Marketing, business, and entrepreneurship: they’ve always fascinated me.
My dad’s dad, Hugo, after having worked a bit as a lumberjack, eventually became a stock boy in a “dry goods” store, then a traveling salesman, and finally a department store buyer. He loved to tell me stories about sales deals and marketing triumphs.
His favorite, I think, was when he bought so much of a certain fabric for the J. L. Hudson company that he told the marketing/advertising people that it would stretch all the way from the downtown Detroit Hudson building to the Detroit Zoo, which, two miles north of Detroit, was miles away. They made a newspaper ad showing the fabric stretching from the iconic building to a giraffe holding the other end (I’m trying to find the image).
For years I’ve read a lot about these subjects, and now, as I’ve begun teaching entrepreneurship classes and am particularly interested in how classically-trained musicians can actually make money, my interest level has zoomed.
Dan Kennedy, who I first heard at a marathon, multi-speaker event years ago, writes often in his compnay’s newsletter about many topics, including customer service. He often points out how salespeople and servers can mess up a business–or make it.
On a weekend trip, I’ve been particularly aware of the service I have and haven’t experienced. I’ll blow off a little steam–and there are some lessons musicians can draw from all this.
High-end (for this area) restaurant, inexperienced server: My $30 steak comes with potato or rice, but they won’t substitute a green vegetable (I can order one as a side dish). I teasingly push the waitress a bit, so see if she can do something. “That seems kind of cheap to me,” I say with a smile. “Oh, well, you know that vegetables are more expensive than, like fries,” she explains in a somewhat patronizing tone. It irritated me. First, it seems like a counter-productive policy, because a baked potato loaded with butter and sour cream can’t be that much more expensive than some spinach or broccoli, and why in a place where with appetizer, drinks, etc., easily run $100/person would you not want to make people happy? Well, whatever. It did get me wondering how I’d train servers to handle someone cranky about the policy better than this one did.
Huge music electronics complex: Outside the city I’m visiting is the extraordinary campus of one of the biggest sellers of electronics for musicians. Retail store, warehouse, teaching spaces, café, atrium, auditorium, arcade, even mini-mini golf. I never saw anything like it. There’s even a gym, which I assume is for employees.
I want to buy a portable digital recorder (to replace one that died), and a new pickup mic for my cello(s) (again, to replace one that died). This firm, which has a strong online presence, has higher prices than online discounters. What they promote is knowledgeable salespeople who will give you advice and steer you in the right direction. So I decided to go there and pay more than I would online just to have good service.
A receptionist directs my boyfriend and I to the retail store. A salesperson, posted at a desk with an iMac, greets us and I explain what I am in the market for.
“Do you know what model you want to buy?” No. That’s why I came here, to get some help. She asks me what I’ll use it for. I explain I’m a classical and improvising cellist, and want something to record workshops I give, using the recorder’s own mics, and that I can connect microphones to. She shows me a Tascam, one of two units on top of a display rack.
I ask her if it has phantom power (which powers the microphones).
“No it doesn’t,” she tells me.
I look at the box. It says there is phantom power, and I point that out.
“Oh.” She frowns.
“Well, what I meant was that someone else bought one and plugged in mics with quarter-inch plugs and phantom power doesn’t work for that. You have to use XLR connections.” OK, now, inadvertently, she’s told me not only that she’s confused but also that I must look like someone who, although I asked about phantom power, doesn’t know how it works.
“How’s the recording quality of the microphones?” I ask, moving on.
“I think it’s supposed to be pretty good.” Yep, that’s going to sell me.
There’s one other model, a Zoom, on display, at a big sales price. It doesn’t do everything I want, but I love deals, and it does some sort of surround sound recording, which would be great in workshops. So I look at that box, and she goes to check on pickup mics. I can already tell she doesn’t know anything about them.
She comes back to tell me they don’t have any cello pickups, which I find hard to believe. Maybe she’s searched the wrong way: what she’s done is to look on the website, on a big iMac out in the lobby. Hoping that somehow she might understand me (I guess I just wanted to tell somebody), I tell her I have a Fishman pickup which I’ve found doesn’t work so well with Belgian bridges, and that I had a Realist pickup which was great (until it died, or more accurately was killed by a student), but I want to use it with multiple cellos and of course the Realist goes under a foot of the bridge.
She gives me a blank look, and searches their website for violin mics.
She shows me a photo of a plastic gadget that attaches to the side of a violin to hold a mic. “Would that help you?” No, I don’t think so.
I ask about other models of digital recorders. She looks on the web, and tells me they have some other ones available online that aren’t in the retail store. She leaves me at the computer, on which there are multiple open windows, including someone’s email, to look at the online reviews.
I learn a few things (from the reviews, not the email, which I did not browse!).
Then, since I’m shopping online anyway, I pull out my iPhone and compare prices with the Amazon app. (I couldn’t bring myself to use their computer to look at Amazon.) Everything is much less expensive. Here my experience has been one of pleasant non-guidance. Why should I pay $40 extra for the privilege of telling the sales person that the one unit does have phantom power?
“I’m going to think about it,” I tell her, and we leave.
The hotel: Well, actually a motel. Once we are back from not buying a recorder or microphone, I spend 30 minutes running on the treadmill and end up very sweaty. Since we’d gotten up late, I figure our towels will still be damp, so I go to the front desk. The clerk gets off the phone and I ask for two bath towels. She asks for my room number and puts it on a Post-it note. “If you come back in 15 minutes, they’ll be here on the desk for you,” she tells me with a smile. Unlike earlier, I’m not annoyed, just amused. “But I want to take a shower now,” I say, smiling back. “Oh. I’ll be right back. She grabs a key, and in 45 seconds is back with the towels.
10:00 AM: knock at the door. “Housekeeping!” “We’re still here, I yell from the bed.”
10:45 AM: knock at the door. “Housekeeping!” “We’re here,” I call. “Do you need service today?” “No, we’re checking out.”
11:12 AM: knock at the door. Actually, really aggressive knocking. “Housekeeping!” This time I go to the door. “We haven’t check out yet,” I explain. “Well, checkout time was 11:00 AM!” How do I describe the tone? It’s when someone is angry, trying to seem nice. Contempt and accusation masked with a smile. “Well, we’re still here,” I point out.
I call the front desk and ask for a 12:00, hey, better make that 12:30, checkout. “Sure, no problem.” And she’ll try to tell housekeeping.
12:15 PM We are out. And hungry. There’s a Bob Evans, and it’s jammed. Across the street, we find Willy’s Cozy Nook. Seated right away. A great waitress who keeps the coffee and water filled, laughs at my jokes, massages my shoulders, and is amazed at the video of the sword swallower at last night’s downtown Busker Fest. Great omelet. They happily fill my big plastic cup with ice water. I tell the waitress I’ve had this run of customer-service experiences and how much i appreciated her skill. She gives me a knowing and understanding look. All these undertrained kids who mean well–we get each other.
“Honey, I’ve been at this for 45 years. I know a thing a two about it.” She gives me a sincere smile. Tells me her name and that I can ask for her next time. “It’s always nice to be thanked,” she says, and reaches out her hand.
I take it.
And I know the one place I will definitely be back to.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations. I’m filing this under “audience building” (and just noticed that “audience is misspelled in my category list) because for every individual artist and for every arts organization, it’s all about the relationship you have with your audience, with your fans, your friends, your followers. It’s about the experience they have when they interact with you.
So I’m asking myself:
When am I the waitress who explains vegetables are more expensive than fries to a customer ready to spend a a lot of money?
When am I the salesperson who gives wrong information about a product and puts the customer on a computer to look things up?
When am I the desk clerk who doesn’t infer that the sweat-soaked resident asking for bath towels probably needs them right then?
And when am I the experienced, friendly waitress doing a great job, truly taking care of people, and in an engaging yet unobtrusive way?