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 …