What Can the Arts Learn from JetBlue?

I'm delving into the subject of the customer experience today. The customer experience Isn't marketing  –  it’s what happens after marketing. This been on my mind a lot recently, and I don’t think we think about it nearly enough.  If you go to pretty much any arts marketing conference these days, you'll hear all about churn. Everyone is recognizing that we spend a lot of money bringing new patrons to our theaters, and most of them don't come back.

I think one of the keys to licking this problem is fixing the overall customer experience. This includes (but is not limited to) what goes on on the stage itself.

I’m going to talk about this in a roundabout way by focusing on the airline industry. I've been traveling around the country going to conferences for last few weeks, so this is fresh in my mind.  If you've been reading this blog from the beginning, you’ll know that JetBlue is one of my favorite airlines.  I'll get to JetBlue in a moment, but first, let me tell you about last week, when I had to fly on American Airlines.

Everything about that experience was a downer. The planes looked haggard and the seats were frayed and dirty. The staff seemed unhappy and it was clear they were doing their jobs because they had to, not because they wanted to. I don't doubt American Airlines is going through tough times, as are all airlines. But the experience from the consumer perspective wasn’t doesn't make up for that. Truth is I didn't have any major complaints. The plane left and arrived on time. Everything was ultimately done in a competent manner. But if had to identify something great about American Airlines that would motivate me to travel with them again the next time I fly, it would be hard to do.

Let's contrast that to my experience last night on JetBlue. I was on my way out to Seattle to the Americans for the Arts Conference, and I was at the spacious, clean (and very quiet) JFK JetBlue terminal for about an hour.  Near the gate was a dining bar – a sort of eating and work station where I could plug in my computer. (At this dining bar, there was also a fixed computer screen in front of each customer where I could order a sandwich and a drink which would then get delivered to me.)

Sitting across from me in the terminal was a pilot. It turns out it was the was the pilot for my flight and he had already been in a conversation with a backpack-laden student who was sitting next to me, so I joined in on the conversation. It turns out he's been working for JetBlue for eight years and he immediately wanted to know what I thought of the airline. He apologized for the famous Valentine's Day fiasco some years ago, and was genuinely interested in my comments and thanked me several times for flying on JetBlue. "It's customers like you who keep us in business."

 At one point there was an announcement on the PA about the fact that our flight was delayed, and he got up to go find out what was going on.  To my surprise, a few minutes later, he came back to our to us to explain that the inbound plane had arrived late but that flying time to Seattle was going to be shorter than published, and that we would in fact arrive on time.

He didn't have to come back to tell us what was going on, but the fact that he did definitely made me feel special. Then when I got on the plane, he recognized and waved at me, and when the flight was over, I saw him at the front of the plane and he shook my hand and said, “Hey, only five minutes late.” I felt like I was talking to “my” pilot! 

Needless to say this isn't an experience that all customers have. But it's indicative of a mindset of the airline and it's employees. And, if you've flown on JetBlue you also know that once onboard it has the most legroom of any airline, leather seats and a ton of music offerings and DirectTV at every seat. The planes are new and the flight crew almost never interrupts with PA messages during the flight. And, before you take off, the pilot comes out from the cockpit stands in the front of the cabin with a microphone and addresses the passengers directly, talking about the flight to come.

Needless to say, there’s a direct analogy to our field. Ultimately these two airlines got me from point A to point B. Only in the JetBlue case, apparently everyone involved (up to and including the pilots) understands that the customer experience is the key difference. That experience is what is going to get me to rebook the next time, and go out of my way to fly JetBlue over another carrier, and to blog about it.

Notwithstanding the fact that a great performance can remain with you for a long time, I’ll bet that a big reason for so much churn in our business is that people aren’t treated specially in the theater or concert hall.  I don't think we focus on the small details (like the line in the rest room) or the smile on the face of the person handing out your program? 

And can someone please tell me why in an industry in which the average age of patrons is over 50 in most cases, the font size of the programs is tiny? What's the point of handing out a program with minuscule printing when you require 90% of the audience to fumble around looking for their glasses two minutes before the curtain goes up? (In fairness I have seen some venues offer large-type versions of their programs – printed out on xerox paper. Isn't that a bit backwards?

I think this is a big deal. Clearly JetBlue gets that it's in the hospitality business as much as it is in the travel business. And, if you believe that arts are (if only partially) part of that industry as well, I think the arts field needs a new mindset and commitment to focus on this aspect of the business a lot more if it truly wants to build audiences for the future.

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8 responses to “What Can the Arts Learn from JetBlue?

  1. You said it! My colleagues and I have determined that an outstanding patron experience IS our future in terms of standing out amid our competitors and other leisure/entertainment options. We’ve had lots of fun coming up with ideas to enhance our patrons’ experiences, and some of our changes are inexpensive no-brainers. (Examples: Nice soap, hand lotion and tissues in the bathrooms. Free mini candy canes handed out by ushers during intermission for holiday performances.) Those are just a couple of tiny things – we’ve got more in the works but I don’t want to spill the beans!

  2. Since you asked Gene, companies print their programs in tiny font to try and contain their printing costs. But I agree, it is probably a false economy. We spend alot of staff time and creativity in research, copywriting, and proofing to create an appealing and educational house program. To forget user-friendliness at the end fails to capitalize on all that earlier investment in time and energy. I think art organizations are sometimes bamboozled into focusing on hard costs because they are so easily trackable on the income statement.

  3. For a good example of the danger of mistreating even just one customer/patron, check out the YouTube video of singer/song-writer Dave Caroll, “United Breaks Guitars” –

    I heard about this on a business program on the radio with reference to the video’s implications on United Airlines. The video was posted just 8 days ago and has already been viewed over 2 million times! Apparently United has since responded to Caroll and offered compensation. There’s probably some marketing lessons to be learned in all of this as well.

  4. Gene,
    I am in Jetblue Reservations out of Salt Lake City and I have to thank you for the upbeat and positive feed back you gave Jetblue. I have to say we do LOVE our jobs and more importantly truly LOVE our customers. In my experience with Jetblue as a customer and now as part of the crew we only hire people with the same value. Thank you! Thank you ! Thank you! Customers like you make it worth it!

  5. Dear Mr Carr, I approach you in this blog just to say “thank” you for taking valuable time to express your thoughts about the company that I so endear and work for. It is almost effortless to sign in for a days ‘work’ and even more so to actually help people such as yourself. This thread was posted on our internet for employee’s to read and as some may have a different experience with JetBlue…I believe MOST share your feeling as well. Why I remark in such a positive way? I often hear back from our customers such as yourself the satisfaction our company brings..it starts from the top with our Management to all branches of our crewmembers infact, it is so contagious the integrity that we learn from them that it actually ‘rubs’ off if you will on our customers. I say ‘our’ because I take pride in ‘owning’ what I do to the extent that I believe the people I personally talk to on a day to day bases, in booking reservations to customer commitment, are the nicest people/customers ever. Having said that, if I sound grumpy, look unhappy, it can only rub off on those people I intend to help..there fore..we put on a happy face, smile, and warm sincere appreciation to those of you who allow me to do my job, because at the end of the day.. if I’m satisfied…so are you…
    Have a beautiful ‘blue’ jetting day!!!

  6. Thank you so much for the excellent comment about Jetblue! As an employee I must say it’s been the best, by far, company I’ve worked for in my life and I strive to send many people to Jetblue in this rash economy that I know will give the “JETTITUDE” we strive to give. It is also customers like you that make us want to go to work every day. Thank you for finding the positives in our company. We would be honored to have you fly again with us!

  7. Although there is a downward spiral in the economy, JetBlue still delivers the best customer service in the airline industry. Yes, they have implimented new fees but you have to understand an airline of this quality service needs to remain in buisness for me and you to keep enjoying.

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