Lessons from the travel industry

People often look at my travel schedule and ask, "Don't you get tired? That must be exhausting." I have three responses:

  1. Of course I get tired. There is a reason they call this work.

  2. I love traveling and feel a deep sense of calling to help groups double. Where God leads us, He sustains.

  3. When you travel a lot, and you get loyal to a few vendors, you really are treated better. Churches could learn a thing or two from the way the travel industry treats their best customers.

Everyone in the travel industry has loyalty programs. These loyalty programs reward travelers with bonuses--free nights lodging, free airline tickets, free car rental. I sat next to a guy the other day who had some Bose noise-cancelling headphones that he got free with loyalty points. These are the headphones that are sold on any easy payment plan, if that gives you any idea of the price. They retail for $300. For headphones. This man admitted that he loved the headphones but he would never have paid real dollars for them. He only got them because he could do so with points. Do you think he is loyal to Holiday Inn as a result?

What many people don't realize about these loyalty programs is that they not only give you free stuff, they also treat you better. Most churches could learn a thing or two from the way people at Hertz and Hampton Inn and American Airlines treat their best customers.

When I fly American Airlines, I can always fly first class. Every single flight I can pay for a coach ticket and fly up front where the seats are bigger and the service is better.

I get upgrades on nearly every car I rent. I pay for a basic mid-sized car and get a new Mustang, or an SUV or a luxury car of some kind. I get my car from the Presidents Circle, so I don't have to lug my bags as far.

I requested and paid for a standard mid-sized.

I stayed in a room at the Hampton the other night that was the size of Kansas. Flowers in the room. Not only did it have a refrigerator and microwave, but they provided the popcorn to prepare in the microwave. They always have a little snack for me and a bottle of water waiting in my room upon arrival. This room had a big hot tub. It was great. All 10 hours of it.

The intangibles

The benefit of the loyalty programs go beyond the free nights, the bigger rooms, and the better cars. They treat you better. It is hard to describe, really, but they just treat you better. They treat you like somebody special. They just have this tone about them, "Oh you are one of our Executive Platinum members. Good to have you." When I stayed in a Hampton, there was a letter from the general manager addressed to me laying on the bed. There is a lot of little ooohs and aaahs.

They do nice little things. I don't have to listen to the general announcement about connecting flights because they come by my seat, call me by name, ask me where I am going and tell me what gate and how to get there.

They treat you with respect. I checked into a Hampton the other day and the clerk made the casual statement, "I see that you stay with us a lot, so I know you know how everything works. Breakfast in the morning, here is your access code for the Internet connection. Good to have you again, Mr. Hunt."

They do inexpensive little extras. There is a mint on the pillow or they give me the car with the XM Radio or the Never Lost system. And, it is not that I need the Never Lost system, I carry my own hand held GPS, but it is nice to know that they went the extra mile. The mint on the pillow doesn't cost them much, but it sure goes a long way toward saying, "We are really glad you are hear."

Lessons for churches

It is in these little intangibles, these expressions of kindness and respect that churches could really learn from the travel industry. We need to treat our guests like the hospitality industry treats the best of their guests.

The key thing here is not the expensive stuff. It is the tone of the voice. It is the oohing and ahhing. It is making people feel special, making them feel important, making them feel like they matter.

Do the people who visit your church feel important, special and like they matter?

I knew one church who had it worked out where small gifts were brought to the home of guests while the service was still going on. Most of the guests came to the late service. The guest cards were turned in early in the late service. People who came to the early service would take a name and hand deliver a plate of cookies with a thank you note so that when the guests arrived home at 12.10, there was a plate of cookies on the porch. Do you think they came back?

Rethinking the way we register attendance

One issue of respect has to do with how we register attendance. "Please fill out a visitors card so we could have a record of your attendance."  Hmmm. If I am a visitor, I don't want to be rude, but what do I care whether you have a record of my attendance? And, what are you going to do with this information anyway--come by and visit unannounced in the middle of supper and not leave unless I bluntly ask you to do so?

By the way, we could also learn something from the negative example of the telemarketing industry. I don't know how many telemarketers I have asked to take me off this list and they want to just keep talking. I had one tell me the other day they didn't have a list. What does that mean, are they just calling numbers at random? Can they not sense the irritation in my tone? Do they really think they are going to sell me something after making me mad? It is very different treatment than I get from American Airlines.

Why not follow the line of thought in Permission Marketing, by Seth Godin. (And, I assume Permission Evangelism by Michael L. Simpson, although I have not read that one, so I do not know for sure.) Tell people exactly what you are going to do with the information and then do what you say. Perhaps you could say:

  • If you would like more information about our small groups, fill out this card and we will either call, or come by or send information in any way you request.
  • If you would like more information about our church, or we could serve you, or pray for you, fill out this card.
  • If you would like to have someone explain to you personally and answer your questions about what it means to become a Christian, fill out this card.
  • If you would like to know something about the various ministries of the church, fill out this card.
  • If you would like one of our small groups to call you and tell you about their group, fill out this card.

That is treating people with respect. Tell them why they want to fill out the card, and what will be done with the information. And--this is really important--do what you say. Don't use their contact information to badger them with information that they did not ask for information on.

It is all about making people feel important and special

One of the things that they do in the travel business is call people by name. Often, in first class, they will memorize everyone's name. There are only 16 seats in first class on a MD-80. It always makes me feel good when they come by and say, "More Diet Coke, Mr. Hunt."

"Mr. Hunt, if there is anything else we can do for you, you let us know." Music to my ears.

I have sometimes pondered the fact that I am pretty easy to manipulate this way. If you will just be nice to me, flatter me a bit and show me some respect, I will spend thousands of dollars on airline tickets from you each year.

Some churches are very intentional about learning names. I have read both Rick Warren and John Maxwell speak of going through pictures of recent visitors like flash cards. Imagine the effect on a visitor when they visit the second time and the pastor calls them by name. Rick Warren and John Maxwell both spoke of doing this when their church was in the thousands.

With digital cameras and E-mail, you might consider getting a whole team of people to do this. Ask to take pictures of newcomers (doesn't sound seeker-friendly? Saddleback did it.) and distribute them by email to all of your staff, Sunday School teachers, outreach leaders--whoever will help you put a friendly face on your church. Imagine the reaction of visitors when three different people call them by name the next time they visit.

Gifts can make people feel important. Again, they don't have to be expensive gifts. Remember the mint on the pillow? What did that mint cost? What was its worth? Its worth way exceed its cost because it communicates that the guest is important. I have seen churches give a loaf of home made bread, a series of CDs from the pastor (doubles as helping them get acquainted with the church) or something to help them in their spiritual development like a book or a Bible.

Can't afford gifts? I have two responses: 1) What is the price of a soul? 2) Do the math. If they join it will be money well spent--seen only from a financial perspective. Again, we don't have just a financial perspective, but if we did, it would still make sense.

Personalness makes people feel important. Perhaps you could send actual thank you cards with a hand written note. I have known a number of pastors who personally wrote notes or called visitors. The personal touch is everything. People are tired of being treated like items in a database.  They are not tired of the senior pastor calling them personally.

I checked in at the airport recently and the agent said to me, "Oh I don't need to see your Driver's License Mr. Hunt, I know who you are." It is not that I mind getting my Driver's License out so much as it felt like she knew me personally. She was treating me as an individual, not as another customer.

Make kids feel important, too. Bill Hybels is fond of saying that even pagan parents will bring their kids to where their kids want to go. If you make kids feel important, they will want to come back. Ask your children's Sunday School teachers to call their kids. Do you know how often young children get phone calls? Do you know how it makes them feely when mom hands them the phone and says, "It is for you." It may be the first time someone besides their grandmother ever talked to them on the phone.

Jesus told us not to forbid the children from coming to Him. There are a million ways we do this and a few good ways to stop. That will be the topic of next week's articles.


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