The Customer Is Sometimes Very Wrong

Earlier this month, Thomas Cott’s You’ve Cott Mail had some stories about dealing with divas. While there are a few divas I have had to deal with, I actually feel like I have encountered fewer abrasive personalities in the arts over the last few years than when I was younger. It may just be that I am more confident now than I was in the early part of my career and I have enough experience dealing with such people that I either 1) identify them immediately and avoid becoming involved in the first place or 2) identify them immediately and take preemptive action to diminish opportunities for conflict.

I have actually had the occasion to pull customers aside and tell them I won’t tolerate them treating my staff in a certain manner more recently than saying the same to an artist. Of course, as I mentioned, looking over a touring artist’s contract you can often prepare for potential problems months prior to their arrival. You really don’t know if an audience member/renter will cause a problem until the moment it occurs.

Which is not to say you can’t channel your inner boy scout and be prepared.

Cott cites a blog entry by Seth Godin who mentions that it is tougher for people to get away with being a jerk because technology allows us to both learn about problematic people more effectively and identify alternatives.

While this is true for the providers of services, this is also true for the consumers. Performers can find out about bad experiences others have had at different venues and either avoid them or take steps to ensure their needs are met.

But it is also true for our customers. We often don’t talk about using this side of technology. We celebrate the fact that technology allows us to offer better customer service by recording customer preferences, noting how we disappointed them in the past so we can do better in the future and rewarding them for their record of loyalty. This is as it should be. Our focus should absolutely be on providing better service.

However, we should also value the contributions of our staff, collaborators, partners, etc, to our success and make an effort to provide a positive work environment and experience. Corporations apparently need to spend billions paying bonuses to retain the top talent, it behooves us to spend a little time making notes and taking steps to retain valued employees.

The same technology that allows you to remember your customer’s preferences so that they don’t have to reiterate them at every interaction also allows you to note that they give your staff a hard time, press them with heavy demands when renting your facility due to their lack of preparation or frequently challenge their credit card charges.

Making notes allows you to address these issues in advance of the next encounter in an effort to improve your relationship and experience–and take appropriate action if the changes don’t emerge.

Obviously, most companies aren’t going to get into discussing negative experiences with their customers over the internet the way customers will about them. (Though you may be sorely tempted!!!) However, when I wrote a few of these examples, I had particular instances in mind. The situation with people challenging their credit card statement in a serial manner has actually happened. Being on a ticketing system which shares a database of names and addresses allows us to serve our customers without repeatedly asking them to wait while we enter their personal information and it also allows us to provide warnings to colleagues about who is habitually trying to get out of paying for their tickets at venues around town.

The problem with flagging people for negative interactions is that it can be abused to take revenge for petty slights. Which is one of the reasons few companies encourage these sort of notes in customer records. Not to mention the records might be subpenaed or hacked so you don’t want to write anything you wouldn’t say in public.

But for those egregious cases where people make your staff miserable, you owe it to everyone to keep proper records. Time makes memories fade and problems don’t seem as serious later on…until the person does something to remind you why you didn’t want them back. In non-profits there is a lot of staff turnover so good notes can help smooth transitions by maintaining a portion of the organizational memory.

Good notes can help you strengthen your relationships with the majority of your customers by identifying their needs and preferences, but also prevent you from letting the minority of your customers divert time and resources more constructively spent on the bulk of your customer base.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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