The Automatic Customer

I’m in the Church business. Are you?

I’ve worked in some sort of ministry/support for Catholic parishes, schools, and institutions for my entire career. Often, I have noticed that people have been uncomfortable when I mention the “business” of Church. Understandable. If we treat our job as merely business, we lose our sense of mission and purpose. We lose Jesus.

However, many businesses have proven to be successful by adopting Christian practices of self-gift, generosity, trust, and vulnerability. So “merely business” isn’t such a bad thing anymore.

My very first job out of college was at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. If you have been around Church business for a while, I’m sure you’ve heard of the place. Our pastor, Father Michael White, had us regularly read books centered around strong business practices to then discuss with the staff as a whole. Here are a few that I will never forget inspired me to work harder….for the Lord!

Thankfully, I have continued this practice. It is incredibly helpful to carry effective disciplines from the business world to the Church world. This is the basis of the incredible ministry of Amazing Parish. By the way, they are hosting a conference in Cincinnati in May. You should go.


I recently finished reading the book The Automatic Customer: Creating a Subscription Business in Any Industry. This book was written by John Warrillow who founded SellabilityScore.com and a prominent businessman. I want to share a few tips from the book that I find relate well to the customers of the Church….the parishioners, the lay faithful!

In 2008, Centore moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work as a counselor for a local practice. Within four months of Centore’s arrival, the practice went out of business. Trying to understand why it failed, Centore analyzed how its customers were treated. He discovered that some customers had had to wait days before anyone from the office would return their calls. Patients – many in crisis – were often being asked to wait weeks for a face-to-face meeting with a counselor.

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Oh man….doesn’t that sound familiar to your local parish office? Hopefully not, but it sounds all too familiar to me. How often do people reach out to a Catholic institution in a moment of crisis and are met with poor customer service? So many times I believe that the staff is overworked and cannot maintain the level of customer service needed. But there is a solution….technology! Using email and setting up auto responses, or having templates set up for thank you letters/notes etc. A simple example of a culture change that I took part in was the installation of the SchoolAdmin enrollment management software in Catholic schools. Having an online inquiry, application, and registration process automated the day to day tasks of the office. No longer did someone looking to schedule a tour get forgotten. No longer did someone who applied to the school not receive an acknowledgement from the Principal personally thanking them. Problem solved, and yet so many Catholic institutions are reticent to implement new technologies and software. Stop fighting it!


The good news is that word of mouth from your passionate user base helps guide and fuel growth by providing free market research. The bad news is that if subscribers flip from happy to dissatisfied, the same powerful force that helps you grow a network model subscription business can start to work against you.

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Word of mouth is critical in any organization. I’ve seen it grow and kill. It is so powerful. What are people saying on the street about your parish? About your school? About your charity? What is your reputation?

We are not ignorant. The Catholic Church’s reputation is the pits right now. It already was hard to admit being a Christian some days, it’s even harder to admit being a Catholic. So how is your local organization fighting against that stereotype? Or are you simply feeding it? Be honest.


Constant Contact has tried hundreds of campaigns over the years, and one of the most successful had nothing at all to do with the Internet. Instead of doing all of its marketing online, the company hosts small, free offline workshops to teach business owners how to market their companies. To scale the approach, Constant Contact hired a group of 22 regional development directors, who each owned a physical territory. These directors approached local trade and business associations about hosting a seminar for their members.

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Outreach is critical. I loved this example from CC. We all know about this business and how successful it is. What an interesting concept that their best promotion was offering FREE training! This immediately triggered another memory from Nativity. The parish hosts free financial planning seminars for parishioners and really anyone in the local community. At first I thought this was strange. Why? What purpose? But as I saw the attendance and the people walking through the doors who weren’t the typical “churchy” people, I realized that this was a ministry reaching people. What can you organization offer to others? There is already so much outreach and service being done, but what brings people on campus that don’t typically come? Would love to hear some examples, please comment below!


By the time the clock has ticked for 90 days – the Customer Onboarding Period – the customer’s lifetime value and profitability will have been practically set in stone. The first 90 days after any new account opening are an especially sensitive period characterized by several important customer experience factors:

– Customers expect high levels of interaction.

– They expect to be asked for personal information.

– They are in “switch mode” and open to new offers.

– They are much more likely to defect before “bedding in”.

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WOW!!!!! Read that again! Every staff member should read that over and over again. Don’t ruin the first 90 days. New parishioners, new families want to be communicated with. They want the personal touch. They haven’t bedded in simply after filling out the parish registration form or simply after registering for school. They know they have time to switch. They know they can pick up and leave at any moment. Don’t even let them have the chance to consider otherwise. One of my favorite examples of a positive interaction was after my first child was baptized. I received a handwritten note card welcoming her to the church from my parish. It was signed by a member of the Baptism committee. No actual name was given, just a member of the parish welcoming my daughter. And the best part was they mailed the note to her attention using her full Christian name. It was adorable! Of course it was the first piece of mail my child had ever received, and being a new parent it was so exciting to find in the mailbox. We felt so loved and so wanted.


Like surfing, part of getting people to adopt your subscription product or service in the first 90 days is to give them a quick win that provides the motivation for them to learn more. Constant Contact started out using a “who, what, when” process for getting a new customer to start using its software. The first part of the process – logical for software engineers – asked users “who” they wanted to send their emails to. This forced new users to start with the tricky process of formatting and uploading an Excel spreadsheet of their contacts. The process of starting with the “who” was fraught with frustrations for the end user, who sometimes canceled the subscription to CC because of the complexity of uploading a customer list.

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BOOM! Another example that reminded me too much of a family or individual trying to register for a parish and being met with the frustrations of paperwork and the “work”. Let’s give our people a win first. Let’s give them something memorable and beautiful. When someone inquires about the parish and how to sign up, send them a card, have someone call them to welcome them, ask them about themselves when they are standing in front of you across the desk, SMILE! I recently had a family member call a parish office inquiring about parish registration and she left a voicemail. You wouldn’t believe it, but the pastor called her back personally to welcome her! WOW! She was overcome with joy and gratitude. They certainly registered.

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