I’ve been on a bit of a shopping expedition recently (not my favourite pastime) and wondered if my experience might provide some useful lessons.Shop 1
I buy a packet of Halls (cough lozenges). I have a ten pound note and need change. Incidentally, if you need to catch a bus, you need the exact change. The shopkeeper takes my note and gives me the change. She announces “I will do this just the once but I wouldn’t normally give change on such a small purchase.” She has done the transaction and she has helped me. But actually I’ve been made to feel quite bad about my purchase. It’s not the person who normally works there – maybe the shop has changed hands. I feel a lot less inclined to go back and shop there again.
….Is closed for stock-keeping. That’s frustrating but never mind, they have more than one branch. I walk to the other branch but it’s closed for stock-keeping too. They will be open again tomorrow of course but I won’t be shopping tomorrow. They’ve lost business.
I am halfway through the door when a friendly sales assistant welcomes me. “How are you? Can I help you?” “Fine, thank you! Just looking at the moment” I respond. I start to look around. The next thing I know is that the person is right at my shoulder “Is there something specific you’re looking for?” “Possibly, but I’m just having a look around first.” Their friendliness and willingness to help has become over helpfulness now. I have a brief look around and then leave as quickly as possible.
Now you probably should empathise with the sales people. I’m an awkward customer. As I said at the start, I don’t like shopping. I’m there reluctantly. Not only that, I’m a bit unpredictable. Sometimes I go into a shop (usually to buy things like shirts, shoes) and I know exactly what I want. I just need to find someone to do the transaction. Sometimes, I have an idea but want some advice and recommendations (computers, washing machines, TVs that sort of thing) and on those occasions of course I find it frustrating when I stand looking for assistance and no-one comes and asks if they can help. Then when I’m looking for gifts or browsing in bookshops (the one place I do enjoy shopping) I sometimes don’t know what I want until I see it. So that’s the challenge and I’m probably not unique in that.
Sometimes people come into church and they don’t really want to be there. Sometimes they want to meet people; they appreciate a welcome, advice, help to make sense of what is going on. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and sometimes it’s not actually something we can help with. Sometimes they don’t know what they are looking for but may do when they find it!
That might make welcoming people seem like hard work. But it shouldn’t stop us. In the end I’d rather be the boss having to correct and train the over helpful sales assistant than the unhelpful one! The best starting point is just to be friendly and welcoming and from there start to learn and discern the cues and signals that people give.
Most importantly, don’t be unfriendly, don’t make someone feel bad, an inconvenience, unwelcome, embarrassed, small. So even when there’s something I can’t help with, I now try to respond in an encouraging way. For example, when someone comes and is about to ask for money I explain that I can’t give money but I also make it clear that I don’t mind being asked and then I explain where I can help.
And finally, if you want visitors, don’t be closed at times when people are expecting you to be open!