Adventists Answer Public’s
Questions at Call Center
Director aims for Web interaction, capturing younger seekers
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network, reporting from Berrien Springs, Michigan
alling Adventist Information Ministry (AIM) isn't like dialing most toll free numbers -- callers aren't shuffled through voicemail labyrinths; and if they want to talk about more than the book offer they just claimed, staffers will readily listen.
"We aren't reading from a manual," says Joseph Williams, one of about 60 customer service representative (CSRs) at AIM and a master of divinity student at Adventist-owned Andrews University.
AIM, one of the foremost student employers at Andrews for nearly 30 years, is the nationwide call center for 35 North American ministries, primarily broadcast ministries “It Is Written” and “Amazing Facts.” Last year, CSRs answered more than 240,000 calls ranging from routine free literature claims to prayer requests to the decidedly offbeat -- one caller asked to talk to God and another inquired about the Bible's stance on abortions ... for pets. Another asked for advice getting a date.
While students are paid to fill literature orders, they're trained to welcome questions, encourage conversations and build relationships. Maybe it's the comfort of anonymity coupled with the basic human need to find someone willing to listen, but many callers open up, says student CSR Tameka Brown, who has worked at AIM for two months.
MOVING ONLINE: As the church's ministry moves online, two-year AIM director Twyla Wall would like to see the call center adapt accordingly. She envisions each denominational Web site offering a live chat feature to connect browsers to AIM staffers.
"Sometimes you're the only person in their life who'll pay attention to them," says Brown. The responsibility is "overwhelming at times, but exciting," she adds.
During a recent visit I made to the call center, staffers were in the midst of a live, internationally broadcast evangelism effort and were busy fulfilling literature requests and answering ensuing questions.
Brown, who last worked for a phone-based fundraising drive, says answering the calls at AIM is refreshing -- not only are callers already interested, but also their questions have renewed her own spirituality. "When you grow up in the church, you start to think you've heard every sermon, you know all the verses," she says. "But when these people call and you realize how persistently they're searching to find God and find truth, it makes you want to study more into things yourself."
If a conversation exceeds the scope of what a CSR feels comfortable handling, he or she can transfer the caller to a chaplain, such as Williams, who is more qualified to answer knotty theological questions. Sometimes staffers ask the caller for time to do additional research.
"No one has all the answers," says two-year AIM director Twyla Wall. "And callers know if they're just getting pat answers. If I was asking a tough question, I'd rather have someone say, 'Let me look into that and get back to you.'"
Staffers are, however, equipped to regularly handle a broad range of topics. When a call arrives, the center's software program determines which media ministry the caller is responding to, which narrows the field of possible requests and responses.
Still, the scope of the job can be daunting, Williams says. He compares it to working at an emergency room -- "You have a small amount of information before you go into the patient's room, and the rest is unknown territory." The key, he says, is multitasking -- CSRs must actively listen while simultaneously searching for answers or information in an extensive database.
"Sure, it would be easier to just answer phones, give generic answers. But to provide that personal attention is what people pick up on and appreciate," Williams says.
Wall would like that level of personal attention to apply to the church's Web presence as well as its television broadcasts. She'd like to see AIM evolve from a ministry exclusively supporting the church's television programming to more online ministries. She envisions the center's toll free number -- and, ideally, a live chat feature -- listed on every local church Web site in North America.
Most local churches' online presence is still cursory, Wall says. While basic information may be available, surfers may not be able to contact an actual person in a timely and efficient way.
"Usually it's just 'Search here' or 'Click to read.' The very best you'll get is a 'Click here to email us' link. 'Us' may take months to respond," Wall says. Similarly, when someone calls a local church, they usually get an answering machine. What if all those calls were directed to AIM? she says.
Wall also thinks a more Web-focused AIM would draw a younger audience. "I'll be the first to say that we're really not connecting with many people under 40," she says. "Just having a Web presence is not enough -- you have to be interactive, build community." Because virtually all of AIM's staffers are students, Wall believes they will gain more opportunities to impact their peers as the center moves toward more online ministry.
Ultimately, Wall says the extent of AIM's work is limited. Through the center's chaplain services, she says staffers occasionally find out about baptisms, but "for the vast majority of contacts, we never know where they end up." AIM is "just a link in the chain of events in the person's spiritual journey. We just try to think of every call as an opportunity to put the best face on Christianity."
Within a 5- or 10-minute phone conversation, Wall says, "you can't explain the Sabbath doctrine, so you try to create a relationship instead."