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The Enormous Customer Experience Opportunity in the Arts
Episode 64

The Enormous Customer Experience Opportunity in the Arts

CI to Eye with Robert Phillips

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

Robert and Erik discuss what the arts can learn from the hospitality industry and how The Cleveland Orchestra has made customer service part of its organizational culture. Robert also explains why arts organizations can benefit from focusing less on service recovery, less on "surprise and delight" and more on the everyday interactions with patrons.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for being here.

Robert Phillips: Thanks for having me, Erik.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I’m really excited to jump in and talk with you.

Robert Phillips: Sure.

Erik Gensler: You’re one of the few employees of a major American orchestra whose sole job is keeping patrons happy. Tell me a little bit about your role.

Robert Phillips: Sure, absolutely. My role sort of came to be. … obviously, starting in the early 2000s we entered the “age of the experience”—many economists were calling it that—and it’s been interesting to see the performing arts putting eggs into that basket, if you will. And so, it’s only been the last few years, essentially and my role at the Cleveland Orchestra is essentially what you would find in a Director of Guest Services or a Director of Front of House or something like that but really taking a very holistic, throughout-the-organization approach as to how we’re treating our guests and how we’re defining the word “guest” or “customer.” So at the Cleveland Orchestra, we define the word “guest” as any human being that you interact with via web, via email, via phone, in-person as a representative of the Cleveland Orchestra. And so, that can be colleague to colleague, that can be from an usher to a guest who’s coming to a concert, it can be a vendor to the finance team, and really making customer experience part of the entire organization. So, not only do I oversee front of house and sort of the hospitality of Severance Hall, where the Cleveland Orchestra performs, but also making it part of the way we do business, tying it to the strategic plan, and making sure that we are exceeding expectations at all levels of the customer experience and every single definition of that.

Erik Gensler: So, you start your job; what did you observe as the real opportunities and how did you go about implementing some of those changes?

Robert Phillips:: Sure. I think the major opportunity that we have in the arts right now is that there is no single performing arts center, museum, opera company, ballet company, what have you, that is the pinnacle, that is the one that is known for delivering the best possible hospitality. So, in the hotel world, that would be Ritz Carlton; in the entertainment world, that would be Disney; in grocery, that’s Trader Joe’s; online retail, Zappos; you can go on and on. In our industry, we don’t particularly have that yet and make it a point when I meet leaders around the arts to ask them, “Who’s your go-to for a great experience and great service?” and I usually get, “Oh, I’m not really sure,” or I get, “Oh, I went here at this place once and it was really nice,” and so I think with an organization like the Cleveland Orchestra, we have that opportunity to make sure that we’re the one, that when people know, “Who’s the organization, who’s the orchestra that’s doing this the right way?” that it is the Cleveland Orchestra. Day one on the job is about building relationships. There’s a double-edged sword when it comes to customer service of, in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s, customer service was sort of a by-the-book type department. You know, you read the lines, you scripted, you went through all that and some people have a bad taste in their mouth from that. If you’ve worked as a server at a chain restaurant, you were told, “This is how you greet people. This is how you ask if they want the specials or refill a drink, anything like that.” Our world has been opened up because are so many organizations dedicating themselves to the customer experience. So, in that sense, it’s about getting trust throughout the organization, going to our Executive Director and saying, “These are the things that we’re going to do here together. I need you to be transparent to the staff about that.” And then, having an opportunity to address the staff and musicians so week two on the job, week two or three, there was a town hall meeting with everyone and I got to give 20 minutes on why customer experience is important in our world and what we’re looking to do from there.
Erik : That’s awesome. And so, where were the real opportunities?

Robert Phillips: The real opportunities at first was to develop a program. And one of the things that I’ve always stressed in every role that I’ve had in the arts is, we need to actually flip how we’re tackling customer experience on its head. Since it’s a new venture for the arts, I feel like we get really excited in museums and performing arts centers about the neat initiatives, about the surveys, about the surprise and delight … what are these fun little things that are sexy and are going to sell and are going to wow people when we present at conferences? That being said, our efforts are better spent on the early onset of creating a culture around customer experience on developing behaviors. And so, I developed a program unique to the way we do business. There are other customer service, customer experience programs out there that are focused on hospitality, focused on retail, but the way we do business in the performing arts is vastly different. One of the examples that I most like to give is, we are on a journey to make the customer forget that they spent money. So, if you dine out at a restaurant or you go to a hotel, traditional hospitality, you have your entire experience before you spend your money. And so, the hardest decision actually comes at the end of your meal. Whereas an our world, a museum admission, a ticket to a concert, you do the hardest part of your journey at the very beginning and then it’s on us as an organization to make you forget, to take you out of that world and make you forget you spent money and just really relish in the experience, the beautiful music, the surroundings of the hall, the friendly people that are going to bring you that experience. And so, the major opportunity was to first focus on behaviors. It’s not the most exciting part of customer experience. And so, it’s proving value in why that’s important to focus on behaviors first. And when we have a common language throughout the organization on how we’re interacting with customers on our guest experience brand, which at the Cleveland Orchestra is three words—it’s extraordinary, dynamic, and warm—when we’re delivering on that kind of experience, then we have more tools in our toolkit to build surprise-and-delight programs or fun little things that are going to sell. We’ve done that, too, and that’s exciting but I’m most proud of the workshop that we’ve put together. The entire organization participated in these workshops. So, we had 400 plus volunteers, staff members, several of the musicians attended the workshops, we had board members attend the workshops, and it was so great to have our Executive Director sitting next to someone from hall staff sitting next to someone from IT sitting next to someone from the artistic team, all sharing in this new vision for customer experience from a behaviors-focused standpoint at the onset of this. As an aside, these workshops are really valuable, too, because it helped our internal culture, too. And so, one of my favorite stories from this is, our artistic administrator came up to me two weeks after he took the workshop and he said, “You know, I’d never really known a Darryl’s name, who works on our hall staff,” who, you know, helps clean the hall and make it pristine. “I’ve seen him around the hall the time, but he was at my table during the workshop and now when I see him during concerts I say, ‘Hey Daryl!’” and I didn’t really see that as a benefit going into it. It became one of those things that really stood out as a major perk of this larger initiative.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, because isn’t customer experience first about the internal culture within your organization?

Robert Phillips: Definitely, definitely. I would say, most of the organizations that are crushing it on the customer experience front are doing it internally first before executing that on an external level and then, so, they have that internal culture. They’re treating their clients really well. That’s one of the things that I like to stress with the IT department. You know, I am the IT department’s customer when my computer breaks and the service that they extend to me should be that same level of that same reputation as one of the ticket takers at Severance Hall who’s interacting with a guest arriving for a concert.

Erik Gensler: Well, it’s about psychological safety, right? If your team internally feels safe and heard and supported, they’re now in a position to support your patrons.

Robert Phillips: Absolutely. Yeah. If once they buy into what we’re trying to achieve, with the type of experience we’re trying to create—extraordinary, dynamic, and warm—they feel empowered to execute on that. One of the things that we talk about, too, is we don’t script as part of the workshops we’re doing on customer experience. Anytime we talk about the words that we’re using, it’s a menu of options available that fit under our guest experience values or our guest experience brand. And so, when we talk about the menu of options available, if someone asks you for directions to the restroom, you wouldn’t want to say “Uh-huh,” or, “No problem,” or, “Totally.” That’s the one that I have to catch myself on. You would want to say things like, “Certainly,” “Absolutely,” “My pleasure,” “I’d be happy to,” and that’s … the word that you find in that menu of options lets your personality shine through.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) So, these workshops that you did, can you talk us through what some of the more meaningful exercises were?

Robert Phillips: I think one of the best things that came out of it was showing that customer experience values aren’t just words. So, our customer experience values are Personalized, Passionate, Team, Welcoming, and Exceed Expectations. And on paper, those are all agreeable terms. Yes, of course, those are the things that we want to do with each of our guests, but to see people realize what those words mean in the context of representing the Cleveland Orchestra was really, really valuable. So, one of the examples that I like to give is, we all have our own unique reaction based on our own set of values if someone cuts us off while we’re driving a car. You might make a gesture. You might say a word that you wouldn’t say in a professional setting. Some people might just let them go. Some people might snarkily wave; that’s what I do. But then I flip it on its head and I say, “If you’re driving a car with the Cleveland Orchestra logo plastered on the side of it and someone cuts you off, what are you going to do now?” and that’s how we frame up those values. We then frame up our standards, so, normally, the more eye-roll inducing parts of customer service, so greeting a guest and saying goodbye to a guest and manifesting those values in your interactions and your human interactions. We frame that up in a way of two things. It’s continuous improvement and awareness. I really don’t think humans need to be fixed and a lot of training and workshop programs take the approach of fixing and the word training actually implies fixing. And rather, we use the term workshops. We’re developing people. No one is a perfect customer service professional. Even the best out there still have slip-ups from time to time and so it’s that commitment to continuous improvement and awareness that we really stress. I always go back to driving a car again. So, one of my favorite stats about driving is, if you ask an American, “Are you a better driver than the average American?” 80% say yes. And then if you ask an American, “Do you ever text while driving?” 60% say yes. And then if you ask Americans, “Do you know that it’s unsafe to text while driving?” 91% say yes. So, the numbers don’t really add up and while we all might be the best driver that we know or better than the average American driver, we all still have a close call on the road from time to time. We come to that four way stop, we have hundreds of times before we look to our left. We step on the gas, we see someone to our right, we slam on the brake and we go, “I got to start looking right there,” and you’re still better than the average American driver but what comes to that is you’re more aware and you committed to improving and our approach to customer experience should be the same. And so, it was valuable for me to talk about these ways of improving and being aware of the experience that you’re delivering, being transparent, admitting my faults, you know, I like saying the word “totally” in a casual environment with friends. I can’t say that if I’m interacting with a donor at the Cleveland Orchestra if we’re not at that kind of level. And so, admitting our own faults, really peeling back the layers on why this is important, and watching people’s eyes open up to this is important and it is really relevant to my job. The stat that I’m most proud of is, we did a survey after the workshops and when we do these workshops with other organizations too, the metric that I really look to is, we ask a question that’s, “The workshop materials were relevant to my role/ job,” and when I do these workshops, I’m terrified that someone in a more back-of-house role is going to say, “I disagree with that statement.” And the response has been 92% of the respondents agree or strongly agree with that statement and about half of the people who are there—a little less than half, 40%—are in back-of-house roles. And so, that speaks to me and that’s really the value that I think we’re showing what the workshops.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of surveys and measurement, since you’ve put a lot of these practices into place, how have you been able to measure the effectiveness of them?

Robert Phillips: Yeah, absolutely. When I started at the Cleveland Orchestra, about month two or three, we developed a comprehensive experience survey. The Cleveland Orchestra Marketing Department, which is what Customer Experience lives in there, really likes to keep score on wins and losses and so I thought, “Well, Customer Experience can be part of that, too.” It’s hard to quantify how people feel about things, but we did our best in this regard. And so, we developed a survey that branches out so it only asks you questions based on the experiences you have. If you didn’t go to the box office, you’re not going to get box office questions. If you didn’t go to the restaurant, you’re not going to get those restaurant questions. And we used the values that I created for our guest experience workshops to measure how each department was doing. And then, we distill that into what’s called our “experience score.” It’s pretty simple arithmetic. In our Monday report that we send out to the whole staff, we publicize that experience score and we track it. We have to make it part of the organization and so everyone can hold our feet to the fire a little bit and make sure that we’re delivering on what we say we’re going to deliver. That first score that comes out, we don’t really know if an 83 is high or not, but after we do those workshops with the entire organization and it jumps up to an 87, now we know it’s working. The other aspect of it that I like measuring is, I always like asking people how they felt after their Cleveland Orchestra experience and we give them a list of, like, 30 words that they can choose from and one of the things that we’ve noticed and we’ve adjusted from here is there seems to be a gap with our older customers and our subscribers in how they feel after their Cleveland Orchestra experience versus our younger customers and our single ticket buyers. And so, our older customers and our subscribers, the only word that they choose at a higher percentage for how they felt after their Cleveland Orchestra experience is “proud.”

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Robert Phillips: And the single ticket buyers and the younger customers choose the more emotion, the more exciting type of words, they feel inspired or they feel fulfilled or they feel excited after their experience. And so, it’s interesting for us to look at these and say, “Well, how are we going to communicate with subscribers now, knowing that pride is a motivator?” We’ve even changed how we look to our retail operation based on this. So, now we have apparel … The New York Times called us “America’s finest orchestra” last year. Now, being boastful has its pros and cons but now we have a shirt that has a little drawing of Franz Welser-Möst, our Music Director, and it says, “America’s finest” in quotations to appeal to that set that’s proud to be a Cleveland Orchestra customer.

Erik Gensler: It’s clear that at that deeper level of engagement, they really have ownership of the institution.

Robert Phillips: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: So, not only are they experiencing it as an “other,” which is inspired, but if you’re proud, you feel like part of this, you’re connected to it more deeply. I think that’s a really interesting opportunity in terms of deepening engagement or finding a way to get people to connect at the level that they actually feel proud of the institution.

Robert Phillips: It’s a deep form of loyalty. Those subscribers don’t feel pride out of habit of coming to the orchestra. They feel pride because they feel like they represent the orchestra in some sort of way, too.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah.

Robert Phillips: And so, how do we move people through that pipeline? That ties back to what we’re saying in our workshops, the experience we’re trying to create. So, one of the things that we’re just about to start doing is we’re going to start identifying people in the pipeline that are about to donate, up their donation, or are multi-ticket buyer and might start subscribing. And one of the things we’re going to start to do—and I’m really excited about this—is one of the benefits to being in the Cleveland Orchestra employees. You get comp tickets and one of the things that we’re gonna start doing is when you get comp tickets, the box office will seat you next to someone or near someone who’s on that part of their pipeline journey and we’re going to put the supply a drink voucher to them and all we’re saying is, “Staff member, strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Say, ‘Oh yeah, I work at the Cleveland Orchestra. I’ve been here this long.’ Start chatting them up and then just really authentically say, ‘You know what? I always have a few of these on me. Here’s a drink voucher. It was really nice to meet you and I hope to see you again sometime.’” Those sorts of things start to move people further and further and develop that pride that you’re talking about when they’ve already become a customer, they’ve already been a customer for a specific period of time.

Erik Gensler: It’s the deeper connection and it’s the human part of it where-

Robert Phillips: Definitely.

Erik Gensler: … I feel like in the last fifteen years, all these technological advances have allowed us to think we’re being personalized in our marketing. I think businesses think 70% of their communication is personalized. Consumers think it’s, like, under 20%, right?

Robert Phillips: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: There’s a big gap there. But what his personal? Having a one-on-one conversation with someone who works at the organization. I think it’s a great idea.

Robert Phillips: Definitely. I mean, the goal of us is to be authentic and genuine and when we do a simple mail merge and put someone’s name into an email, that’s expected now, but it’s those human moments that really stick out. It’s why our workshop material has informed our surprise-and-delight program, for example. So, there are a lot of organizations out there … We can take a lot of cues from the hospitality world and the way that they do business. The way we do business is exceptionally different of course, but the hospitality world knows how to personalize an experience for you. Now, some of that is the product. When you stay at a hotel, when you go to a restaurant, you order your meal, you stay in your room. It’s yours and it’s special and you ingest that. And when you go to a museum or when you go to a concert, it’s like 2,000 people showed up for their dinner reservation all at the same time and we all ordered the hamburger and we’re all gonna eat the hamburger together. So, what are the sort of things-

Erik Gensler: More like a lasagna.

Robert Phillips: (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Like a platter. Everyone’s getting a piece. (laughs)

Robert Phillips: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. We all get a tiny little piece of that cake, of that lasagna. So, it’s by personalizing that we make sure that that Lasagna has the ingredients that you like in it and then the person sitting next to you, it has the ingredients that they like it. And so, with our surprise-and-delight program, we want to make sure to have that personal touch. We don’t want it to be passive. We don’t want to give our guests a chore. What I mean by a “chore” is, you know, oftentimes I’ll hear of an organization saying, “We scan the tickets and the ticket scanner informs our usher that it’s a first-time visitor and they should go to the welcome table and get a welcome gift. When that customer approaches that ticket-taker, that information is unknown to them and then they’re learning that information right in the moment and the customer’s seeing it live and it doesn’t have that genuine quality because it’s right in front of the customer. They saw the ticket taker, the tickets scanner, go, “Beep, boop, beep. This is a first time guest,” and then sending them to the welcome table is a chore for a guest. It’s another thing to do on that journey. Helping remind them, “Oh yeah, I’m a customer here and I spent money.” It would be like going to a restaurant on your anniversary, sitting down at the table, the server coming up to you and saying, “Hi folks, welcome to the restaurant. We’re so happy to have you celebrating your anniversary with us. We’d love to give you a complimentary bottle of champagne. If you go up to the bar, they’d be happy to give that to you.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robert Phillips: We can learn those lessons from hospitality. So, with our first-timer program on our website, there’s a question in the ticket purchase path that says, “This is my first visit to the Cleveland Orchestra. This is my first visit to severance hall.” Once you click that, it will create a customer service issue in our CRM system, Tessitura, and my house management team can pull a report from that that’s sorted by the section of the hall that they’re on that shows the home state of that guest and then they disperse that out to the head ushers with welcome pins, welcome gifts, CDs, things of that nature, and then they’re going up to those people already knowing their name with the surprising info that, “Hey, we know it’s your first time and that little box you checked wasn’t just for stats or numbers or data or anything like that. We wanted to come say hello, introduce ourselves. Let us know if you need anything else. Here’s a little welcome gift and we’re so happy that you’re here at a Cleveland Orchestra concert.” Now, we can get awesome data from that. We can measure the success of programs like that and we’re really happy that anyone from the state of Ohio who gets a visit is three times more likely to return in six months to a Cleveland Orchestra concert than someone who doesn’t get a personal visit who’s in-state. Obviously the out-of-state guests, tourists, that’s a little harder to measure, but we hope that when they come back to Ohio, they’ll say, “My experience at severance hall was really great. We have to say that again.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah, so say that again. If … so, normalizing the data, only people who live in Ohio, if they have that interaction and got that gift, their likelihood of returning six months is three times higher?

Robert Phillips: Three times greater than someone who does not get that personal visit from an usher. Sometimes, the numbers are so high and so great, so if we have Lang Lang on the program, if we have Uchida on the program, we have so many first-timers that our staff just can’t get to them all. And so, that gives us the numbers to measure back and forth on the success of programs like this. But it’s allowing us that personalized approach. It’s not a seat note. You know, seat notes are a little more passive of a way to acknowledge a guest who’s coming to your organization. It’s that recognition of your first time, putting a face to a name, and going from there.

Erik Gensler: That’s great. I want to talk about service recovery, which I know you have a lot of feelings about.

Robert Phillips: Of all dissatisfied customers, 4% share their feedback with the company. 4%.

Erik Gensler: Of satisfied-

Robert Phillips: Of dissatisfied customers, yeah. 4% of dissatisfied customers will share their feedback with the organization. 91% never return. Every time that I get feedback from a customer who was unhappy with their concert experience, I let them know. I say, “Thank you so much because you’re 4%; there is another 96% of people out there that I’m not hearing from-“

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robert Phillips: “… that we’re not able to adapt.” One of the things that we shoot ourselves in the foot about when it comes to service recovery is, we use my least-favorite word in the customer experience world, which is “complaint.” We use the word “complaint” all the time and if you really think about the word “complaint,” it’s a defense mechanism that kicks in for us. Being on the receiving end of negative feedback is really hard. As a boss, for you, I’m sure it is, too, right? It’s hard to put yourself past that and when we say the word “complaint,” we automatically label someone a complainer and no one likes to be a complainer. So, we do a disservice to ourselves when we say the word “complaint.” Sometimes, guests will even contact me and say, “I have a complaint,” and I love when they do that cause I get to say, “This is not a complaint at all. This is genuine feedback. This is going to help us improve the experience for each and every guest and I thank you for this.” We also lack the ability in our apologies—this is on the level of complaint—for example, one of the things that one of my hospitality and travel pet peeves is that I enjoy flying Delta. They’re my preferred airline.

Erik Gensler: Oh, we can do a whole podcast about Delta love. (laughs)

Robert Phillips: Great. I love it. But when you go to the Delta website and you want to give feedback, there are two options and it says, “I want to provide a compliment or voice a complaint,” and it’s right there and they automatically label you a complainer. It’s like they don’t want to hear it.

Erik Gensler: Wow, interesting.

Robert Phillips: And every time—and it’s like two or three times I’ve sent feedback to Delta—I always put it in the form and I say, “By the way, it still bugs me that I use the word ‘complaint.’ You should change that to ‘feedback.’”

Erik Gensler: But they do send the survey after every flight.

Robert Phillips: They do.

Erik Gensler: And they’re asking for feedback.

Robert Phillips: Yep, they sure do. One of the other ways that we lose the ability to make situations right is our inability to apologize in an authentic way, but a lot of times the apology is halfhearted. I stayed at hotel in Vancouver a few years ago with my wife and when we woke up the next morning, the day we had to leave, there was a note under the door saying, “The water is going to be shut off between 6:00 AM and 10:00 AM for these rooms.” Our Room was impacted and we needed to leave before 10:00 AM so we didn’t get to get a shower in. They slipped the note under the door the night before and I went to the front desk and I said, “So, did you know that the water is going to be shut off in advance?” And they said, “Yeah, we’ve known for a few days.” And I said, “Well, I really wish you would let us know at check-in.” So, I wrote the general manager a letter. We did get a free night stay out of it, but the response to the feedback started as, “We were sorry to learn about your negative experience,” so-

Erik Gensler: You knew.

Robert Phillips: They knew!

Erik Gensler: Yeah!

Robert Phillips: But really dissecting those words, “We were sorry to learn.” I’m getting a response from a human being who is saying “we,” not “I,” and he’s the leader of the organization. And then he saying, “We were sorry to learn.” Think of … I mean, we hear that all the time, but really think about what that means. It means they’re sorry for themselves and not sorry for you.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robert Phillips: Instead of, “I am sorry.” We’re terrible at apologizing.

Erik Gensler: “I’m sorry you had that experience.”

Robert Phillips: Yeah. “I’m sorry you were unsatisfied with your experience.” We’re awful at apologizing. Service recovery is a golden opportunity to make things right. We’ve all been to that restaurant that something went wrong and they fixed the problem so well that we ended up feeling more loyalty to that restaurant than if we just had the plain old vanilla experience. That’s incredible if you think about it. Service recovery is a gold mine of developing loyalty with guests. One of the stories that I like to tell about Severance Hall is, I was with one of our house managers in the lower lobby and a guest came up to us at the end of a concert and said, “I lost my cell phone,” and she was really distraught and we radioed to the hall staff and we said, “Can you look by this seat or look for the cell phone?” We stood by her and we asked if she enjoyed the concert to take our mind off of it. And they found the cell phone and she was overjoyed and we could tell like, wow, she probably ended up having a better experience than otherwise. And now we joke and say we should steal everyone’s cell phones when they come in for the concert and hide them throughout the hall just to fast-track that loyalty.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) I really believe the obstacle is the way, is by having those bumps in the road that allow you to identify what the problems are and it hurts while you’re going through it, but if you honestly deal with it, you’ll be better on the other side.

Robert Phillips: Yeah, yeah. It’s one of the major reasons why in our initial workshop at the Cleveland Orchestra, I’m a firm believer that we shouldn’t even discuss service recovery at first. We love talking about service recovery situations because they’re notable and they stand out. But in reality, they’re about 1% of the interactions that we have. There are 99% of the other interactions that go just fine, great, even exceptional. And so, we should be focusing more of our efforts and more of our energy on the interactions, on those 99% that go just fine and when we do that, again, we have more tools in our toolkit to handle the service recovery issues. Then, we can open up that topic and be able to address those issues, see the value in someone bringing negative feedback to our attention, and move on from there.

Erik Gensler: Interesting. You’re saying you don’t wanna talk about service recovery,you don’t want to talk about surprise-and-delight, so it’s really just about the day-to-day, general interactions and getting that piece right.

Robert Phillips: Definitely. I think we put too many resources on the dissenters, on the minority, because those are the things that hurt our feelings, when most of our guests have great experiences. So, why not work on making our reputation with those guests? So, I’ll give you a great example is, when I worked at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle and your confirmation email and on the back of the tickets it said, “Please refrain from wearing strong scents and perfume,” and I said, “Yeah, we have to get rid of that.” And the ticket office staff was like, “No, no, no, because then it reminds people and we don’t want that happening and when people come to us and complain”—this is before that I said, “Hey, we can’t use the word complaint—“you know, it helps and we say, ‘Well, we tell people not to use it.’” If you think about it, the person who reads that and notices it isn’t the person who’s wearing the strong scents and perfume. The person who wears strong scents or perfume is going to do it anyway. And so, if we get that negative feedback, we can handle it on a case-by-case basis because, again, we’ve dedicated ourselves to building great experiences that we shouldn’t ruin the experience for the 99% of guests just to appease the 1% of guests. At Severance Hall, we have signs all the way up through the hall that has this little, like, “no smoking” sign with a cell phone on it and it says, “Turn off your cell phones,” and I’d be willing to bet that the people who see that and notice that sign already have their cell phone off, anyway, and those who cell phone is going to go off, those signs aren’t working on them.

Erik Gensler: Right, so why even have them? Yeah.

Robert Phillips: And so, we’ve had all this negative energy in the hall all around with this, like, “no smoking” sign, rather than talking about how this is an escape, you know? “Leave your electronic devices behind. Relish in the beauty of this music,” rather than appealing to the dissenters.

Erik Gensler: Right, right. I love that. So we met both giving a TN Inspire! talk at the Tessitura conference this year and one of the things that stuck with me from your TN Inspire! was this stat: customers who have a positive experience tell an average of nine people, customers who have a negative experience tell sixteen. I mean, the takeaway, the big takeaway is, people are talking.

Robert Phillips: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s … if you think about how we form memories, it’s through your expectations being exceeded or your expectations not being met and so, that nine versus sixteen, I’d be willing to bet all nine of them had their expectations exceeded and all sixteen of the negative, their expectations were not met. When your expectations are simply met, you don’t form a memory as a human being. And so, we obviously want to be on the good side of that, of exceeding expectations. It’s one of our guest experience values at the Cleveland Orchestra. But it weighs more in our mind when we have that negative experience. You are three to four times more likely to remember a negative experience than you are a positive experience. That really hurts our customer journey in the long run. If I went to a Cleveland Orchestra Concert and I interacted with you and you were great and then I interacted with one of your colleagues and they were great and then I interacted with someone else who wasn’t so great, it erases the good work that you and your colleague did in the mind of the guest. And so, those negative really outweigh the positive. So, focusing on what can we do to make sure that each guest is heard. How do we truly personalize the experience for each and every guest to make sure, again, that that lasagna is going to taste exactly the way they want?

Erik Gensler: Yeah. The listeners to the podcast have probably heard me talk about the flywheel—certainly anyone who’s been to Boot Camp—but the flywheel is just a model of engagement that is, attract+engage+delight squared, divided by friction. And if you … the flywheel is your word-of-mouth engine, right? The growth of your organization and the word of mouth piece is the delight piece and the friction is about customer experience. And so, when you look at that equation, I think marketers are still very focused on attracting, which is interrupting people who may not care, right? All of our marketing dollars are spent trying to get new people in the door through advertising, rather than looking at delight and friction, which are really the drivers of that equation. Delight gets squared, so if someone has a great experience, they’re going to tell nine people. If they have a negative experience, meaning they have lots of friction, they’re going to tell sixteen, so of course those two things … And that’s, I think, modern marketing because we’re all so hyper-connected and as an organization, the power is no longer in our ability to control the story. Our power is in our ability to give frictionless human experiences that people want to talk about.

Robert Phillips: Absolutely. One of the things that I mention to the staff a lot is, we should not expect things of our guests. Our guests should expect things of us. So, we don’t make anyone do anything. I’ll be in meetings a lot or ta conference sessions where I say, “And we want to make sure our guests do this and we want to make our guests do this,” and you lose your ability to let a guest choose their own journey. We’re opening up a new subscriber donor lounge and it’s going to be adjacent to the concert hall. It opens in a week, actually, a little over a week, and there are two televisions in the space and we wanted to create a space that had something that you couldn’t do anywhere else in Severance Hall. And right now, you can’t watch the Cleveland Indians or the Cleveland Browns game before a concert or at intermission if you want to put it on. And Cleveland’s a big sports town and so, we need to recognize that with our guests. We’re very proud. And a colleague came up to me and said, “Well what if someone wants to stay in the lounge during the first half of the concert cause it’s a piece they’re not interested in, watch the Tribe game, and then come for the second half? They’re not going to see the music, they’re not going to see the Cleveland Orchestra and what they came to see. And I said, “That’s okay. That’s really fine because we’re letting the guests choose their own journey. They’re in our hall. They’re partaking us, they’re building loyalty through one way or another, and I’m really okay with a guest choosing one thing over another thing, as long as it’s a good experience and they’re remembering that positivity.

Erik Gensler: Is there a non-sports lounge?

Robert Phillips: There is a non-sports lounge. It’s called the Opus Lounge.

Erik Gensler: So, if I don’t want to be exposed to the sports, I can go to the-

Robert Phillips: You can go to the Opus Lounge, which opened last year.

Erik Gensler: Okay. (laughs)

Robert Phillips: It has craft cocktails named after Cleveland Orchestra Tours.

Erik Gensler: Amazing. One of the things you talked about in your TN Inspire! talk was the power of storytelling and I would love for you to take a little bit of time to talk about how storytelling ties into customer experience.

Robert Phillips: One of the most important things about storytelling is the power to inspire. When we tell a good story, our brains synchronize, our brains connect. We feel the things in that story that we wouldn’t use if it weren’t through the medium of a story. What I talk about with the staff a lot in the workshops is, I find stories that are relatable to what we’re doing, to create transparency around the experience we’re trying to create. One of my favorite ones that I like to share is, we have a former executive assistant who’s still on the staff and during the workshop, she raised her hand cause we were talking about that close call on the road thing—continuous improvement and awareness; always try to stay aware of how you can improve—and she said, “I’d like to tell a story,” and I’m thankful I got her permission to tell this story forever because it’s great and it reveals how we’re all on this path to become the best that we can be. She said she woke up one morning when she was our Executive Assistant, didn’t feel so great, came into the office, got a call from a guest who had some negative feedback. She said, “Well, I’ll share this with the Executive Director and we’ll hope to resolve this. And she said, “I think I handled it fine. You know, I wasn’t in the best mood, but I was doing okay.” She said, “And then I saw some of my friends and then I had lunch and then in the afternoon, this same guest called back to check in on the status of things and about a minute or two into the conversation, he said, ‘Boy, am I glad I got you on the phone. The person I spoke to this morning was not helpful.’”

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robert Phillips: And I love that story because … and now we tell it in every single workshop because it shows that we’re all going to make mistakes. It’s okay. We’re creating transparency about- I love that. “Make mistakes” on the wall right behind us here.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robert Phillips: … because that’s the only way we’re going to improve henceforth. And so, rather than me saying in the workshop, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I do sometimes and other people do. Onto the next topic,” I can tell that story and then people are going to have that reaction like you just had and say, “Yeah, I’ve been there. I realize what that’s like.” Storytelling’s also helpful, too, because it gives us an opportunity for public recognition. So, I love to tell positive stories because we expect to hear negative stories and so, positive stories really stand out to us. And so, if we have an usher briefing and we get the experience survey and there’s a great story about a particular usher in there, the next time that that usher’s there, I’ll say, “Oh, hey, by the way, someone filled out our experience survey about Barb and they said that Barb really helped them find their seat, answered questions about the concert, and really got them excited to see things.” Now, not only does Barb get a little public recognition, but the other people around Barb, the other ushers, are saying, “I want me some of that public recognition, too,” and it inspires them to kind of up their game a little bit also.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your final question, which is your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the Executive Director, staff, board, of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Robert Phillips: I think most of all is that customer experience efforts are not one-size-fits-all anymore. Once you really dive into the behaviors that are going to create a great experience for each individual type of guest, then you can develop a program that’s unique to your organization, unique to the way that you do business. These things can be creative. These things can be exciting. It doesn’t have to be eye-roll inducing. The days of that customer service textbook are gone. And so, I guess in the end, customer service, customer experience can be fun. We don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. We don’t have to exist in a bubble, but we can also appreciate the unique way that we do business. I always tell my staff that the sports world has it tough. We’re both in the event space in a way, but when you go to a sporting event, your team could lose.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robert Phillips: And it’s on that venue to make sure that you leave, even though the team loses, and says, “I had a great experience, still.” For us, the Cleveland Orchestra doesn’t lose concerts. So, we have that opportunity to elevate the experience that higher and really, truly make memories by personalizing the experience and exceeding expectations and one size doesn’t fit all. We can really have fun when it comes to creating great experiences for our guests.

Erik Gensler: Great, well, thank you so much.

Robert Phillips: Thanks, Erik.

About Our Guests
Robert Phillips
Robert Phillips
Director of Customer Experience, The Cleveland Orchestra

As Director of Customer Experience at The Cleveland Orchestra, Robert Phillips leads efforts in creating a new vision for the arts and culture customer experience. He previously led similar efforts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and The 5th Avenue Theatre. Robert has also worked in hospitality consulting for BARE International and FreemanGroup Solutions.

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