Customer service: are we falling down?

It was a dark and stormy night. We hustled to the theatre on foot without one streetcar or taxi in sight. We arrived at the theatre, dripping and freezing at 8:06 to pick up our prepaid tickets.

The young man at the box office told us that the performance had already started and latecomers could not be seated until intermission an hour and 15 minutes from then. We stood there dripping and downhearted and he suggested we should go wait at the coffee shop two blocks away.

I’m a reasonable person. Honestly I am. I started in this business as a phone room ticket seller and I subsidized my life for over 8 years working as an usher for a certain NHL team. Even now when I’m not at Creative Trust I produce performances all over the city for a small dance company. I have been on both sides. I have great stories about customer service – like the 1:55 pm call from an American customer who’d just crossed the Rainbow Bridge and who “just needed directions to our theatre” (in Toronto) for the 2:00 pm matinee. I’ve been on the receiving end of a “protein spill” at a Van Halen concert (if you’ve written up a show report you know what that is and if you haven’t well let’s just say the bar should have been shut down after the opening act.)

As Creative Trust began our work on crumbling facilities (which Jini has written about here and here) and audience development and earned revenue we also entered an economic downturn. And while Canada escaped relatively unscathed arts audiences were being more careful with their money. Our companies have seen changes to their sales patterns in recent years: ticket buyers are straying from purchasing subscriptions and even single tickets are purchased more and more last minute. General Managers and Producers are increasingly unable to accurately project sales and are biting their nails right up until the last minute.

We’ve been spending so much time working on growing audiences and engaging new audiences it came to us that maybe we were forgetting a step. Marketing Managers and General Managers can dedicate so much time and effort into growing their audiences but if the customer is treated badly when they arrive at the theatre what’s the point?

I left the theatre that night feeling unhappy and unappreciated. We’d made a lot of effort and spent money to get there. What incentive is there for us to go back?

With this in mind we once again teamed up with the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) to host a series of lunch and learns around the topic of Customer Service. There will be everything from top level conversations for General Managers, a session on customer service in regards to diversity and accessibility and even a session on getting great customer service when you rely on volunteers in your front of house.

More information and registrations details are here.  I hope you’ll join us for a session or two.

Customers aren’t always right and hell they aren’t even always polite but at the end of day the shows we put on depend on them. I suspect we all got into this business for the love of art and on my hardest days I tried to remember that the lady yelling at me was doing it because she really really wanted to see the show.

So, what could the box office guy have done better that rainy night? Certainly a check on the weather and the number of unpicked up tickets and quick consult with the Stage Manager to hold the house for 5 minutes? Or maybe it would have been as simple as offering an exchange for another night? Or just being a little more sympathetic?

Shana Hillman

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