On Thursday of last week, Thomas Cottfeatured several articles on “right-sizing” in the arts in his daily “You’ve Cott Mail.” As many of his emails tend to do, it has stuck with me for days. See his email came at an opportune time for me. I had just given the plenary speech at American University’s Emerging Arts Leaders Symposiumwhich partially focused on NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s “supply and demand” speech, and soon thereafter, Rebecca Novick authored a blog entitled “Please, Don’t Start a Theater Company.”
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.
Like many others, we traded lists with other performing arts organizations during the acquisition portion of our subscription campaign. However, in doing so, we experienced an incredibly high cost-of-sale for each new subscriber. Even when factoring in the value of each new subscriber over multiple years, returns from mailings to traded lists didn’t justify the cost. Our strategy was flawed, and it was time for a change.
Data showed that our best leads were in our own database, with the best of the best being single ticket buyers who purchased tickets to multiple productions during the previous fiscal year. Instead of trying to attract new subscribers with no prior transactional history with us by sending direct mail campaigns to traded lists, we shifted strategy by focusing on building multi-buyers during the 2008-09 season. The new strategy was simple–if multi-buyers were the best prospects for subscriber acquisition campaigns, then the more multi-buyers we had, the better off we were for the following year’s subscription campaign.
Instead of trading lists for subscription mailings, we traded lists for our most popular productions. Transactional data showed that by luring in new patrons via our most popular programming, we had a much better shot of cross-selling them into other productions soon after they had their first great experience at our theater. If new patrons purchased tickets to just one additional production during the season, they were exponentially more likely to subscribe than a lead with no prior transactional history with us.
Our focus was now clear–in order to grow our subscriber base, we must first focus on building the number of multi-buyers throughout the year. And the most critical component of that strategy was refocusing our ticket sales operations by shifting our box office to a sales office.
The prevailing feeling at the time was that our box office associates were “order takers.” They were expected to pick up the phone and process each order in a courteous and timely fashion. They were evaluated on efficiency instead of effectiveness. With the beginning of the 2008-09 season, we rebranded our box office (now referred to as a sales office), and made it clear that associates were expected to function as sales consultants. They were now responsible for up-selling, cross-selling and proactively soliciting annual fund donations. To prepare the office, I promoted an exceptionally entrepreneurial minded manager to lead the division, and she in turn, brought in several experts to train our staff. We adopted a mantra of sales through service, and in doing so, viewed each opportunity to cross-sell as a moment to provide excellent customer service.
Three years later, I am very pleased with our results:
From FY08 to FY11, new-to-file households (those that had no previous transactional history with Arena Stage) increased by 90%, but even more importantly, multi-buyer households increased by 44%, giving us a much larger “best prospects” pool for new subscribers. In this fiscal year alone, that pool was converted into more than 5,100 new subscribers. Despite what some viewed as aggressive sales techniques, our 2011 customer satisfaction survey revealed that satisfaction levels were at an all-time high, and our attrition rate decreased 6% over the last two years.
Today, our sales associates up-sell seat locations, cross-sell buyers into similar programming, solicit various levels of annual fund donations, offer to make reservations at our cafe, suggest pre-paid parking, and will even arrange for a car service with a preferred provider. In addition, during slower sales cycles, our associates also provide support to our group sales office, and participate in outbound calling. By doing so, we maximize revenue, while growing the number of multi-buyer households and providing premium concierge service to all patrons.