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Watch and learn

While my wife browsed T.J. Maxx for trousers, I sat on a curb outside and observed people going in and out of the store. Here is what I observed:

A majority of those entering T.J. Maxx were female. Most were middle-age. A few entered with babies.

More than half of those who went in came out empty-handed, having browsed but not purchased. Of those who bought, only one needed a cart.

This wasn’t a text-while-walking crowd. Most came in alone.

None of these observations has any values component. They are simply a profile of those entering a store. But imagine how helpless you would be as manager of this T.J. Maxx branch if you didn’t know who your customers were.

A savvy manager is measuring everything I observed and more. How long each customer stays inside, the exact percentage who purchase or don’t purchase, average sale, what they bought, where they browsed. The manager correlates the data to learn, say, which age group bought more, at what time of day, in groups or alone?

Imagine trying to lead a church and not having such metrics available to you. How would you know how to serve people if you didn’t know their gender, age, race, socioeconomic circumstance, average stay time, and where they sat, where they “browsed,” what they “bought.”

You would always be guessing. In all likelihood, you would guess wrong because you would assume the next 20 people in the door would be like you.

But, as my brief observation suggested, customer profiles change. The future will almost certainly be different. A congregation that ignores its emerging profile is flying blind.

Your future “customers” might be techs driving Teslas

and worrying about work-life balance. Or they might be day laborers driving old pickups and wanting respect. Or retirees facing financial insecurity. Or middle-class families going downscale.

My point isn’t to paint an ideal customer profile. My point is to underscore the need for metrics showing who your people are, who your visitors are, what needs they bring with them and what “products” they are buying.

Only when you have such metrics can you design effective plans for welcoming, engaging, retaining and serving people.

How to gather metrics? You might start the way I did: Sit on a curb and observe. You will start to see patterns. You will begin to ask questions. (Why do visitors leave so hurriedly?) You will see what further information you need. And as you try out different ways of presenting your “merchandise,” you will see what works.

Then observe inside. Forget data-collection forms, which tend to be off-putting. Just watch and learn.

It starts in not assuming you already know and in not assuming your future will be like your present.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. His new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to freshday.org.

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