?Customer Care? means thinking about your customers and responding to their needs. But what exactly does this mean for the arts. Beth Aplin explores the key issues.

In commercial organisations, the importance of attracting and satisfying customers is fairly clear cut ? they are customer-led, so they attempt to supply exactly what the customer wants. Most arts organisations, however, face a major constraint when attempting to deliver good customer care. They will not necessarily focus on what the customer wants - they are product led, and supply what the customer should want! So should we simply give up and stop kidding ourselves that excellent customer care can be a reality for arts organisations? Certainly not; but if we are to be audience focused, then we must attempt both to understand our customers and help them to understand us. In fact, what we?re really talking about is a more collaborative approach.

A bad experience

There is a widely quoted truism ? if you are very happy with the service you receive you will tell one person about it; but if you are very unhappy then you will tell 10. If we consider what people typically say about their experiences and feelings when receiving bad customer care it is easy to understand why. People say things like
? Nobody had a clue about anything
? Nobody seemed interested or bothered
? They fobbed me off ? it was always somebody else?s job or fault
? They treated me as though I was a fool / liar
? They behaved as if it was my fault
? I had to chase all the time
? They were always complaining about their colleagues / the management

What is also rather interesting is how people say they felt when they have had these experiences:
? I felt upset
? I felt very angry
? I felt humiliated
? I felt powerless
? I vowed never to use them again
? I wanted to tell the whole world how awful they were

This is important stuff ? all the wonderful targeted marketing in the world will not get people back if they feel like this.

Towards understanding

So how do we go about changing this? We can start thinking about things from the customers? point of view ? to ?wear their skin?. When asking venue marketers to describe their product from the audience?s point of view, it?s fascinating how many still use terminology like ?own productions? and ?hires? etc. But why would a customer have any idea what these mean? These words are only relevant to your accountant ? what the audience member sees doesn?t relate to internal categorisations.

Do you really understand how customers feel when they attend your events? The course director of an arts administration degree once took all her students to a bingo hall to try to help then understand how a new leisure experience feels for first-timers. It?s a strange new world ? you don?t know what to wear, when to turn up and how to pay for what. I?ve been to racecourses and felt the same thing. Many of our customers are in exactly the same situation. How are they supposed to know about ordering interval drinks or where to find the cloakroom?

Learning from others

If you want to get specific about working out what constitutes poor, acceptable and superb customer care ? keep your eyes peeled. You can learn a great deal from your day-to-day experiences in whatever walk of life. I went to a local DIY superstore wanting to use the oft-advertised paint matching service to get Antique Cream for my woodwork. After pressing the button for service and standing around for 20 minutes as increasingly desperate calls for staff were made over the Tannoy, a very tired man turned up. He managed to tell me that he couldn?t possibly match the colour I needed because:
? He was just office staff and didn?t really know how it worked
? It was a Sunday and the expert paint people only worked sensible hours
? Men had different colour perception to woman and therefore it wouldn?t work anyway.

When we went to another shop, not only did they match the paint as I required, they also suggested a more durable finish as soon as they saw my rampaging toddler. It was a simple thing, but by exceeding my (admittedly low) expectations, they made themselves a customer for life.

Who determines Customer Care policy?

In ArtsProfessional issue 19, Adrian Phillips from The Phone Room listed a host standard gripes from the Box Office. These are the people who have the most contact with and a very large influence upon your customers. They need to be happy; they need to understand and agree with your policies; and they need to feel supported. Staff Care will help you to sort out your customer care. I have come across a venue where the general manager is personally sent all the group bookings for a range of customers. He then hands them to the box office manager who does all the work and hands them back. The only reason this happens is because of a single incident in which the box office stuck to company policy about refunds, but was then over-ruled by the general manager when the customer complained. From then on, the box office was undermined and was very unhappy about enforcing that particular policy again. It was unfair to the box office but also unfair to the customers who expect consistency.

The box office and other front of house staff spend most of their time talking to customers. They will have a pretty good idea what pleases and displeases. It is vitally important to involve them at the earliest possible stage and let them think ?outside the box?. Likewise it is vital that the importance and place of the customer is acknowledged at the very highest level. General managers may rarely actually meet customers, but their lead and influence inevitably filters down to those that do. The way in which they treat their frontline staff will have a direct influence on how well those staff treat customers.

Before leaping in with both feet?

On the Customer Care Continuum (Fig 1), it would obviously be lovely to set our targets to ?fantastic customer care? and ?exceeding the customer?s expectations? but:
? What does this mean in practice?
? How can you prove it?
? Can you afford it?

Bear in mind that a policy of answering every phone call after 3 rings will cost you a huge amount of money. Be realistic about where on the Customer Care Continuum you wish to be and work out how you can keep track of where you currently are. Like so many aspects of business, what good customer care needs is planning. The organisation needs to determine the balance it wants to strike between investing resources and potentially losing customers who are badly treated.

Planning is necessary too, to make sure that policies apply across the whole organisation. Don?t make the same mistake as one venue that made a huge effort to pull in young non-attenders. You can imagine the special productions and marketing initiatives that this involved. It worked for a while, but the marketers couldn?t work out why people weren?t coming back. After some investigation it turned out that the venue café (in the foyer and the hub of the building) had a strict policy of turfing out young people who loitered too long?.

Beth Aplin of Catalyst Arts is an arts management consultant specialising in Box Office review and reorganisation, database and data management, customer care and business process. t: 07977 521045 e: beth@catalystarts.com