Turn that Frown Upside Down: Navigating Tricky Patron Interactions at the Box Office and Beyond

Today’s guest post is written by Rachel Hands, Client Service Representative here at Patron Technology.

I’m lucky to have a professional conflict mediator for a housemate. (If you’re not familiar with this line of work, a mediator is a neutral third party to a conflict whose role is to help both sides, or parties, negotiate with each other to reach a mutually agreed-upon resolution to their issues.)

I’ve learned a lot from her about the value of clear and effective communication. I’m convinced that some of the methods she uses in her mediations can be applied to just about any customer-service setting to improve communication, from ordinary interactions to unexpected challenges.

Those challenges can come up at any moment. Maybe you’re running the box office the day before a show, and a longtime subscriber calls wanting to bring a friend to the performance. You’re excited for this opportunity to make a loyal patron even happier, but your online ticket sales for this show are through the roof, so all the seats near the ones he’s had for the past eight years are sold out. The interaction turns sour quickly. Where do you go from here?

Or maybe you’re in a conversation that isn’t strictly negative, but it’s still delicate. Say you’re cultivating a new donor; she has the capacity to make a major gift, but she’s just not sure your organization is the right fit for her giving priorities. How do you convince her that your organization’s goals are aligned with hers?

In tricky conversations, a key benefit of mediation is the creation of a space in which each party can communicate their own needs, and hear each other’s, with the help of a neutral third party. In a patron interaction, you might not have the third-party luxury, but you can aim to create that space even if you’re involved in the discussion directly. (Sometimes I even picture a little mediator sitting on my shoulder, like the old angel/devil images in cartoons.)

So what are the lessons we can take from conflict mediators to make sure we’re communicating clearly and effectively to resolve the issues we face in our patron interactions? A few key principles apply: Listen, validate, stay neutral, and be open to different solutions.

Listen: Take time to hear the patron out. Mediators listen carefully to find out what the parties’ needs are and how those needs correspond with what they’re actually asking for. Sometimes the underlying need can be met in a different way from what the parties are requesting.

In the situation with the subscriber, he might be frustrated by not being able to get a good ticket for his friend. Maybe he made a promise to his friend and is worried about keeping it. Maybe he’s feeling that his loyal support of your organization isn’t being recognized or valued. You’ll be better prepared to turn the interaction into a good one if you understand what is driving his negative reaction.

In the conversation with your donor prospect, listening to her priorities first puts you in the best position to know how your organization addresses those values.

Validate the patron’s needs: Acknowledge what she has said, and let her know that you understand the needs that are being expressed. If you’re not sure, ask questions (and listen some more!) until you know you’ve got that right. This is key for mediators: It establishes credibility by showing that they’ve been listening, and it makes the people involved in the discussion better able to see how their positions are being understood. In some situations, validating the needs that are expressed can also be a solution in itself; sometimes all the patron really wants is for his or her point of view to be heard and formally recognized. (This may or may not involve apologizing!)

You might say to the subscriber, “We really appreciate that you’ve been such a consistent supporter of the Lab Theatre and that you’re spreading the word about the show this weekend. We’ll absolutely make sure your friend gets to see the show. I’m going to see what I can do to get him seated with you, and I’ll call you right back as soon as I’ve confirmed which seat he’ll have.”

To the donor prospect, you might say, “You mentioned that youth arts education is a critical priority for our community. I know you’re familiar with our subscription series, but let me put you in touch with our education director, Julia — I think she’d love to hear your ideas about engaging new students.” This can help the donor feel appreciated in her current knowledge of your organization’s activity and also help her feel that her support of your organization could be making an impact on things she really cares about.

Stay neutral and engaged: Remember that an upset patron is most likely not upset at you personally. The best mediators are able to set aside their personal views about a conflict while remaining focused and engaged in helping the parties find a solution. For the mediator, the process of working toward a resolution is more important than the final outcome.

Of course, staying neutral is easier if you’re actually a third party, so it means something a little different in the case of our patron interactions. “Neutral,” in this case, means that during the conversation, you’re participating as someone whose primary interest is in finding a mutually agreeable solution to the problem at hand, not as someone who has something to gain or lose by any given solution. You might have a personal stake in the outcome, but if you can take your own interests out of the equation, you’ll be in a better position to think of a possible solution.

Be open to different solutions. Sometimes an outcome that makes everyone happy looks totally different from the outcome either party wanted at first.

In the situation with your subscriber, you could do the customer-service bare minimum and sell him the closest available seat, a few rows back. If you have time, though, you could open the seat map in your ticketing system and find out who has the seats nearest his. You could try to free up a seat for your subscriber’s friend by getting in touch with one of those neighboring ticket buyers and offering a seat upgrade or another perk along with a new, comparable seat. You could even offer to comp or discount the extra ticket for your subscriber to show your appreciation for his consistent support — and make sure to tell him that you’re doing it to show that appreciation!

With the donor prospect, even if you don’t get the first ask you hoped for, you’ll have had the opportunity to connect her with aspects of your organization that reflect what she truly cares about, and give her the sense that her future support could make a significant impact on those things.

These are all basic elements of good communication in any situation, but they’re especially valuable in tricky or delicate interactions. Sure, it takes a little more time to integrate all these principles into a conversation, but the value you’ll get out of turning around a negative interaction can make that time more than worthwhile.

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