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Getting the Most Out of Your CMS

August 15, 2010

© 2010 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

I get to visit with churches and ministries around the country throughout the year.  Whether I’m serving in a consulting role or speaking, I’ve noticed that most are either somewhat dissatisfied with their church management software system, or dislike it so much they are looking for a replacement product.  Why is the dissatisfaction level so high?  And is there a way to improve it?

The Dissatisfaction Reaction
If the complaints about church management software was limited to only certain products, it would be easy to say the solution is simply to change to a better product.  But because I have not yet found a system that is not highly complained about, the problem is either with all church management software (CMS) systems, or the users, or both.  I think both are at fault for less-than-satisfactory user experiences.

Why are there so few satisfied CMS users?  Here’s what I’ve seen:

  • Complication.  The better CMS providers, hoping to meet the needs of many churches well, must include so many options that the use of their software often feels too complex.  The problem is that churches do so many of the same things differently that simple software is easily outgrown, and the only acceptable solution becomes one that is complex in it’s myriad of options.
  • Unique Interfaces.  Most users of CMS products have never worked with complex databases before.  The result is that even those CMS providers that have been careful to implement industry standards and have made their products’ interfaces consistent are challenging for their target users.  This adds to the feeling of the product being overly complex.
  • The Nature of the Church Business Office.  Dan Bishop (Executive Director of the Houston CO+OP) once observed that church offices are similar to publishing offices because of their many and constant deadlines.  Add that church offices are typically understaffed and under budgeted, and the situation is ripe for user dissatisfaction due to too little time to train users and manage databases.  The result is that CMS users often find themselves looking for quick and easy approaches of data entry and reporting, which translates into barely usable datasets that do little to help church leadership in the long run.

There Is Hope!
No wonder why churches— even those who are basically satisfied with their CMS— always seem to have an eye open to anything new that might serve them better.  But there is hope!  Following are some steps that CMS providers and churches can take to improve satisfaction.

Suggestions for CMS Providers
CMS providers can improve their customers’ dissatisfaction and build greater loyalty by serving their customers better.  That challenge is no different than how every other business niche is challenged.  Please allow me to share a few thoughts that might help based on my conversations with many churches and church staff across the country.

  • Complexity & Interface.  You are doing a great job in meeting the varied needs of your customers by offering many ways to use your products. The complexity that results could be overcome by using some of the programming tools available today that allow a user to modify the screen they use.  Consider allowing them to set their screen preferences, eliminating options and fields they never use, renaming them to match their business processes, and reorganizing the layout of the fields to best facilitate their processes.
  • The Nature of the Church Business Office.  Training and technical support are the keys to help in this area.
    • Training needs to be a requirement at the time of purchase to help those who have not worked with complex databases to become successful users; but it’s not enough.  Look for ways to encourage your customers to establish a regular training program.  Because they have constant team turnover, they need training to help new team members.  And because their ministry programs continually evolve, they need someone who is an expert in the use of your products to look at their databases and help them understand ‘best’ ways to facilitate their growing needs.  (One possibility might be to include a number of days on-site each year in the annual support.  Once it’s in the budget, it’s more likely to happen!)
    • Technical support is often uncomfortable for users.  Continually remind your team they need to not be defensive, and they always need to help users find ways to accomplish what is needed.  Phrases that never help the caller or the perception of your company (like, “No one has ever asked for that,” “It can’t be done,” and “It must be your computer or network”) only increase user dissatisfaction.

Suggestions for Churches
CMS data is one of your most valuable assets, and it should be given the same level of care you would give to any other highly valuable asset—like your buildings!  Here are some suggestions that can help you get the most out of your investment and data asset.

  • Establish data entry standards to improve the quality of your data.  Your CMS provider may have a document you can edit to help you accomplish this, and should address such things as searching to ensure a record doesn’t already exist before duplicating it, screen shots, etc.
  • Make training a mandatory part of your annual budget.  This investment will save you much more money than it will cost— I guarantee it!

I hope this helps.  It’s sad when we see so many churches and ministries spend money to change systems unnecessarily, and reduce productivity while their teams learn how to use the new CMS.

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