Basic Technology Makes Theater Customers Happier Customers (and maybe repeat customers!)

I nodded vigorously in agreement when I read last week’s NY times restaurant review by Pete Wells. Well’s frustration with the restaurant Rosemary’s failure to adopt the simplest of modern technologies – in his case a cell phone – negatively colored his entire dining experience.  I too recently had an experience at a theater, that for the want of basic technology (in my case Google Docs and Square) left me with a bad taste in my mouth and with no desire to patronize this theater company again.

The Square Credit Card Reader lets any theater company process credit cards

I know, I know, we are artists and can’t be bothered with that new fangled tech stuff – right? But we are also carrying the torch for one of the world’s oldest forms of human expression, and with our audiences in double digit rates of decline and the whole world turning to the internet for its entertainment, we are an industry facing a serious crisis. Customer service is more important for the survival of the American theater than ever before. At the same time we have tools available to us today that let even the smallest of theaters operate as if they were The Kennedy Center.  With audience churn being one of the main issues crippling theater budgets today, doesn’t it make sense to put customer service at the center of our business plans, no matter the size of our company?

My story… it was a Monday night – the night my friend was finally getting to premiere her one woman show and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything. Although she paid a fee to be in the festival, she was only allowed to issue comp tickets to producers. Hey! I’m a producer! So in June she gleefully put me on the comp list for her opening performance. One month later, I arrived at the theater, an eager excited audience member. I approached the ticket desk and gave my name…but their hand written comp ledger? My name wasn’t on it. Their back-up plan? To go backstage and ask the actress – yes the very actress who was preparing to premiere her one woman show in fifteen minutes if they should issue me a comp. That was obviously an unacceptable option – so I took out my wallet and handed them my debit card,but ahh….they only took cash.

So now formerly eager, excited customer (me) has not only not had my month old reservation honored, but now I have to leave the theater, wander the neighborhood in search of a  bodega with a cash machine, pay the corresponding fees that bodega cash machines charge, and run back to the theater to make the curtain. That excited, enthusiastic audience member? Now she is hassled, and annoyed.

It was really just a little thing- but it turned an eager customer into an annoyed one – and it was so easily avoided.

  1.  Google Docs! The are free! They are collaborative! All the festival participants could update the doc whenever it was convenient for them, and double check it’s accuracy at a moments’ notice with their phone.
  2. Square! I simply don’t understand not taking credit cards. I carry a Square with me everywhere I go. It is not much bigger than a quarter, and I  can use it to take a credit card from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Wouldn’t you think a business aiming to process hundreds of customers payments a day might do the same?

The show was really wonderful. The theater was lovely. I am actively looking for new projects that might be right for VirtualArtsTV – but after a quick glance at the company’s multi-page 8×11 glossy festival program, it went right into the trash. My experience with the festival was already negatively colored by their antiquated customer service and I just wasn’t motivated to purchase any more tickets.

Wouldn’t a theater festival want their customers to feel as if they are taken care of? Shouldn’t a festival’s goal be to inspire their audience members to come back – to buy tickets to other shows- to tell other people about their great theatrical experience so that they can sell more tickets (the audience to this wonderful show was about 30% full and appeared to be mostly friends and family)? When you make it difficult for your audience even before they enter the theater, what kind of loyalty are you building?

Making wonderful art is wonderful – making wonderful art that creates real revenue streams is a business – a business that will in turn support more wonderful art and more wonderful artists. Technology today allows us  to offer our audiences the same kind of customer service they experience at The Met.  Our survival depends on our taking advantage of it.



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