Moving from Serving Customers to Facilitating Experiences

Whatever you do, don't let teenagers know the vast power they have over your business. High school students, typically paid around minimum wage, comprise the majority of the workforce for most community-based entertainment destinations. Their job description is undergoing a dramatic change as consumers expect more and better for their entertainment dollar.

Traditional community-based entertainment (CBE) destinations, including family and children's entertainment venues, face increasing competition as retail and other service providers move from offering products and services to offering experiences. This not only threatens their out-of-home destination market share, but also lowers the perceived value of their offerings and the price they can command. (For more on this, see the preceding article.) To become more competitive, and in many cases to survive, CBEs must break free from their traditional formulas and once again become entertainment experience destinations of choice. An important first step is to redefine the role of employees.

CBEs can enhance the guest experience, its desirability and value, by freeing themselves from the conventional wisdom that says they must offer exceptional customer service. Yes, that's right. We believe offering exceptional customer service is the entirely wrong approach to creating an exceptional experience.

While it's correct to acknowledge interaction between staff and guest is important, that's as far as "customer service" will take you. We've found three major problems with the concept of "customer service." First, the very term "customer service" creates a mindset that you're conducting only a transaction, whether through selling or redeeming tickets or selling a pizza. It traps you at the service level of the progression of economic value rather than at the experience level. Secondly, by calling them "customers," you miss the fact that these people are really guests in your facility. Labeling them customers makes it almost impossible for your staff to think of themselves as gracious hosts for their valued guests. Thirdly, "customer service" implies that the attractions themselves create the experience, when in reality, the guest experience is produced holistically. It's the result of everything guests see and experience, from their first glimpse of the facility to leaving your parking lot.

So if "customer service" doesn't cut it, what else is there?

In their book The Experience Economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore suggest the appropriate model for staging experiences is the theatre, where employees are thought of as actors working in front of customers. This is similar to the Walt Disney World model of calling all its workers "cast members."

We don't like this model much more than we do "customer service." Why? It presupposes the guests to be passive viewers, an audience, and not active participants in creating their own entertainment experience. Of course, there are some instances where the employees are actors or cast, such as when they are costume characters, but that's a small minority of a CBE's staff.

Both the customer-service and the staff-as-cast models miss the single most crucial aspect of the guest experience: Fun. Fun is not a transaction, and fun is not passive. Fun is the enjoyment guests get from engaging in the experience as active participants. For years, our company has used a much broader, more holistic model for the interaction between employees and staff in CBEs, one that recognizes the importance of fun. We call it "facilitation." In our lexicon, employees are "guest-experience facilitators."

Words are powerful conveyors of concepts. When the right words are chosen to define a role, everyone quickly understands what they need to do. If you tell employees their job is to provide great guest service, they focus on transactions and stop there. If you tell employees they are cast or actors, they will work hard at performing to a passive audience. But if you tell them it is their job to facilitate the best possible guest experience, one that guests will rave about to their friends, then they understand it is their job to go further, to work at every aspect of helping the guest have a great experience.

So how can employees help facilitate guests' entertainment experience? We have a few examples. The first involves Michael Getland of Amusement Consultants, Ltd. For years, he has advocated that game room attendants should not only take care of game maintenance, but also should teach guests how to play the games and to play them better. And he advocates attendants taking a proactive role in observing guests and approaching them with guidance. Michael's a great believer in putting smiles on his guests' faces. Guests who feel competent at playing games and who get higher scores and win more often will definitely have more smiles and be more likely to return.

Another example of experience facilitation is with birthday parties. Some CBEs assign a full-time host to each birthday party. Many of these hosts are well trained on how to stay focused on the birthday party child to assure that she is treated like a queen for the duration of the party and has a great time.

To be a guest experience facilitator requires more from employees than just using a cash register or performing for a passive audience. It requires skill in interacting with people, and it's a skill that can be taught. For our children's edutainment center clients, for example, we have developed what we call play facilitation training. The training, which lasts between two and four days, instructs staff on how to properly interact with children and parents so as to guide or facilitate children's play. Many times children's play and interactions with other children requires intervention to maximize their enjoyment and minimize undesirable behaviors. The training includes background in child development and behavior and many small group skill-building exercises, including role play.

Unfortunately, many CBEs never even make it to the level of offering exceptional customer service, let alone an exceptional guest experience, because they fail to understand the importance of a well-trained staff. Training for many CBEs is minimal to nonexistent. At most, staff will be trained on mechanical aspects of transactions, such as how to handle the sale at the POS terminal, or how to start the bumper cars. But beyond that? Not a thing. CBE owners will tell you they believe in great guest service, but they don't understand what is required to implement it. They seem to mistakenly assume employees either instinctively understand customer service or have received training elsewhere. But customer service relies on training, not instinct, and most employees are teenagers with no previous training.

The sad truth is most CBE owners are not proficient in customer service themselves. It amazes us that CBE owners will invest millions of dollars in developing the physical facility, while being unwilling to invest maybe 1% of the cost of the facility in training their employees. The interaction between staff and guests is as important to the guest experience, if not more important, than the facility itself. Once the facility is built, the only real control a CBE has over creating guest experiences that result in repeat guests and profitability is management, management, management. And management ultimately boils down to how well employees execute their jobs.

Yesterday, a CBE could get by with employees who could make change in a quick and courteous manner. Tomorrow, that won't be nearly enough to ensure an excellent guest experience. Whether CBE owners rise to the challenge determines whether they will survive new competition.