.

Needless to say, many of the principles Don taught me carried over into parish ministry. On Sunday mornings, I give 100% of my very best. When people arrive for worship many of them are carrying burdens and sorrows we know nothing about. It is not about me. We learned this in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). What are you carrying into the hospital room with you that you’re going to dump on the patient? What are you carrying into the worship space with you that you’re going to dump on the worshipper? Remember people’s names. Go above and beyond. Create an atmosphere of expectation.

“The customer is right” mantra, however, got me into a little bit of trouble, until I learned a few things. I get the principle involved. We need to leave room for people to have differences. Leaders need to be expansive, forgiving, and broad-minded. The problem is this, if you try to please everyone, you end up selling your soul. The church is not a retail outlet. The congregational member is not always right.

I found early on in ministry, that if we tried to be everything to everyone, we ended up being nothing to anyone. This is Rainer and Geiger’s point in “Simple Church:”

If you try to have the best youth ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, homeless ministry, sports ministry, children’s ministry, music ministry, senior’s ministry, divorce ministry, and so on, you will become spread so thin that it will be impossible to be effective in any one area of ministry.

When I thought back to Don, it occurred to me that he got this too. He knew he was a convenience store, not a department store. He didn’t try to offer everything everyone needed. He figured out what the top needs were, and he stocked those things.

I also learned in the parish that it’s okay to say “no” to people who want to be part of the congregation, even to kick people out of the church. No one wants to hear this, because we’ve created an ethos of “nice.” Christianity is reduced to being nice, therefore, we can never say “no” to anyone. Jesus said “no” to some who wanted to join his ministry. He was self-defined. He had clarity on who he was and what his ministry was about.

Then along came John. John was a big guy with a big, booming voice. He could be a bit of a verbal bully. He had strong opinions and felt no compunction to withhold them. He always sat on the left side, outside aisle, halfway back in “his” pew. He drove a big expensive car and had a big expensive house, so people thought he gave a lot to the church. He did not, but I could not tell people that. Consequently, he held a disproportionate amount of power in the church, whether he was on Council or not. People were afraid of him, and also afraid he would leave. Because they were afraid of him, it scared people away from leadership and participation.

John behaved like this outside the church as well. People at his workplace knew this. People in the community knew it. I once ran into a waiter who knew him. The waiter said to me incredulously, “John goes to church?” John gave the church a bad reputation in the community.

People didn’t know what to do with John. I could tell a storm was coming. John would sometimes say things like, “If you do this or that, I will leave the church.” Eventually, the church leadership made a decision that John did not like. It was bound to happen. He gave his bluster to everyone he saw: “Do this, and I’m leaving.” I waited for him to make his way around to me. I prepared my speech.

He caught me before service in the hall. It was not the best moment, but I knew it was coming. “Do this, and I’ll leave.” I gave him good eye contact then responded matter-of-factly with words I had been given by a mentor, “We are going to miss you so much, John.”

John didn’t leave right away. He backed down and calmed down. He left a few years later. We didn’t have to discipline him out. We just kept saying “no” to him and he eventually left. Consequently, more people participated in ministry and took on leadership position.

Leaders are the immunity system of the organization. If they don’t have the courage to say “yes” and “no”, the community will deteriorate. If leaders don’t set boundaries for behavior, bullies will thrive, wolves will come out of the forest, and good folks will get chased away. The customer isn’t always right.

As I think back, I realize that Don evicted customers from time to time. He didn’t want us to do it, but as owner, he felt it was his responsibility. He knew one bad customer could drive away ten good ones. So if someone was belligerent, he would say calmly and firmly, “Don’t come back.” Fortunately, we had the police to back us up.

A good shepherd protects the sheep from the wolves. A shepherd is not a wilting flower. The shepherd wields her rod and staff for good reason. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Let’s be courageous and kind leaders, gifted at hospitality, who know our flock by name.

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