Christian Retailing

The frontliner factor Print Email
Written by Eric Tiansay   
Monday, 13 June 2011 09:58 AM America/New_York

Great staff are the key ingredient in effective ‘differentiation’


There has been a longstanding school of thought that “customer experience” is key for Christian retailers in setting them apart from online shopping sites and big-box stores.

Events and in-store extras such as free WiFi and coffee play a part in providing that differentiating factor. But in the end, most of the onus on providing exemplary customer experience falls back on the competency, people skills and attitude of store staff, according to industry leaders, marketing groups, chains and leading independent stores contacted by Christian Retailing.

Riskey_CurtisFor CBA Executive Director Curtis Riskey, customer experience “increasingly will be the critical differentiator for Christian stores and a crucial strategy to compete against online booksellers, discounters and affiliates selling in their bathrobes.” Engagement with customers “will build the relationship and loyalty,” which will help stores succeed, he said.

“That means how retailers connect with people in their store—beyond just selling them something—will be a driving factor,” Riskey said. “Retailers must engage people at the level of their passion for faith-building, ministry, outreach and service, helps and more.”

This goes beyond just customer service in the traditional sense of a happy greeting and quick checkout, he added. “It goes to understanding who your customer is, what they do in their life and faith and coming alongside them so they can change, transform, act out their faith or achieve their life passions.” 



Adams_SteveNothing is more important than customer experience in retaining customers and “making them raving fans and evangelists for the store,” according to Parable Group Franchise Coach Steve Adams.

“But customer experience is a difficult concept because it is really in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “Customer service is ... the sum of what we offer—gift wrap, Bible imprint, special order, a cup of coffee, efficient checkout. Experience is how the customer feels for having been there, and how she feels about what we do.”

Adams said that “the most critical element differentiating service from experience” is the store staff and their engagement with the customer.

“Survey after survey underscores the importance of helpful, knowledgeable, friendly people who connect with guests and convert them to customers,” he said.

Heather Ogden, customer service representative and stationery manager at the Parable Christian Store in San Luis Obispo, Calif., takes on a mind-set to create “a great customer experience.”

“I try to put myself in the shoes of the customer because I know what it feels like to receive poor customer service,” she said. “I always try to make sure I greet someone when they walk in the door, ask if they need help and let them know that they are free to ask me any questions they might have.  

“I feel that it is important to be polite, sincerely concerned and interested in helping the customer,” Ogden added. “By providing a great customer experience, you can gain a devoted customer and create positive word of mouth.”

Parable provides resources for its 112 affiliated stores “to use as they see fit,” Adams said. 

“We encourage our stores to host periodic staff meetings as they are a vital ingredient for infecting all staff with the enthusiasm, team spirit, mission-mindedness, procedural skills, product knowledge and customer-engagement skills, which define who we are,” he said. “Both individual and group training are essential.”

Parable provides guidelines for its stores regarding staff recruitment. “It is important to hire people who are predisposed to the ministry of our stores and inherently equipped for the jobs we are hiring them for,” said Adams, adding that hiring-assessment tools from Leading from Your Strengths ( are “very helpful.” 

“Insights from these profiles help identify candidates with the ‘promoter-relater’ giftedness that make for good customer-engagement performance in the store,” he said. “As a Nordstrom executive once told me, ‘You can’t train someone to be nice—that’s their mother’s job. Our job is to hire nice people, equip them with knowledge of products and procedures, and then turn them loose to be nice to our guests.’ ”



Almack_DaveDavid Almack—U.S. director of CLC International, which runs nine retail and church stores in the Philadelphia area and New Jersey—argues that staff “must be book readers and love people,” he said. “Those two ingredients are not really trainable.”

Customer experience is “a critical issue” for Christian stores,” Almack said. “If customers do not have a great experience in our stores, they will not come back, and they certainly have plenty of other options these days as to where to get their Christian products.” 

Christian retailers must “view the experience issue from a ministry lens as well,” Almack added. “Are people having their spiritual needs met when they come into our stores? They may need prayer as much as they need a new book. When a church leader comes in, they are looking for resources and solutions—not simply products. I like to say that we are successful if the customer has had a transformational experience with us rather than a transactional one.”

Training for CLC Bookcenters’ staff involves multiple methods and approaches, including two days of in-depth classroom time, which reviews the nonprofit mission organization’s philosophy, history and global scope.

“An employee handbook and policy and procedures manual are given to each new team member and discussed during the first week on the job with their store manager,” Almack said. “Most importantly, they are paired with an experienced team member for several days, if not weeks, early on, for mentoring and training hands on.” The group also utilizes CBA online training and Bible training programs from Zondervan, Tyndale House Publishers and Thomas Nelson.

Additionally, CLC Bookcenters hold an annual staff conference in April for one to two days of “training, fellowship, motivation and fun,” Almack added.  

Compensation is not the primary reason that people work for CLC, he said. “Our people view it as a vocation, calling and, in some cases, as a mission field. … We never use pay as a part of our strategy for recruitment and … often mention in the recruiting process that sacrifice is one of our core values. If a person is still interested in CLC after hearing this, they are normally motivated by other factors.”



Green_JasonAt Mardel Christian & Education, President Jason Green said that the 34-strong chain sees customer experience as “crucial” to its success.

“We feel that it is our responsibility to provide an excellent customer experience—from merchandising to store layout and design, to our staff interactions with the customers,” he said. “Every point of contact with the customer must be a great one.”

Mardel trains, equips and enthuses its staff by first hiring “great people,” Green said. “Then we spend time with them showing them the functions and responsibilities of their position. We spend time developing and dedicating resources in areas that improve our staff’s ability to do their job well.

“We strive to … pay them accordingly,” he added. “We look for those folks who align with our mission, and want to work for Mardel because of what we do, and because they want to be a part of that. If someone is ‘just looking for a job,’ then he/she will have to find that somewhere else.”

Green noted that Mardel’s store personnel have “servant’s hearts.” “We know our customers do more than ‘shop’ our stores,” he said. “We are a part of helping them and equipping them in their walk. We are part of the experience of helping them learn, grow and heal and hope. We help renew minds and transform lives.”

 Customer service is “a priority” for Berean Christian Stores, said Director of Operations David Jordan, noting that the 18-strong chain implemented a mystery-shopper program in 2010 “to give us a snapshot at each store several times a quarter.”

The questions are based on overall customer experience. “We feel this has been a great training tool for individual associates as well as the overall operation of the stores,” Jordan said. “The overall scores are shared with each team. Where deficiencies are found, we address them accordingly. We strive by not only serving our customers, but feel that engaging the customer is important as well.”

When it comes to training, Berean provides new-hire orientation for every new employee, Jordan said. “The time in orientation is not only spent completing necessary paperwork, but also gives the manager an opportunity to review our policies and procedures with the new employee and answer any questions he may have,” he said. “At that point, the new employee is usually paired up with one of our more long-term, experienced employees to receive on-the-job training.”

Besides offering ongoing training at mandatory, quarterly staff meetings, Berean also has a formal recognition program. 

The Berean CARE Award recognizes those that provide outstanding customer service with an engraved plaque and a cash bonus.

The other component is on-the-spot recognition. “Managers have access to $25 restaurant gift cards to immediately recognize an employee for a job well done,” Jordan said.



Berean “believes strongly” in promoting from within, Jordan added. “We have many long-term, dedicated employees, and we prefer to promote these employees rather than recruit from the outside, if possible,” he said. “Our goal is to provide a competitive salary and benefits package to attract new talent, but to also provide ongoing motivation to excel through our current quarterly bonus program.”  

Young_MyilaAt leading independent Christian retailer Chuck Wallington’s landmark store, Christian Supply in Spartanburg, S.C., Director of Sales and Personnel Myila Young said that “customer’s experience is the most important thing.” Founded by Wallington’s father in 1953, the almost-35,000-square-foot store won a CBA Store of the Year Impact Award in 2007 for effective marketing, staff training and merchandising.

“We communicate to our staff that if we don’t take care of our customers, someone else will,” Young said. “We try to stress to them that there is nothing we sell that our customers cannot find at another location, and that they are honoring us when they choose to shop with us.”

Christian Supply employees are trained in a class called SERVE—an acrostic for Salutation, Evaluation, Referral/Research, Value-Added and Express Thanks. “Each letter of SERVE stands for a step in the process of ministering to our customers,” said Young, noting that the model was created by the store.

For example, during the Evaluation step, customers are asked open-ended questions, and a staff member restates what they expressed as their need, Young added. “When referring them to the right product or right department, we walk them to the product and we never point.”
A four-week training course, SERVE is “the standard that we use to serve our customers,” Young said. “We use a secret-shopper service to shop our store three times a month, and they use our SERVE outline to see if our frontliners are properly serving our customers.”

During recruitment, “we look for those who have a genuine interest in the ministry of our store, and we also look for those who we feel would relate well with our customer base,” Young said. “In addition, we try to find those who are self-starters. … I am very diligent in trying to find the right people for the right positions. This is very important to me that we don’t have a round peg in a square hole.”

Lewis_RickRick Lewis—co-owner of Logos Bookstore in Dallas, singled out for “memorable customer service” with a CBA Spirit of Excellence Award in 2009—said that customer experience is “what sets us apart” from big-box and discount stores.

“We see what we do as a ministry—not just an exchange of goods for cash,” he said. “We hire the smile and train the details. … Great customer experience is not just about finding the right product. It has to be personal and, in some way, reflect the very hope and love that is at the heart of everything this store sells.”