[Only Partially] Off-Topic: Customer Experience And Another Milestone Reached

Thirty years ago today I went to my first Grateful Dead concert. We drove the hour or so from Binghamton, NY to Syracuse and saw what could only be described as a nondescript, uneventful concert. About the only thing I remember from the show was Bob Weir coming out for the encore wearing a gorilla mask, which was appropriate since they played Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London.

Needless to say, it wasn’t my last Dead show. Thirty years later, despite the fact that the Grateful Dead haven’t existed as a band since 1995, I’m still as much as a Deadhead as I’ve ever been. My wife and kids certainly don’t understand. And, in fact, few non-Deadheads can really understand why Deadheads are as fiercely loyal and into it as they are.

It’s really simple, actually. It’s not just the music. It is (and was) the experience. If the Dead were a business (well, they were, and actually still are), you’d call it the customer experience. Going to a Dead show was an experience from the time you left your house till the time you got back. Which, of course, could be days (and for some people was weeks). All of today’s Web 2.0 talk about community only leaves me wanting to tell the Gen Yers who think they’re oh-so-community-minded that the Deadhead community has been going strong strong for more than 40 years now.

To be honest, I wasn’t really going to blog about this, but a blog post from Gene Blishen made me change my mind. Gene recently wrote about BarCampBanks, and had this to say:

“The format and the way the event is held is unique and it contributes a lot to its success. No one owns the agenda. Relationships have already been created through Internet means (blogs and Twitter). Meeting people face to face after you have know them online is a phenomenal experience. But each one that I have attended is unique. And I keep trying to nail down what makes it so. Maybe it is because we don’t really have such a strong expectation of what will come from the event. We already know that will happen. he expectation is the excitement of the discussions, the passion shown by everyone, the energy in just being in a room with such remarkable people. We thought we came seeking a holy grail but found that each of us had the capacity to create something unique in our relationships and our being together for this short time. The time you have is limited and you want to make the most of it. BarCamps cannot really be explained.”

I read that and thought “oh my god, BarCampBank meetings are just like Grateful Dead concerts. All about the experience. And completely inexplicable as to why the experience is so satisfying.”

Now when I do blog about something like this, I always start the blog title with “Off-Topic.” I’m sure you noticed that the title of this post starts with “[Only Partially] Off-Topic.” Here’s why:

There’s an important lesson for marketers in mine and Gene’s stories. Specifically about how to think about customer experience. There’s a paradox that few marketers really grasp. While the customer experience is the most important thing to customer satisfaction and loyalty, you cannot over-engineer, over-design or over-control that experience.

You have to establish a framework, some guidelines, and then just let it happen.

The Dead didn’t — and in reality, couldn’t — control every aspect, or even a fraction of the aspects that made up the Deadhead experience. They let their fans freely record and distribute tapes of their concerts, which helped engender an intensely loyal following. But they did (wisely) retain control of ticket sales and protected the sale of their merchandise. But you were free to sell food, stuff you made, and tons of other things to the tens of thousands of other Deadheads who showed up at every show. But you couldn’t sell their copyrighted merchandise, and contrary to popular belief, the strongly discouraged the sale (not the use) of illegal substances in and around their concerts, because they knew that that would hurt the potential for future concert opportunities at that venue.

Gene alludes to the same notion about BarCampBanks. There’s little structure, no pre-set agenda. But there is an expectation that participants will be able to contribute to the agenda and the discussion. That’s the framework. It’s like color-by-numbers. Here’s the guidelines — you provide the rest.

Marketers are right to obsess about customer experience. Unfortunately, too many equate it simply to Web site design. Or come up with consultantese titles like customer experience management, which they define as “capturing and distributing what a customer thinks about a company.” (Huh?)

It’s as if there’s a spectrum. At one of the spectrum is chaos — the absence of any controls, guidelines, or predefined experience elements. At the other end of the spectrum is the complete design and over-specification of the experience. The trick is finding the middle point.

Also unfortunate is the fact that there’s no simple way to find that middle point. With the “one ultimate question” mentality that exists, too many managers are in search of some simple holy grail that makes their job easy and their companies widely successful.

It doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Grateful Dead.

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2 thoughts on “[Only Partially] Off-Topic: Customer Experience And Another Milestone Reached

  1. I like the music analogy. I never knew the Dead other than by name. For me it was Neil Young, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Deep Purple. But I get the 60’s / 70/’s concept. It was all about everyone being focussed on one outcome … happiness and joy at the the end of the concert. Sure a few were on dope, but actually that was a small minority despite modern impressions of the time. It was all about the music.

    Back to your point. When a group of people who do not know each other are together in a situation that they all have one thing in common that is incredibly powerful. An experience they each gathered at home listening to the music, then sharing at a concert produces some kind of exponential sensation.

    A good conference, where each participant brings a common experience from their individual life to a shared conference environment is powerful. The metaphor has two elements:

    – individual experiences that are similar
    – gathering at a common location (conference, concert)

    So as I ramble back to the point. People appreciate and congregate on shared beliefs and likes.

  2. Ron, great post, and I entirely agree. What you’re hitting on is key brand experience concept: authenticity. Those Dead shows, and the BarCamps, are authentic. They are what they are, and they’re not trying to be anything else. To your point, they’re not over-engineered, which would come across as forced.

    As you’ve pointed out, our job as brand experience craftsmen is very tough: we have to engineer authentic experiences without them feeling engineered. And the best examples of that are when the engineer himself doesn’t try too hard….but rather is genuine and let’s it happen. That’s the middle point you speak of.

    Jeff Stephens
    Creative Brand Communications

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