Sunday, November 20, 2011

Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

I’ve just returned from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, the annual gathering of arts marketers convened by Americans for the Arts. I’ve gone to the conference for the past seven years to reconnect with colleagues, learn from case studies and catch up on new trends. As I return home this year, I am mindful that some arts marketers have limited control or influence over mission critical decisions, many of which affect audiences, revenue streams and branding. As marketers position themselves as growing agents of influence in their various organizations, I can’t help but think that perhaps our energies should be spent concentrating on the underperforming areas in which we can be the most impactful.

In this new environment of reduced resources, the ability for an organization to identify its competitive advantages is vital. Some of which, marketers have no responsibilities for. Others, we lead. In listening to Scott Stratten's opening keynote address at the conference, I was reminded that the general woeful state of customer service provides a prime opportunity for arts organizations to distinguish themselves. In short, Scott reminded us that we should always look for "opportunities to be awesome."

Some thoughts on how we can achieve awesomeness…

Awesomeness comes from humanness. We have our rules. Our policies and procedures. It is easy and efficient to train automatons. But the greatest value of human interaction from a transactional perspective is our unique ability to empathize, reason and trouble shoot. We have to encourage front line brand ambassadors to use their judgment. Empower them to solve problems. Reward them for breaking the rules when required because by design, rules are created for routine situations, not exceptional ones. Why hire smart and caring people if those attributes don’t influence operations? I left the conference thinking that if we all treated our customers like we would our mothers, our spouses, our best friends, that we might have lifelong relationships with them as well.

Awesomeness is unexpected. In the spirit of a random act of kindness, what if we asked our brand ambassadors to perform one act of unexpected awesomeness each day? It doesn't have to be a splashy show, as even an understated, thoughtful gesture can make someone's day. Imagine a scenario where a man calls the box office to get tickets to a performance for his wife to celebrate their anniversary, and the box office associate makes a note and leaves a few chocolates and an anniversary card waiting in their seats when they arrive. Wouldn't that be awesome? and don't you think they would remember that gesture for years to come?

Awesomeness doesn't wait for approval. Many times awesomeness is a derivative of authenticity. If corporate policy dictates that brand ambassadors need to get approval to provide extraordinary customer service, then the window of opportunity to be awesome disappears. Great customer service comes from authentic responses. If we hire caring and helpful brand ambassadors, managers need to step out of the way and let them do what they do best. Don't lose an opportunity to be awesome because you have to send it up the ladder for approval.

Awesomeness often results from a mistake. We all make mistakes, even the best of us. Even when we have the best intentions. What really matters is how we respond to our mistakes. Mistakes must be viewed as opportunities to provide great customer service. An extraordinary response to a mistake can provide for a lifelong memorable experience for a customer. In 2008, Arena Stage had to cancel a performance due to a substantial snowstorm, and although we contacted all the patrons we had contact information for, we didn’t get through to everyone. Prior to leaving their house in Philadelphia, one particularly adventurous couple called the sales office, and were informed the performance in question was still scheduled to perform. When they arrived, and discovered the show was canceled and the weather had deteriorated, not only were they disappointed, but they were stranded as well. We should have canceled earlier to give our patrons more notice. But before us was an opportunity to be awesome. Without being asked, our sales office worked with a partner hotel to arrange a room for them free of charge that evening using some trade rooms available to us from a previous cross-promotion. We reseated them into the following day’s performance, and the couple headed back to Philadelphia with a fond memory of their visit to Arena Stage. The moment immediately following a significant mistake is crucial. Don't hesitate. Own the mistake, and resolve it above and beyond a customer's expectations.

Arts organizations are charged with building communities. Communities are centered around relationships. We are in the relationship-building business. As such, we should approach each patron interaction from a position of "yes" rather than "no." Policies and procedures should be built with a focus on deepening our relationships within our communities. And each day as we go into work, we should look for opportunities to be awesome.