I’m The Parish Website, How Can I Help You?: Creating Online Initiatives That Are Service-Focused

When it comes to plans to create parish websites or enter into online social media I almost always hear one response when the question is asked “Why are you doing that?”.  The response is mostly, “To evangelize.”  Then the conversation goes into mind-numbing conversations about search engines and rankings.  Don’t get me wrong, evangelizing and spreading the Good News and the God News is always important.  But we often forget that whatever we do online should first be about service to your immediate community.  You need to create customer-focused systems.

Father Barron recently commented on an upcoming article about why Catholics leave the Church.  He did a stellar job sifting out the things we have control over at a local level one of which was “treatment” or the experience of the person within their community.  Then he went on to speak to the importance of the Receptionist or Secretary position in parishes from the aspect of this person’s representation of the Church to others.  They are often the first person people interact with and they are the person we often interact with when we go to the office.  It’s a tough job that is very demanding.  And that person needs to be great at providing great service while juggling a lot of tasks.

So what does this have to do with our website or online stuff?  Because that position is a big part of how your website and everything else you do online should function.  It is often the first impression (and on-going impression) you are giving to the world and it should also provide service to your visitors.  That service can be in the form of answering questions, providing documents, educating, etc.  We need online things that look great and provide great customer service.

You’ve all heard the phrase “customer service”.  That’s that “the customer is always right” and people smile even when they don’t want to thing right?  No.  As a career retail manager I had grown to despise the phrase “customer service” and prefer it to be reversed and stated as “serving customers”.  The first is a thing, but the latter is an action and serving is about doing.  In all honesty, companies with good service cultures is where you can find many of our faith teachings in action.  Everything down to the littlest detail is about serving the customer and there is awareness of how everything impacts serving their customers.  Yet when it comes to our parishes we rarely speak about providing good customer service in our parish communities.

Who is “the customer”?  By definition, everyone that purchases a good or service from a business is defined as a “customer”.  In recent years, managers have realized that simple definition is a big miss and there are a great deal more “customers” we interact with.  For example, we have “internal customers” as managers who are our employees.  We have “external customers” which are those who do business with us.  This is true within our parishes.  Our parishioners are our customers.  Those who are thinking of entering the Church are our customers.  So forth and so on.

For example, our parish’s newer Facebook Page received a question about an annual event that wasn’t listed in the bulletin.  The question came in on the weekend and I saw it when I was checking in there.  I didn’t have the answer, but responded with “Thank you for your question.  We are checking on that date and will have an answer on Monday.”  Although I didn’t have the answer at that exact time, I knew the person would be waiting and wanted to recognize that her question was seen and an answer was coming.  The same as we would do if someone called in to the office.  We have gotten several questions through there other, and in my opinion it is acting exactly as it should . . . as an additional customer support avenue.  I’ve received phone calls on my cell from people looking for directions on weekends when they got my number from the website as the website person.  No problem, I can help you.

So how do we insure our online things are customer focused as parishes?

  1. Great appearance.  Visual appearance speaks volumes to the experience you are going to have.  If you walk into a restaurant with a bunch of flies flying around what’s going through your head about eating there?  If you show up at a website that is disorganized and looks like it’s from 1995 what is going through your head about what that place may be like?  Your Facebook page that is never updated and looks barren is an image of your parish to others.  You website is an image of your parish to others.  And it’s no different than the image your actual Church building and office portrays to others.
  2. I have a question?  Your online things need to be able to provide answers for basics (i.e. directions, mass times, events, ministry people, etc.) and a means to leave a message (i.e. contact forms, email addresses, etc.).  Some of these are the information we provide (i.e. maps, directories, calendars, etc.), and some require follow-up (i.e. emails).  It’s important to respond promptly.  The online world and expectations are a bit strange.  People generally are often looking for a response within 24 hours.  With tougher questions or issues (i.e. the Pastor is away and would have that answer), the expectation is often just wanting an acknowledgment that you actually received their message.  So responding, “We received your response.  Father Bob is out of town and will return Monday.  I will make sure we get back to you by Tuesday.”  usually suffices.  The important thing is that someone is designated for those incoming messages and takes responsibility for responding promptly.
  3. Information is up to date.  If I visit a company website, see a name of a person, and call to speak to that person; what do you think it says about that company if I’m told that person “hasn’t been with the company for two years now and we forget to update that thing all the time.”?    It says to me that you don’t care and if you don’t care about how your own company looks how much are you going to care about me as a customer?  Our information online should be up to date, correct, and consistent with the offline information they would get.
  4. A great experience.  Businesses started figuring out that experience is a big part of service.  Experience is what brings people in and keeps them coming back.  Experiencing your parish through a great virtual tour or photographs my prompt me to want to “come and see”.  Photos of events are the memories of our experiences and displays of who we are as parishes.  Online photos, videos, podcasts are great ways to enhance visitor experience and service to your parishioners.  For example, who took photos of your RCIA Candidates and Catechumens this Easter Vigil?  How do those people get those photos of that event for themselves?  Post them online so they can download them.  It’s quick and is a great easy service you’ve provided to them.

The bottom line to it all is that the online stuff is a powerful new avenue to improve the “customer service” we provide within our parishes today.  It’s also how we appear to the world and we need to be conscious of that.  So how are you using your online things to serve your community?  How do you plan out who is responsible for what?

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Author:Brad West

I live in Palm Coast, FL with my family and have assisted my local parish with our website and communications. Our parishes today can benefit a great deal from technology. Whether it's improving communications, community building, evangelizing, business operations, and much more; we have the tools today. To help provide some direction and advice to parishes and parishioners, I wrote and published an eBook titled "The Connected Church" which is available through Barnes and Noble (Nooks and Nook apps) as well as Amazon (Kindle and Kindle apps).
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XBLJBKZIH4JSZD3TNADQ6M4Y34 Larry

    I find that many parish web sites fail to provide a list of other sites that could be great resources.
    On our site http://www.comeaside.com there is a list that anyone is free to copy. God bless. Jim

  • Christa

    You should do a “best Catholic websites” contest! I’d love to see what others are doing well.