The Art of Possibility

13 Mar 2013

Part 2: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

This is Part 2 of a series of 3 blogs looking at the value of Audience Experience Design using a case study at the Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. If you want to get up to speed, please click here for Part 1: Focusing on the Blind Spot.

For the rest of you, welcome back.

I’ve called Part 2 ‘The Art of Possibility’ because one of the biggest challenges I encounter when working with mainstream, building-based arts organisations is individual and group thinking that has become stuck. Whilst there may be plenty of creative, imaginative input into what goes on stage, many other areas of the audience experience offer has improved incrementally at best – and most often remains unconsidered. Moreover, employees (who are custodians of the theatre) satisfy themselves with managing and maintaining the status quo because that is the path of least resistance.

The capacity to re-imagine, experiment and take risk beyond the limits of the stage has been undermined by the many economic, managerial, policy and societal challenges facing the arts today. We need to re-acquaint ourselves with the art of possibility for its own sake, regardless of do-ability. Without imagination and disruptive thinking to keep our offer fresh, appealing and relevant we run the risk of being blindsided by other sectors that do.

So … back to the programme. 

Having reached the point of developing a Family Experience Plan, with clear, aspirational objectives, we needed to undergo four specific processes (based on the principles of Design Thinking) to realise the plan:

1: Optimise what we already have.

2: Innovate and create new platforms for value delivery.

3: Prototype, test, refine and deliver.

4: Evaluate and learn.

1. Optimise what we already have

Customer Journey Mapping revealed areas of mediocre performance (satisfaction points), unacceptable performance (pain points) and ‘hugs’ (delight points). All of these needed optimising. Ideas included:

ŸQueue busting: more service points for buying refreshments, a safe place for families to relax whilst one family member became the ‘go-for’ and a walking sweet shop that approached customers rather than expecting them to queue at a static sales point.

ŸSafety and security: a policy where no child is allowed to exit the building unaccompanied, and a dedicated meet up point for lost children.

ŸWelcome: a personal greeting and goodbye at entrances, security guards dressed in friendlier uniforms and character hand puppets for ushers to welcome and interact with children.

ŸAffordability and value-for-money: more varied catering options at different price points together with free activities.

2: Innovate and create new platforms for value delivery

Having optimised the existing offer, we needed to push performance further and think beyond the easy and the obvious. The team needed to cross over into new territory and create additional value, and so I facilitated them through a process of Creative Idea Generation designed to stimulate fresh thinking in answer to the question: In what ways might we deliver on our Family Experience Plan?. This session combined creative thinking games and classic brainstorming with SCAMPER techniques ( in order to unstick the team’s thinking. Over 150 ideas flowed out from this session which were clustered, evaluated and voted on until we landed on the following 7:

ŸProp Shop: a place where families can creatively experience what really happens in a producing theatre,

ŸWardrobe: where families can have fun dressing up, creating and playing characters, again referencing 'theatricality',

ŸScene settings: a series of changeable backdrops where children can role play and act out in costume, more theatricality,

ŸMake a Play: a simple set of dialogue sheets children can mix and match to act out stories, even more theatricality,

ŸRat’s Lair: a chill out zone where families can relax away from the pre-show Front of House busy-ness,

ŸFamily Welcome Trail: a dedicated route where families can discover the building’s unique architecture and history,

ŸFood Emporium: a beautifully designed food service area to help the queue-busting effort and complement the overall brand experience.

These are what I refer to as new service delivery and audience enrichment platforms. These particular ideas provide opportunities for families to experience ‘aliveness’, ‘pleasure’, and ‘creativity’.

The planned interventions also created a unique sense of Brand RXT. Making props, trying on costumes and role playing would connect audiences more fully with the ethos of this creative, artistic, producing theatre. The unique beauty and history of the building would be experienced more fully, directly and intimately via the family trail. Moreover, audiences would also encounter the thrill of discovering which famous faces had ‘trodden the boards’.

Advance marketing would encourage families to arrive earlier, play longer and thus potentially be willing to spend more. The concept of ‘memory making’ was also adopted: creating opportunities for families to take photos of themselves to keep and share with others via social media, thus augmenting awareness of the show and the amplified experience offer.

Then came more ‘fun’ as the team brought their ideas alive. Visual thinking, group dialogue, team challenges, Play Dough modeling and even Snoopy figurines populated a 'design playground' where the team could creatively develop the customer story.  Paper prototypes were made and pitched to members of the Creative and Senior Management Team. Winning ideas were selected and a budget was assigned. Given the time and modest budget available for what was to be a pilot project we had to cut the cloth to fit. That was probably one of the biggest challenges of the whole project given the quality and breadth of the team’s aspirations.

What happened next? Part 3 will follow soon with details of Steps 3 and 4 - what was tested, what was delivered - together with an overview of what we achieved and the value of this approach.

Click here if you'd like to see images from the creative and prototyping worshops.

Focusing on the Blind Spot Part 1: The Royal Exchange Theatre ‘Family Experience Programme’

8 Mar 2013

This series of 3 blogs is about a project I recently delivered at The Royal Exchange Theatre (RXT) in Manchester. It provides a useful example of how to create enhanced audience value using Design Thinking and Experience Design principles … even on a modest scale.

I’ve called Part 1 of the blog Focusing on the Blind Spot’ because, whilst most theatres believe they offer quality customer experiences (through customer care, safeguarding and Health and Safety), they remain ‘blind’ to the riches that are possible.  From my experience in the arts and cultural sector during the past 20 years I've come to the conclusion that the potential of our theatre buildings to create and deliver augmented experiential value over and above what occurs on the stage itself is woefully under-utilised. As a result, our communities are losing out which in turn means the theatres are. Our theatres need to become be vibrant, creative focal points that deliver enriching experiences beyond the performed work and its outer walls.

And so to the programme …

In the Autumn of last year, I was invited by RXT to create and deliver a programme of extended Family Experience Design around their forthcoming production of Rat’s Tales, the venue’s first family Christmas show in a number of years, aimed at people aged from 8 to adulthood.

The aim was deliver a theatre visit that was enriched and extended in unexpected ways, creating a memorable family experience over and above the performance itself with a view to yielding loyalty.  

I worked with a cross-functional team of audience-facing staff - from Operations, Front of House, Retail and Catering to Box Office, Education and Marketing – none of whom had previously worked together on a collaborative project.

Unfolding as a series of internal workshops, the first part of the Family Experience Programme was an exercise in classic Customer Experience Design: developing family personas, touch point analysis, mapping customer interactions and identifying key themes and issues. The perspectives brought to bear from this ‘coal-face’ team were rich and valuable and we unearthed some key areas for consideration:

1. Ÿthe need for families to feel safe, secure and welcome in a potentially confusing building,

2. Ÿthe importance of ‘ease’ in relation to the practical elements of their visit,

3. Ÿthe proliferation of stress points, queuing in particular,

4. Ÿthe desire for autonomy and a sense of belonging whether new to or familiar with the venue,

5. Ÿthe long-term value of creating positive, emotional experiences throughout the customer journey,

7. Ÿthe absence of RXT generated high quality family interactions to enhance an already ‘special night out’,

8. Ÿthe opportunity to contextualise a re-imagined customer experience within a larger RXT Brand Experience.  

As the discussions continued the team began to discover how fragmented and reactive customer care had become and questioned the level at which the customer experience bar had been set.

Is customer ‘satisfaction’ really the goal? How memorable does satisfaction make a venue in the face of increasing competition for people’s time, attention and money? Our aim became ‘customer delight’, and for that to happen we needed to push performance and the team’s collective aspirations far above the original bar.

Key to the growing movement of Customer Experience Management in the commercial sector is the concept of the Experience Plan; a strategic document that redefines all organisational outputs in relation to value-to-customer rather than solely value-to-business, and which informs the total quality management of the whole customer experience at every touch point.

From the perspective of the theatre sector this value does not reside exclusively in the ‘performance’ but in the whole Brand Experience; every customer touch point from ‘first contact’ to the present day. It is this over-arching Brand Experience that we need to conceive, craft and manage in order to push performance. Why? Because without a clear understanding of what our intended experience offer is how can we plan for it? How can we inspire our teams to deliver it? How do we know to what degree we've succeeded? And how can we communicate our value to our stakeholders and communities? 

Returning back to the RXT we created a set of core family personas, empathy-mapped their specific needs, concerns and expectations (from the perspectives of the adult, the child and the group dynamics), and created a Family Audience Experience Plan - a series of intended experiential objectives that would enhance customer value around the specific production of Rat’s Tales. These objectives were:

1. Families should feel well looked after and special

This translated into: a ‘great welcome and a great goodbye’, the anticipation of needs, proactive help and support delivered with ‘the personal touch’.

2. Families need to experience ‘Ahh!’

This translated into: a sense of comfort and respite from the world outside; ease, safety and security.

3. Families regard RXT as ‘for the likes of me’

This translated into: a feeling of belonging, autonomy, and empowerment.

4. Families should experience ‘aliveness’

This translated into: surprise, excitement, pleasure, discovery and anticipation.

5. Families should encounter a unique RXT Brand Experience

This translated into: a fusion of artistry and magic, and enthrallment with the building’s unique  architecture and history.

The RXT Family Experience Statement became our North Pole for everything that followed, keeping us on track and astutely focused on the intended family experience at all times. We rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in; a motivated team of ‘Experience Engineers’ tasked with creating customer delight by focussing on just one particular 'blind spot'

Here some images from the first session. Read what followed in the next installment … 

Beyond Box Office - Taking CRM To The Next Level.

10 May 2012


So I’ve been thinking a bit more about CRM following on from my last blog and the many responses I received from it. Its clear that CRM advocates are passionate about its value and I don’t want to diminish that any way because CRM does work.  Pound for pound you get a good return on investment and as such CRM is an extremely valuable sales tool.

But how deep is the loyalty it delivers?

I’d like to suggest that – and I realise this is a simplification - CRM creates largely transactional relationships through astute Box Office data management.  Primarily focused on sales, its core aim is to manage customers with maximum efficiency, manipulating purchase behaviour through the provision of tailored benefits in return for money.

But let us consider the benefits of a more human approach to relationship management, Customer Experience Management (CEM).

CEM transcends the depersonalised nature of Box Office data and encourages organisations to think about and engage with people, real people. Now, don’t throw up your hands in horror. I know many of you regard CRM as highly personalised and tailored, and it is, to a degree. But how personal is ‘personal’? Would you, for example,  judge the strength and health of your personal relationships purely on what you know about your friend’s habits, preferences and spending?

At the heart of any strong relationship is genuine, meaningful exchange that creates mutual value through the accumulation of positive, life-enriching experiences.

Our relationship with our audiences is no different.

What I’m not proposing is an alternative to CRM, simply an amplification of its principles, moving audiences beyond transactional buy-in towards becoming genuine adopters of your brand and in doing so, yielding much deeper loyalty.

The beauty of CEM is that it is predicated on a process of ‘strategic (mutual) value creation’. This enables arts organisations to exceed expectations, deliver peak experiences, address community needs, and connect with people in a meaningful way.

CEM enables you to understand, shape and manage the whole customer experience across all touch points and channels (marketing, ticket purchase, customer service, retail, audience engagement, access, environment etc) and in doing so fulfill you core mission to deliver genuine value to your audiences and communities.

The result is loyalty.

CRM is an important part of that system, creating a sales mechanism to harness this pre-existing loyalty through the provision of tangible benefits that add practical value to the customer relationship … but, without CRM that loyalty would still largely exist.

Here’s an encapsulation of the progression route from CRM to CEM (which for arguments sake could be referred to as CRM+). Take a look and think about how far along it you are now, and where you’d like to be.




Systems and transactions

+ People and transactions

Priority is the audience value to you (£s)

+ Additional priority of your     value to audience


+ Customer-led

Focus on sales channels

+ Focus on whole customer relationship

Managing sales

+ Managing the quality of the customer experience

Influence behaviour

+ Shape attitudes that influence behaviour

I hope this has provided a little food for thought. If anyone is interested in exploring CEM further, or is already doing it, I’d love to talk with you to learn and share.

Customer Relationship Management: Pulling the wool over our own eyes

12 Apr 2012

I was chatting with the Marketing Manager of a regional producing theatre the other day. The subject of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) came up. When I asked what they were doing to develop relationships with their first-time bookers, this was the answer (I’ve captured the spirit of what was said here, not the actual words):

“When they book a ticket [an advance ticket] we contact them to say thank you and tell them about our gallery, shop, bar and restaurant facilities … and then after the show, we send them a questionnaire about their first impressions of the visit … later, we contact them about other relevant shows that are coming up.”

Now, this might sound like ‘building bridges’ from a marketer’s perspective. But, and with no disrespect intended to this rather wonderful Marketing Manager, what this CRM gem actually represents is a predatory attempt to:

a) coax ancillary spend from the customer,

b) extract information about them and,

c) second guess what they might want to see next when all that is known is they booked a particular show.

The first is up-selling thinly-veiled as friendly information giving … ‘sharing’. The second is research thinly-veiled as ‘caring’. The third is blind optimism!

Let’s not kid ourselves about how caring and sharing we are with our customers. We’re not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes except ourselves because our canny customers will see right through it, and that’s no way to start a relationship.

I think the root of the problem might be that arts marketers have been hardwired to ‘extract’ rather than ‘give’, to ‘sell’ rather than ‘connect’, and measure success in terms of short-term gains rather than long-term, genuine relationship building.

Does this resonate with you?

I’m going to write further about this in subsequent blogs, but here are some alternative suggestions to the insincere sharing and caring that passes for CRM in some arts organisations today:

GRATITUDE: Thank first-time bookers promptly. Tell them you’ll provide more information on how to get there nearer the time. Provide a contact in case their plans change or they need further information. That’s all.

HELPFULNESS & EMPATHY: Nearer the time of the show, when they are in planning mode, acknowledge the challenges of their first visit by providing useful ‘insider information’ on how to make their journey easier, timely, safer, cheaper.

INFORM: Where possible, provide interesting snippets of information on rehearsals, reviews etc to build expectation and excitement.

DELIGHT: Find ways of making their first ever visit really special. Exceed their expectations by, for example, offering a voucher for a free drink and/or programme. Install a Welcome Table FOH for first time bookers where they can meet a friendly face and be oriented around the building. Chat with them and make them feel at home. Share your passion. Show genuine interest: find out how their journey went, why they came etc.

CONNECT and VALUE: Invite them to take their first steps into ‘friendship’ by subscribing to a mailing list based on their preferences (not your assumptions). Seek permission to include them in customer research … because their views are important to you. Gift first-time bookers with a discount voucher for a subsequent ticket purchase ... because you'd love them to come back.

Just some initial thoughts … I’m sure there are lots of other, better ideas and practices out there.

In my mind’s eye, I can see some of you throwing your hands up in horror at the additional work this will entail – for no measurable, immediate return …. but the returns will come. Given that customer retention beats customer acquisition hands down in the economic arena, it makes sense to invest in retention as assiduously as we seem to churn out sales messages to the faceless would-be attenders.

Now … how might you design a super welcome area that gives your first-timers a symbolic hug when they cross the threshold into your world?