Pickles and Patrons

by James Haro

“The customer is ALWAYS right.”

This philosophy was pounded into my brain in my teenage years while working for the world-famous burger chain that is In-N-Out. The California fastfood institution bows down at the altar of customer service and demands their employees do as well, and it pays off. The satisfaction you SHOULD find at all In-N-Out stores does not only come from the product, it comes in how it’s delivered. “You need 8 extra packets of sauce? Coming right up.” “You didn’t want onions even though you explicitly asked for them? We’ll take care of that for you.” I don’t think I’m violating any terms of the contract I signed with them when I was hired by revealing these trade secrets, but I’ll take my chances.

Now here’s the hook of this post, an instructional video we as In-N-Out red-aproned associates were made to watch (it seems annually) at store meetings:

Cute, right? (In case you can’t watch, it’s about restaurant entrepreneur Bob Farrell who received a letter from a loyal customer one day. This customer came to expect that when he asked for an extra pickle, he received one free, no problem. That is until one day when the extra pickle was asked for and an employee insisted the customer pay for it. The customer insisted he would not come back. SO, from that point on, the motto of the restaurant was “Give ’em the pickle!”)

I for one subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that the customer comes first in ALL cases, for if there were no customers there would be no reason for the store to exist in the first place. So how does this translate to the theatre world? Well, what’s a performance without an audience? Spoiled food. But does that mean a customer can have their way ALL the time?

A theatre, like a restaurant, also needs to take into consideration the patrons collectively. If a patron comes to your theatre and is bothered by another patron due to incessant whispering or texting or what have you then it reflects on your company. If their experience is altered poorly by another audience member than they may not come back to your theatre. This is a problem. Now, some people are just jerks and they’re not going to care that you ask them to put their phones on silent. However, I don’t believe the fault falls solely on patrons. We as experience providers must also educate our audiences about we expect of them in order for everyone to have the best possible time in your theatre.

Not everyone attends theatre regularly, and they shouldn’t be chastised for it. If they are allowed to receive texts in movie theaters where they are probably more acclimated then how should they know it’s looked down on in our venues because they are distracting. Some of you may have just rolled your eyes thinking it’s common sense. Well, so be it, but remember that every performance may be someone’s first time. Therefore, it behooves you to not look down on the uninitiated. It’s your job to remind your audience what is and is not acceptable. Be lucky in this economy that they showed up in the first place, even if the ticket was discounted or even free. The key is to get them to come back and willingly pay you for what you provide. The more you provide the more they’re going to be comfortable paying you.

So what are the “pickles” that theatre companies can provide to their patrons? Here’s a few I can think of: Giving patrons discount codes they didn’t know about, ushers walking ticket holders to their seats, free bottled water with the purchase at concessions, extra programs if they are asked for, common courtesy. Whatever it is you are already doing it probably isn’t enough. There is more, more you can provide your audience, more ways you can instruct your staff to treat your patrons well. Audiences aren’t unruly monsters who can’t shut up or stay in their seats, they’re a good thing, whoever they may be, and if they’re treated the right way they’ll do what you ask them to. In-N-Out has the right idea, that’s why they’re nationally renowned and why even on the east coast people stop to ask where I got my In-N-Out backpack. Bob Farrell is no idiot, he knows customer service is the name of the game. So theatre companies, you want people to come back to see your whole season, you want them to donate money, you want them to tell their friends to come see your show, there’s really only one thing you can do: GIVE ‘EM THE PICKLE!

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com  and produces/co-hosts the podcast ANGRY PATRONS RADIO.

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