Patience and Persistence
Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Kevin Barlow
Most veteran sales reps in the contractor industry have a decidedly set opinion when it comes to church buyers. Yet dealing with the worship market has a stigma that is not without cause. When was the last time you heard about or experienced a frustrating situation with a church trying to be a good steward with its available funds and ending up with a mess? You probably don't have to go back too far.
As with any vertical market, you must clearly know your prospect's purposes, the key players, and even the driving passion behind the buying decisions. Only then will you be able to formulate an effective plan for delivering the necessary audiovisual system to meet the client's needs. When servicing (and selling to) most church customers, long-term success will best come with understanding this distinct vertical market and appropriately adapting to the challenges it presents. For this, persistence and patience are mandatory.
Because many churches continue to invest in and expand their presentation capabilities, my goal is to help smooth the road to fruitfulness for fellow A/V professionals and their religious customers.
UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE
Everyone knows why a university has video projectors and speakers hanging in lecture halls. You are familiar with restaurants and bars using similar technology as giant televisions. From the corporate meeting space to the school classroom and from the concert hall to the entertainment room at home, the purpose of today's video projectors and hi-fi sound systems is usually straightforward. Yet what's the deal with churches? What makes them so unlike the rest?
A significant difference between church use of multimedia projection, sound and lighting (aka media ministry), and almost all other uses of these technologies is this: the big screens in church are there to enhance the music and the message. They are support tools typically meant to augment and direct attention toward the worship and the teaching. With few exceptions, the projected images are not intended to become a focal point of the service.
That is not the case with most industrial display applications in the corporate, government, and education sectors, nor is it the case with home theater or almost any other projection market. The majority of the time, projected images are supposed to capture your attention. On the other hand, the goal of media ministry is to help inspire appropriate thoughts, emotions, and responses without compelling viewer attention to the screens. Therefore, special consideration must be made when designing and implementing multimedia into a worship space.
Remember that using media technology during church services has been a revolutionary concept for most congregations during the past ten years. In some denominations, there are many who struggle to welcome and embrace the existence of PowerPoint over the traditional hymnal. Yet more than ever, today's affordable presentation tools are helping pastors and worship leaders reach the “sight and sound” generation with power and appeal.
KNOW THE PLAYERS
Churches are nonprofit ministries, but each one still operates as a business. Most have specific mission statements, guiding bylaws, and weekly staff meetings just as in the secular world. For most the senior pastor functions as their Sunday morning CEO. This individual may report to an overseeing committee, a board of elders, or some regional authority depending on denomination. Ultimately, the pastor leads the congregation and gives the church direction. This is the primary person who can help you succeed or hinder your hopes when it is time to close.
When you begin establishing rapport with each prospective church customer, spend time doing a little personnel research. It is critical for you to learn which people influence the decisions and what their roles will be relative to your objective — becoming their media technology vendor. In going through this process, try to find one or more key people with whom you can develop a sincere connection. Having someone champion you on the inside will improve your chance of earning and keeping the business. Never presume who is and who is not important. I have seen a sizable A/V sale booked because the dealer rep paid polite attention to the pastor's administrative assistant. A few kind and sincere words can go a long way.
Beyond the pastor, there are usually one or two other lead decision makers waiting to spend money. This almost always includes the music minister or worship leader and, for larger assemblies, a media minister. One individual who should not be overlooked is the executive pastor or church administrator. That is the person who will authorize the purchase and write the check. Meet and get to know each player to the degree that you have time and access.
Aside from budget, the greatest obstacle to overcome in the selling process is likely to be the infamous church committee. It could be the finance committee, the media ministry committee, or the building fund committee. Even worse, it could be multiple committees, all of which may be hoping for a Mercedes solution on a Volkswagen budget. Churches function through committees to help make weighty decision with greater accountability and, hopefully, wisdom. That is where you will really benefit from established relationships with the key individuals. If you can become the committee's outside expert to provide technology guidance, then you are halfway there.
RECOGNIZE THE PASSION
Historically, evangelically focused assemblies have been the quickest to accept multimedia technology for enhancing the worship experience. They often view giant screens and contemporary music as the key to drawing in youth and unchurched singles and families. If you can help them get their message out in a way that speaks to the masses, they will find the funds to make it happen.
Yet as with an avid home-theater shopper, you are dealing with the personal money. Church buying is not like some faceless corporation making a capital expenditure or a school spending its educational budget using taxpayer dollars. It may be as personal an experience for the church as for you buying your next new car. After all, the media funds are likely coming from the same pockets of those making the decision to use your firm.
When a church finally decides to launch or expand its media ministry, it is with much thought, discussion, and prayer. Being sensitive to that and recognizing the passion and personal conviction behind the purchase will help you appreciate some of the twists, turns, and delays on this proverbial road to fruitfulness.
BUYING CYCLES AND SEASONS
Two factors characterizing any vertical market are the buying cycle and seasonal trends. Churches can take these to the extreme. I have seen more than a few projects drag across a couple of years. One friend made the analogy of planting seeds and waiting for the harvest, and waiting, and waiting. The gestation period for your typical church order is easily 6 to 12 months. That takes me back to the previously mentioned prerequisites of persistence and patience. Be sure everyone in your organization understands that before delving deeper into the market. Without a long-term approach and commitment to those prospects, you may be wasting more than time.
As for the seasons, for Christianity-based denominations, there are just two: Christmas and Easter. There are exceptions, of course, especially with new construction or a church school program. However, the majority of church planning revolves around those two high holidays. The key dates to get things done are before Thanksgiving, mid-January through mid-March, and possibly during early summer. Because church staff members tend to be overstretched during the holiday periods, plan accordingly.
CREATE A PLAN
Knowing your customer and his or her needs is essential when analyzing possible solutions and creating an effective plan. In the case of your average church project, follow these steps:
Help define the vision
Just as a company is formed to fulfill a particular mission statement, every ministry should begin with a vision. It may be broad or narrow, yet it must be definable, measurable, and attainable. There are numerous ways a service or meeting may be enhanced by well-prepared visuals. Just like word-pictures, they have a way of penetrating deeper into the heart and winning attention and interest. Sit down with your customer and review the reasons for the technology investment. Be sure everyone is in sync with clear objectives. Only then can you confidently deliver the gear to get the job done right.
Establish a team
As the technology expert, help the church establish an A/V implementation team. This group of individuals should include key staff and church volunteers who will be operating the new presentation tools. It is important to limit team members to those who appreciate and share the vision. To maximize the likelihood of success, all agendas should point in the same direction. That does not mean avoiding people with different perspectives or styles, yet every team functions better when there is unity, trust, and respect. Church politics may add challenges there, so proceed with caution.
Analyze the audience
Define and know the audience or the desired audience. Whom is the church trying to reach or teach? In general, are the folks younger or older? If there are many elderly, the project may require larger screens, brighter projectors, or special hearing-impaired gear. Also, is the church focusing more on the existing church membership or on pulling in visitors? Is it trying to make the facility more community friendly with special events and holiday productions? You will need to help clarify and prioritize the target audiences. Analyze and consider what these people are interested in — what they might be looking for or expecting. There must be a solid connection between the people, the church vision, and the plans you are helping them form.
Study their environment
With the team in place and the viewers defined, the worship facility needs to be studied and reviewed in light of the multimedia program. That is when and where things really begin to take form. Until the presentation environment is inspected and analyzed, no determination may be properly made for equipment specifications or budget. For example, the brightness required of a projector is a function of room size, ambient lighting, and other relevant aspects. You cannot rightly say you need a particular lumen output if you haven't considered all the variables in the correct way. Two key determinations that must be made in this step are the size and number of projection screens. Also, if space allows, planning for desirable rear projection begins here.
Calculate the solution
To the expert, decisions about technology specifications should not be difficult. For example, with projection systems, there are certain rules of thumb and formulas pertaining to viewing distance versus image size, viewer sight lines, and lighting control. In short, this is where you earn your keep.
The choice of projector is typically made after several screen determinations are reached. Critical screen specs include configuration (front projection versus rear), image size and screen aspect ratio (4:3 versus 16:9), screen material (reflectivity and half-gain viewing angles), and number of screens and their placement. Because the typical worship space is a well-lit environment, rear projection is always recommended when feasible. That is especially true with new construction and with facilities that incorporate exterior windows. Projecting onto rear screens will enhance contrast, and a bright image without reasonable contrast can be nearly useless.
As for image size, general formulas guide screen height versus viewing distance. For a typical worship application, the closest viewer should be at least twice the screen height away. In general, no one should be seated more than 8 to 12 times the screen height away. For example, if the farthest seat is 72 feet from the screen, the image size needed will be somewhere from 6-by-8 feet to 9-by-12 feet (presuming 4:3 aspect ratio). That formula may differ from what you are used to with corporate or educational environments. Once the screen specs and sight-line drawings are done and the room lighting is measured or estimated, you can calculate the minimum ANSI lumen and contrast ratio specs as well as other performance features required.
This is also the step in which other supporting hardware and software are defined and chosen. It may include everything from audio gear, speakers, cameras, switchers, and mixers to lighting control, computers, software packages, and cabling.
Present the proposal
Before presenting a system solution proposal, decide your level of trust with the pastor, the committee, and the church in general. One of the most common frustrations happens there. You do all the work and give your best offer in good faith, and someone at the church turns your proposal into a shopping list for the competition. For that reason, many dealers have begun charging a nonrefundable design fee, which the church can use later as a deposit toward the system purchase. Depending on the scope of work, the fee may range from $500 to $1,500 or more. Many churches with nominal budgets may balk at the suggestion of paying for your time. Stress that the fee is a deposit and if they are serious about their plans for growth, it is a minimal investment to get the job done right the first time.
Another proposal strategy is to provide a total system solution without the normal line-item breakdown of product and price. Again, this is to avoid the shopping list syndrome. Give the church a brief description of what it is getting and, more importantly, what the system will accomplish. What the system can reliably do is more critical than the breakdown of individual pieces. Also, be sure the proposal includes on-site training, maintenance, and service options. Explain what is covered by limited warranties and what should be budgeted for routine maintenance (for example, projection lamps and periodic cleanings). That can help avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.
Should the proposal appear too expensive for the customer, advise him or her to make compromises or go back and revisit the original guiding vision. Stress looking at long-term value rather than initial cost and suggest financing or leasing options if the necessary funds are not immediately available. If there just isn't enough money to move forward, it may be better to wait six months rather than skimp. Launching an underfunded ministry may prove ineffective and detrimental to the growth plans. The adage “Get it right the first time” has been lacking with many churches.
The Sunday demo
Most church demos take place during the week, when it is convenient for the pastor and staff. Yet your prospect may be able to afford more than it realizes. The client may be able to avoid compromising the vision and your proposed plans by sharing the project with the congregation in a way that generates enthusiastic support — and additional funding. If orchestrated properly, a Sunday morning demo may become your ultimate closer. When everyone sees the new technology performing brilliantly, hearts are stirred and wallets are opened. Suggest this step of imparting the vision to the congregation only as needed. If you can win the business without the expense of a weekend demo, your profitability increases.
Be sure you have clearly detailed who will do what and when. There should be no confusion about the products, the price, the implementation period, or any other issues at this point. With a written contract accepted and a deposit in hand, move forward as planned.
It is a good practice to keep a punch list near the end of implementation. One of the most common complaints about A/V contractors is not finishing the job 100 percent. For mostly unacceptable reasons, projects often drag out and punch-list details get forgotten. By taking it to 100 percent, you will stand out from the rest and hopefully earn a glowing reference and referrals from the customer.
Include technology training with all your proposals. By giving proper instruction to the staff and volunteers, you will help ensure the success of their launch and their future. To go the extra step, become familiar with the various church trade publications and specialty software packages used for worship. The more you can offer these people, the greater the likelihood of them mastering media ministry and recommending you to others.
Make the launch count
Okay, this is it — the big day! Everything is in place. The staff and volunteers are trained and ready. The program has been fine-tuned and rehearsed. Their vision is about to come alive in a more dynamic way. Whether the style is subtle or loud, help your church customer make an impact. Let the people see and experience the investment in technology, but do not let it get in the way of the message. The use of presentation technology should always bring an element of enhancement, not distraction. From your launch and moving forward, the media ministry team can stretch into many possibilities of creatively expressing their message and the church vision.
THE LONG HAUL
Seek to build a relationship, not just an account. Learn what it will take to earn the business and keep the customer for life. I still enjoy friendships with people who were once customers many years ago. With this approach, I am suggesting business far beyond the usual. When the customer becomes your friend, he or she will look for ways to help you prosper and make your life easier.
With the economic doldrums still looming over many areas of the nation, more than a few A/V dealers and system integrators are searching for new business. If you have pursued selling to houses of worship without notable results (or profits), perhaps a change in strategy may help. Just remember: this is a viable market that requires a focused, long-term commitment to yield a solid return on investment. If you and your company are not in it for the long haul, then it may be that church just isn't for you.
Kevin Barlow is business development manager for Sharp Electronics. He has been involved with professional sales, marketing, training, and systems design in the A/V industry since 1985. He can be reached at (770) 509-8250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.