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Written by Don Walter
From his column A Minute with Don

minute-with-don-01-18_article.jpgI recently had the privilege of hearing Abigail Johnson speak to a group of clients. As president and CEO of Fidelity Investments, she was providing insights into the company, its history, current status, and future plans. Only recently succeeding her father as CEO, Ms. Johnson joined the company in 1988 as an equity analyst. In 1946, her grandfather founded Fidelity, which now has over 25 million individual customer accounts and more than $5.4 trillion in customer assets.

In December of 2000, in concurrence with the Investment Committee of the General Board, the Board of Pensions and Benefits USA moved the administration of the Nazarene 403(b) Retirement Savings Plan to Fidelity. The search process, facilitated at that time by Watson Wyatt benefits consultants, focused on a number of factors—of which a key factor was a track record of customer satisfaction and service.

One of Ms. Johnson’s comments that stayed with me was, “The best growth strategy begins with a good retention strategy.” She went on to note that Fidelity planned to make retention of current customers a priority in any plans for growth.

As I thought about her comments, it occurred to me that I didn’t recall having ever seen a church retention strategy. Then I thought about the prayer of Jesus for His disciples when He said, “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled” (Jn. 17:12 NASB). That seems to indicate retention was important to Jesus, and, apparently, to the Father.

Values statements are meaningless if the behavior of leaders doesn't demonstrate what is stated.

In this day of consumerism among churchgoers, there is a lot of opportunity for folks to move from congregation to congregation. If you want to get a passionate conversation going, church-hopping is always a ready topic. But just because a person moves from one congregation to another doesn’t mean they haven’t been retained for the Kingdom. In fact, it could be their way of being able to remain in the Kingdom.

Nevertheless, I’ve contemplated what a “church retention strategy” might look like. Since I’ve experienced being the customer of a company with a retention strategy, maybe what I have observed in our relationship with Fidelity would be helpful.

First, they are a company with big ears and structural flexibility. Of course, we have the usual account representative. Early in our relationship, their practice of promoting good performers meant we had a turnover in this position. When I and some of my counterparts expressed dissatisfaction with the practice, Fidelity changed some internal processes. This allowed for reps to remain with satisfied clients and still benefit from promotions. In fact, after further suggestions, the company created new models of client service specifically intended to cultivate longer term relationships focused, in our case, on the church plan population. They listened and were willing to change.

I’ve had other experiences demonstrating how this company lets their “big ears” show. Besides the usual surveys, assessments and reviews, they make listening personal and proactive. Phone calls and one-on-one meetings with the “boss of bosses” at times of challenge and change have helped to calm our concerns.

This highlights a second characteristic. I think of it as behaviorally demonstrated values. Like all organizations, Fidelity has statements of mission, vision, values, and purpose. But we all know, values statements are meaningless if the behavior of leaders don’t demonstrate what is stated. Have you ever wondered how the mission, vision, and values of your church would be described by an outsider based on observations of the actions of the congregation and leaders?

Finally, I’ve come to appreciate the value of working with a company that knows how to make mistakes. No company, charity, or church is perfect. Mistakes happen. But what distinguishes good from bad companies and service providers is how they handle errors when they occur. A good company doesn’t deny the mistake, blame the customer, or wait for the customer to discover the problem. They proactively take ownership, find solutions, apologize when necessary, and improve processes to help avoid a recurrence. We all like to think we will be remembered for our successes; but it’s more likely we will be remembered for how we handled our mistakes.

I know from my friend Google that other companies have retention policies, although I don’t know what they include. But I have an idea of what a good one looks like in action. It has big ears, is flexible where possible, lives out stated values, and takes ownership of mistakes.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Herbert B. Swope is credited with having said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” We all know the truth of that statement. To equate pleasing everybody with having a good retention strategy misses the point; but, as many successful enterprises have shown, it is possible to build and grow a successful organization by taking retention seriously.

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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