World Changers Church: Know Thy Customer

 
 
By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2005-12-07
 
 
 

It's 7:30 a.m. on a sticky summer Sunday outside Atlanta; state troopers wade through the flock of early birds quickly filling the parking spaces at World Changers Church.

Young couples, women with babies, elderly men, singles—nearly 8,500 people from Georgia and neighboring states push into the church's $20 million World Dome auditorium. Inside, a six-piece band queues up and 110 gospel singers blend into one mighty voice. Four female interpretive dancers slash the air with colorful scarves. The crowd begins to stand and sway and sing out: "Glory to God in the highest place!"

Some congregants wave their palms toward the pulpit, where they know their man, Pastor Creflo A. Dollar Jr., soon will bring them God's word.

Amid the fervor, a security squad in black suits eyes the crowd. A lot of donation money, perhaps $85,000, is about to surface. Should trouble arise, the guards are ready to coordinate their response over wireless devices on their wrists and ear lobes.

Once the congregation reaches capacity, warm-up pastor Vic Bolton (Dollar's brother-in-law) takes the podium. He leads a brief prayer that includes support for President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, then welcomes members, guests and the 6,000 followers watching streaming video of the service live on the Web at www.worldchangers.org.

After Bolton finishes, out strides Creflo Dollar from stage left, looking crisp in a three-piece windowpane suit. A fit 43-year-old African-American with close-cropped hair and a neat mustache, Dollar's image beams from jumbo screens flanking the stage and 14 smaller televisions mounted on pillars that bring the action to worshippers dozens of rows back. The enthusiastic congregation opens note pads, ready to absorb Dollar's trademark "prosperity gospel," which urges his followers to enrich themselves spiritually, emotionally and—equally important—financially.

With this message, Dollar has built one of the biggest evangelical ministries in the United States, with 25,000 members and $80 million in revenue this year. It's a nonprofit organization, but World Changers Ministries, which oversees the church, works like an expanding conglomerate with Dollar as its chief executive.

While Dollar's charismatic ministering is the overwhelming draw, World Changers also has managed a business feat much of the corporate world would envy. Using an 11-year-old customer relationship management system, a network of PC servers and a 12-member technical staff, the church has attracted new followers by the thousands, with membership jumping 47 percent since 2000. The church has also moved into music recording, Hispanic worship and other new markets.

Next page: Megamodel


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The "megachurch" designation is bestowed on ministries that host at least 2,000 people at weekly services. But World Changers flies beyond mega status with its artful, aggressive use of technology to manage its congregant-customers. A full-time technology chief and a marketing director, together with their staffs, have created a customer-care system that any for-profit company would be foolish to ignore.

While secular companies across industries struggle to hold onto customers—and pan for nuggets of personal information to understand their habits—big evangelical ministries have done just that, says John Vaughan, founder of Church Growth Today, a megachurch consulting firm in Bolivar, Mo.

How these churches analyze data on member behavior, as well as operate call centers and develop product extensions, bears impressive fruit.

Megachurches can look at their data and identify members who could be volunteering more, who are likely to spend money on products and contribute donations—and how much—and who are becoming discontent and may abandon the church. Visalia First Assembly of God, an evangelical congregation in California's San Joaquin Valley, improved visitor retention to 59 percent simply by changing the way church officials interact with first-time attendees—at the suggestion of new analytical software.

They know who's related to whom, which church member is battling illness or is seeking a mate—and how best to reach out to people in each circumstance. A bright "we haven't heard from you in a while, come on back" letter is inappropriate for a longtime church volunteer dealing with chemotherapy. But it's effective when a 23-year-old single man begins to skip his midweek prayer group.

Through a combination of software and staff tuned in to individual customers, sophisticated churches, World Changers among them, can track data detailed enough to make those judgments. In short, Vaughan says, "megachurches do what corporations would love to be able to do with their customer bases."

Next page: Pastor's Proposition


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On this July morning, Dollar calls for healing through the laying on of hands and praying in tongues. Then he solicits "first fruits." The first increase in pay for anyone who has gotten a raise should go to God, he explains. Then he asks for regular offerings and tithes. Tithers donate 10 percent of their pay to the church.

Dollar likes to call this early part of the service "prosperity time," assuring the congregation that by giving, they will see returns both spiritual and physical. Dollar praises givers, making them feel good and satisfied that they're doing right.

"What you sow is what you harvest," he says. Thousands of people pass forward white contribution envelopes.

Like most compelling speakers, Dollar is a master salesman. He holds forth about how to love God, citing Matthew 22:34, which talks about loving God with heart, soul and mind. He paces remarks to build momentum, being serious or funny, sometimes colloquial. At one point, he urges the congregation to accept their human limits.

"You ain't all that," he admonishes. "But with Him in your life, you're all that, plus a cup o' sugar—you understand what I'm sayin'?"

He will raise a fist and furrow a brow to thunder a point home, then resettle the crowd with a grin and his signature punctuating chuckle, "Heh, heh, heh—hallelujah." Rows of heads bob appreciatively.

Like any CEO, Dollar has something to sell. As Larry Ellison pitches software and Donald Trump sells himself, Dollar promotes biblically based self-improvement, emotional, marital and spiritual fulfillment, and, too, financial gain.

That's the core service World Changers offers, along with dozens of peripheral goods and services. Some are free—food pantries, apartment finders, live Webcasts of Dollar's Sunday sermons.

Others have a price tag—$27 for CDs of Dollar's teachings on prosperity, $23 for cassette tapes of wife Taffi Dollar's advice to women, $1,300 for subscriptions to a year's worth of sermons on DVD.

"People tend to think churches are different because we have a different product," says Karen Hosey, director of the 11-member marketing staff at World Changers. "But our product is the word of God. People buy because you [as a supplier] meet a need. Same here."

Buy they do. Last year, Hosey says, World Changers sold 287,460 books, CDs and other items through multiple outlets—online, through its toll-free number, at the bookstore inside the World Dome and at Christian bookstores generally.

Product sales are typically one-fourth of a megachurch's revenue; donations account for the rest. The $80 million World Changers sells an estimated $20 million in products. As an untaxed, nonprofit religious institution, World Changers funnels income back into services and products for its community. Those sales, along with about $60 million in donations, enrich the church to expand and reach out to even more people.

That's symbiosis. And it's driven by World Changers' approach to CRM, which amounts to four basic steps: attract new visitors, get people involved, meet their needs, and clinch their loyalty.

Done right, the work yields thousands of faithful, active devotees who also support the church financially. Technology assists at every turn.

Next page: Using Technology to Minister


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During Dollar's rousing sermon, Ricardo Goodison follows Scripture references on a Hewlett-Packard iPaq handheld computer loaded with the King James Version of the Bible. Goodison is not just a tech-savvy churchgoer; he is also the church's chief information technology officer.

At 36, Goodison brings a dozen years of corporate know-how to the church, including application integration experience at United Air Lines, and network operations and architecture work for three technology services firms.

As he hired on in 2001, the church hit 19,100 members—a 9 percent growth spurt from membership of 17,500 the year before. He relished the chance to build a serious technology department for World Changers.

Goodison has expanded his staff from four to 12, including network administrators, Web developers and other technicians. The lean infrastructure mixes a homegrown church management system with packaged software like Peachtree Accounting from Sage Software, all sitting on 11 networked Dell and HP ProLiant servers.

"Most churches don't recognize technology as a spiritual tool," he says. "The view I've brought into the organization is that technology can be used to minister."

One recent manifestation is the February launch of live Webcasts of World Changers' Sunday services. At the July service, pastor Bolton advises the Internet audience on which buttons to click at the site to control the feed, contact the church and donate online.

The stream, plus other Web site features such as archived video of previous sermons, online prayer requests, Bible study notes and product sales, "let us reach people who can't drive to see us," says marketing chief Hosey.

The Web site also produces valuable marketing data. People who request prayers online, for example, must submit an electronic form with name, address, phone number and e-mail address. Donors who click the "sow a seed online" link also supply credit card, debit card or checking account information.

Web visitors can e-mail electronic Bible study schedules to friends. Those registering for some conventions answer questions on how they heard about the event, how long they've been following Dollar, whether they would volunteer during the event, and if so, in which areas.

Off the Web, the church spends $30 million per year to buy time to air Changing Your World, hosted by Creflo and Taffi Dollar, on 11 U.S. and 14 international TV stations.

Creflo books speaking engagements in cities where Hosey's marketing staff identifies an interest in World Changers. They'll look at areas, for example, where new, just-relocated members moved from, or where large numbers of product orders are being delivered. Dollar's "Change 2006" road show begins in Los Angeles in March.

Locally, the church buys advertising space on Atlanta-area mass transit. To help measure effectiveness, a bus and train ad, for example, would tell people to call a specific phone number to register for a children's church service. The number rings into the marketing department, where a worker tallies the call before routing it to the children's ministry office.

Hosey declined to talk about results from specific outreach efforts. But overall, World Changers membership has jumped 47 percent since 2000, to 25,000. By contrast, traditional Christian churches grew just 5 percent in the same period.

Next page: Keep Attendees Involved


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As Dollar closes his sermon, he invites attendees to the altar to accept Jesus as their personal savior, rededicate their lives to Jesus, receive baptism with speaking in tongues or join the church as a member. He does it every week. "And I declare that their lives will never be the same again. Lord, paint 'em up with your power!"

A brief prayer, a quiet choir song, then the 30 or so men, women and children who answered the altar call are led to a conference room to receive one-on-one ministering. Basic information, such as name, address, e-mail address and phone number, is collected on paper—all with an eye to understanding the newcomer, meeting his or her needs, and keeping each one engaged between sermons.

The personal approach works. "I love this church; it's good for me," says Stanley Holmes, a computer consultant and a member for five years, along with his 3-year-old daughter, his sister and her kids. Holmes' involvement goes beyond the Sunday services. As an example, he subscribes to a daily e-mail blast with a Bible quote for meditation each day.

Within the church, volunteering is a key way to involve followers and allow the church to touch more people. Potential volunteers' interests, skills and employment information are stored in a Microsoft Access database, so that helpers can be recruited efficiently.

One Sunday soon after member Calvin Montgomery joined the church in 2002, he stopped by an information table for the EOD (Evangelical Outreach Department) in the lobby of the World Dome.

Representatives of EOD, a group of parishioners who go out into the community to persuade people to accept Jesus, took down Montgomery's name, number and details about his background, including that he personally had been ministered to in this fashion, though not by someone with World Changers, in earlier days when he was homeless in Brooklyn. When the EOD needed someone streetwise, they called Montgomery.

He is happy to give back. "This ministry increased me," he says, attributing his now drug-free life, security guard job, and recent acquisition of a gently used Buick to his relationship with God and World Changers.

And in a perfect CRM circle, Montgomery increases the ministry. He now volunteers with EOD to walk urban streets on Saturdays, spreading the world about Jesus Christ and the church.

On Mondays at World Changers' administrative offices next to the World Dome, a handful of volunteers and staff enter gathered information into the church management system.

There, it will be sorted and analyzed, monitored and cross-referenced so that the church can market itself ever more precisely. World Changers says it does not sell personal data and protects it with password authentication for sensitive applications, as well as network firewalls.

The software was custom built in 1994 around version 9 of UniVerse, a database management system inherited by IBM when it bought Informix in 2001. IBM markets UniVerse as an "extended" relational database, and version 10 can be programmed with many of the same SQL commands as other relational databases, such as Oracle or IBM's own DB2.

Where the relational model, a mathematically justified theory for the optimal structure of a database, divides data into columns and tables, UniVerse uses tables nested inside each other. The church's applications use programming commands unique to UniVerse, rather than those based on the now-dominant SQL standard.

The church management system has no graphical interface; there are no drop-down menus or buttons to click. Fields are text-based. The one paean to pretty is the screen background of bright blue rather than the green typical of legacy applications.

World Changers' UniVerse-based system doesn't mesh easily with popular report writers, such as Crystal Reports, or other software built for relational standards. Instead, to extract data for trend spotting, for example, marketing staffers have to ask Goodison's technology department to do it. Or they have to know TCL (Tool Command Language), or "tickle," procedures, which demand precise syntax, with no errant spaces, punctuation or letters.

"It's not hard," Goodison says. "You just have to know TCL." Which means making peace with typing commands like lsearch -all -inline name Jones to search the elements of the "name" list for all matches of "Jones."

Still, for World Changers, it works.

Next page: Quick Member Integration


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Within a week after a congregant becomes an official member, a packet tailored to his or her interests will be in the mail. A welcome letter delivers the person's new member ID number, which is to be written on subsequent offering envelopes and tithe checks. The number is used for tracking purposes in the software.

A partner kit, which is sent to people who follow the church but live too far from the World Dome to attend services, contains items such as a welcome letter, postage-paid envelopes for financial contributions and prayer requests, and a certificate saying the person's prayers and financial support help Dollar "change the world."

By analyzing changes to the database, Hosey can figure out where membership is growing or receding, which guides marketing outreach efforts.

Granted, churches have a built-in advantage over many corporations in obtaining data from customers, especially first-timers. People come to a church such as World Changers seeking a personal connection with God and like-minded people, and therefore usually want to share, says RaeAnn Slaybaugh, editor of Church Business, a Phoenix-based magazine.

A call from a church leader to inquire about personal hobbies and whether you have free time on weeknights to help the organization typically won't meet the same resistance as a follow-up call to someone who just bought a bath mat or chose a mutual fund, she says.

But corporate entities too often botch the data collection opportunities they do have, says Allen Ratta, a former pastor who is now chief executive of ConnectionPower, a ministry software vendor in Las Vegas. Customers are never more ripe for revealing golden personal data as when they are new, aglow from their first exchange with the organization.

Effective engagement can be as simple as dropping the bread crumbs for a future interaction, Ratta notes. An aware salesman stationed at the door can say, "I noticed you were looking at winter jackets. We will have a sale in a couple of weeks. Would you like a reminder call so you don't miss it?"

What happens instead, he says, is that people enter a store, wander around and leave anonymously. "That's a waste," he says.

Next page: Meet Customer Needs


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The smartest, most effective way to keep people engaged, and turn them into repeat customers, is to give them what they want. World Changers knows that. "We're a service organization," Goodison says.

Retaining congregants is where the central church management system swings into action.

With a system of both technology and well-trained staff to track worshipper demographics and their shopping, prayer and volunteerism behavior patterns, World Changers can target products and services to segments of followers. A convention in July with separate seminars for children and married couples drew families who, when surveyed months before by e-mail, said they would attend World Changers conferences if they knew someone would tend to their kids. Fourteen thousand people came to the four-day convention.

Sometimes ideas for product extensions come not from computer analysis but old-fashioned marketing techniques. A weeklong television series on family relationships by Dollar last year sprung from a focus group of 12 parishioners who said they were struggling with such issues.

"The way to grow is to meet people's needs, so you have to know what people's needs are," Hosey says. It's the simple idea that underpins all marketing science, she notes: "Market research is market research."

Reaching out reveals gaps in products and services, and offers a way to test new ideas. In October, World Changers e-mailed casual followers a link to a 25-question Web survey, to gauge interest in a "cyber-church fellowship."

Hosey says the idea came from discussions between herself, Dollar and Goodison. "We were just talking to Pastor about how we serve those people who don't reside in Atlanta but feel this is their spiritual home," she recalls. "We can't bury them or marry them or christen their kids. But what can we do?"

No decisions have been made yet, but Internet worship might include interactive community-building features such as chat and a blog on Creflo's and Taffi's sermons.

Highly prized at World Changers are prayer requests collected from call-center interactions. The data provides ideas for product extensions and even subject matter for small-group ministries.

People can dial a toll-free number to order products, register for conventions and donate. But 50 percent of the 1,100 daily callers, Goodison says, are people asking to pray with someone at World Changers about anything from the killer tsunami in Southeast Asia last year to the war in Iraq to an illness in the family.

When the call comes in, a call-center agent asks for the caller's member number, to enter into his or her record on the church management system some details about the call—date, prayer topic and other transactions during the call, such as whether the caller bought any products or made a donation.

Hosey declined to talk in detail about any specific products or services that have come out of this research. However, she outlined a typical scenario.

She might identify a trend of women calling to seek prayer about or order a CD on a specific marriage issue. Hosey might then suggest to Taffi, who preaches mainly on women's and relationship topics, that "that's where people's pain is," and a new book or special women's fellowship group on the issue might be in order.

"I share that information, and the people responsible for different areas of the ministry take it and run with it," she says.

Hosey emphasizes, however, that although Creflo Dollar might consider similar data on men's issues in formulating topics for male fellowship groups he leads, marketing has nothing to do with the senior pastor's regular sermons. "What he does in service on Sunday is not a direct result of anything I tell him," she says. "He listens to the Lord on that."

Next page: Keeping Customer Contacts In-House


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Because call-center interactions are so valuable, Goodison ended World Changers' phone center outsourcing contract with MicahTek, a call-center services company in Broken Arrow, Okla., in April 2004.

MicahTek's agents weren't hired to pray with callers, merely to take orders and fill out forms. Anyone calling to pray was told that a prayer counselor from World Changers would call them back. Also, MicahTek agents didn't know World Changers' products as well as World Changers staff, Goodison says.

Relying on callbacks was inefficient for the church and annoying to callers, he adds. Taking the operation in-house, Goodison bought Nortel's Symposium call-center management software. It can track volumes, wait times and call-abandonment rates.

Goodison's most important metric for measuring call-center success is what he terms "serving the customer best to first resolution." That is, his agents strive to answer all questions a caller may have during that single call.

They have access to the product database as well as membership files on the church management system. Most are also able to pray with callers because they are members of the church. The staff numbers five to 21, depending on call volume.

Best-in-class companies know customer retention matters. General Electric sets CEO Jeff Immelt's pay partly on how well he uses technology to deepen customer relationships. At American Express, the compensation committee can give or rescind bonuses for top executives as the customer base expands or contracts.

Yet across industries, surveys show consumer satisfaction dropping. Consider the University of Michigan's American Consumer Satisfaction Index, launched in 1994, which evaluates factors such as customer expectations, complaints and retention to calculate satisfaction every quarter, from a dismal score of 1 to a top score of 100.

Insurance and gas companies have skittered to all-time lows—67 and 70, respectively. Manufacturing and electronics have declined for two years in a row, groceries for three and autos for five.

Next page: Preventing Churn


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Many corporations try to spot at-risk customers before they decamp, with mixed success. The mobile telecom industry suffers high churn, with as many as 30 percent of U.S. customers switching companies every year, according to researchers at the University of Colorado. And the top 20 U.S. banks, for example, lose 12 percent to 15 percent of their customers every year, says the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

The cost to replace each defecting customer with a new one varies by industry but can range from about $330 per customer in telecommunications, to $75 in banking and $14 for online retailers, according to a study by Shop.org and Boston Consulting Group, and company reports.

Arthur Hughes, a marketing consultant and author of three books on developing customer loyalty, says companies are just coming to grips with something megachurches have known for a long time: Personal connections prevent churn.

"If you're just dealing with a big corporation, you don't really care if you drop an insurance policy or switch banks," Hughes says. "But if there's a person involved—if an [insurance] agent has called you up recently or taken you to lunch—it's very difficult to cancel that product."

World Changers doesn't have a dossier on every person who comes through the door on a Sunday; sometimes, people come for years but elude the database because they aren't members. But through the 50 gigabytes of data on 25,000 known members and those tens of thousands of followers who enter the system by sending long-distance financial support, buying a product or attending a convention, the church can—and does—get personal.

Informal monitoring of turnout at each service and other anecdotal evidence shows World Changers' churn is a comparatively low 5 percent to 10 percent per year, Goodison and Hosey say.

Nevertheless, preventing churn is an issue Goodison and Hosey hope to address even better with a new church management system. The existing software doesn't track the level of detail the church seeks to fine-tune marketing efforts and continue to grow at the 9 percent to 10 percent rate it has attained for the past several years, they say.

For example, Hosey thinks many people drop out when they move out of the area; hence a push for the cyber-fellowship group. But she can't be sure, because the church collects no data on why people drop out. Exit interviews, by mail or e-mail survey if not in person, would uncover why the member was leaving and help World Changers head off dissatisfaction issues.

She would like to find more effective ways to get more congregants involved in the church, but can't right now for lack of data. She wants to do away with the separate applications that have grown up outside the UniVerse system.

By integrating the demographics and transaction activity of the member database with, for instance, the statistics of the volunteer database, she'd have a fuller view for each member.

Then, if newcomers join the church but don't volunteer or participate in any of the small-group fellowships offered, she could look at their demographics, find people of similar backgrounds who are active with the church, and promote similar activities to the non-active newcomers. "But until that data is collected uniformly in one location," she says, "I can't do it."

Goodison plans to survey the church's department heads about their requirements during the next few months, then create a request-for-proposal to send to various enterprise CRM vendors and church management suppliers.

He doesn't know whether he will buy a package and modify it or build another new system from scratch. Either way, the technology is expected to be in place in 2007, he says, and push World Changers to 30,000 members soon after.

Next page: Mixed Blessings


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With two Rolls-Royces, a private plane and the happenstance of his last name, Dollar stirs controversy as his ministry expands.

In addition to being senior pastor, Dollar is CEO of World Changers Ministries, the umbrella organization over the church and three other groups: International Covenant Ministries, a federation of churches that pools ideas on church management; Arrow Records, a for-profit recording company for Christian music; and Creflo Dollar Ministries, an outreach group that promotes conventions and print, video and audio products, as well as Dollar's School of Prosperity.

Critics such as Aaron Spiegel, information-technology director at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, a consulting group for religious organizations, say media-savvy, technochurch leaders such as Dollar want to use donations to build empires, not spiritual communities.

"The strategy of the megachurches is—and this is not what they say—'Come be a part of our congregation. Get your fill of God on Sunday, and we don't require anything of you other than your body and your money,'" Spiegel says. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with what megachurches are doing, but other churches are more interested in using technology to build up the existing community."

Dollar doesn't apologize. World Changers thrives, he says, because God wants it to.

Nor does he back away from his "total-life prosperity" teachings that believers are entitled to riches, including the monetary kind. Still, skeptics rankle Dollar.

He occasionally uses a few minutes of a sermon to decry critics. One Sunday in October, he pointedly told the congregation, "Notice you didn't see any cash machines in the lobby. Nobody asked you for your tax returns. All those lies that the devil put out, I condemn those lies right now."

Meanwhile, Dollar's church keeps growing. There's a bookstore, e-commerce sites, TV studio, conferences, events, a private elementary school, fitness center and a second church at Madison Square Garden in New York, where Dollar performs services on Saturday nights, ferried to and fro on the private plane. There are offices in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, and plans to expand a Spanish-language service he started in June.

By knowing how to market and whom to target, Creflo Dollar has sown some hearty seeds. As he might add, "Heh, heh, heh, hallelujah."

Next page: World Changers Base Case


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  • The Principle and Practice of Prosperity:Pastor Creflo A. Dollar Jr. built a congregation on a message of prosperity and conservatism; he built an organization on the practical application of those principles.
  • Megamodel:The size of megachurches seems impersonal, but the customer-relationship model is as high-touch as you get.
  • Pastor's Proposition:Give to the church and you'll prosper; buy a CD and you'll learn.
  • Using Technology to Minister:Live Webcasts of sermons, Bibles on handhelds, daily e-mail blasts, online donations, and—everywhere—collect data to know who your congregants are and what they need from you.
  • Keep Attendees Involved:Getting them to services and into volunteering is only the start of an effective member-loyalty program.
  • Quick Member Integration:Right after first contact, the church reaches out to potential members with packets of prayers and information tailored to their interests and even their proximity to the church.
  • Meet Customer Needs:Give 'em what they want and they'll keep coming back for more.
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