Recognizing Your Customers

There has been a post on The Drucker Exchange that has been nagging at the edge of my unconscious for a couple weeks now. Actually, it was one line from a news piece about how the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has been able to replace bridges in days rather than years.

“The highway department didn’t use to see the drivers as customers,” Frank DePaola, administrator of the highway division for the department, told the Times. “For a while there, the highway department was so focused on construction and road projects, it’s almost as if the contractors became their customers.”

There is obviously a lesson here for all businesses, including arts organizations about taking a step back and re-evaluating who your customer is. Often times it is multiple people.

Adam Thurman illustrated this in a post he made yesterday about buying a suit.

“He told me that he understood that no one really needs a suit…
He understood that people aren’t really paying for a suit, they are paying to work with a person that truly gives a damn about how they look. They are paying for the feeling they get when they look good.

It takes a certain humility to embrace that thought. It takes a humble artist to understand that it isn’t all about her or her art, it’s about the audience and the feeling they get from the experience.”

I actually took the time to follow a link in the Drucker Exchange post to one of Peter Drucker’s books, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices where he talks about the fact that there are often many customers that have to be pleased. For example, in some cases, it might be both the consumer and a government regulator, each of which have vastly different definitions of what they value.

Another example Drucker gives addresses how people’s priorities change over time–a teenage girl wants the most stylish shoes with price being a lesser concern and durability being of no concern. Her older sister (or the same girl in a few years) will have these same priorities in different proportions.

Arts organizations have seen this effect. When people reach a certain age, they tend to gravitate toward the arts more frequently than when they were younger because their priorities change. The challenge being faced now is that overall social priorities have gradually shifted over time as well so while people’s priorities still mature over time, the way they choose to express those priorities are manifesting in a different manner.

So in the context of all this, one of the challenges I constantly face in serving my customers is the perception that our theatre is hard to find and get to. Even though I recognize this is a need to be served, it really confounds me and is therefore somewhat akin to my not recognizing who my customers are.

There are standard department of transportation road signs directing people to us from 2-3 miles out. To get to the theatre from the highway, you make a right, go three lights, make left, go to the bottom of the hill, make a right, make a left and you are pretty much delivered to the campus. It is generally straight drives and right angles. There are no confusing one way streets to navigate. Everything is well lit and on major thoroughfares with regular signs. Parking is free and plentiful.

I understand that people might overlook the signs, obvious though they are. We offer directions and maps for download off our website that include reverse directions so that you can get back home. We have copies of those directions available in the lobby as well as people depart.

We have a dedicated directions line you can direct dial to, which from the feedback we have gotten, I suspect people are listening to on their cellphones as they drive.

My suspicion is that “hard to find” really means they are unfamiliar with the location because they don’t drive by the neighborhood on a regular basis. We are separated from the local retail area by an interstate and there is no reason to drive across unless you attend school or live in the neighborhood.

The other problem is that most people probably use GPS or Google Maps instead of checking our website for directions. Unfortunately, the shortest distance route actually makes you get off the highway three miles early and takes you through a zillion stop lights. At certain times of the day, that route can easily add an hour travel time due to traffic.

These aren’t things I can solve, though I am always looking for options. One thing I will try to do is communicate the sources of reliable information more frequently via various channels before people embark on a trip to the theatre.

If anyone has suggestions or stories of how you solved this sort of problem, I would love to hear about them.

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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