[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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Places To Go, People To See

Shameless plugs for upcoming events you should be at:

BarCampBankNE. April 5 at America’s Credit Union Museum in Manchester, NH. The un-conference conference. I’m really looking forward to finally participating in one of these. Wondering if I’ll be able to contain my tendencies toward being overtly opinionated and confrontational. We’ve got 12 people registered so far — I’m sure there’s room for more.

Finovate. April 29 in San Francisco. Thirty-eight firms exhibiting, two spots left. I have no doubt that Jim Bruene will fill those spots — and every one of the seats reserved for attendees. If you’re attending, please let me know. There’s something going in SF that night that I’m planning to go (and really excited about) — wanted to see if I could round up a few people to go to this with me.

CUES Experience. May 13-16 in Minneapolis. Yes, it starts to get warm in Minneapolis by mid-May. Which doesn’t matter, because the speaker list and agenda on this conference is hot. Highlights: Off-site visits to Pixel Farm Interactive, Summit Brewing Company, and Minnesota Twins. Also to the Mall of America, but I’m not sure how that won’t become a shopping excursion.

Forum CU/Trabian Partnership Symposium. October 1-2 in Fishers, IN. The 2007 Partnership Symposium was so good that I begged Forum to let me come this year. They’re letting me host, which means interviewing speakers after their presentation, facilitating discussion, making sure things stay on track (or not, if that’s better). I promise there will be no “Zuckerberg@SXSW” like sessions here! This conference will include the unveiling of the CU Skeptic. I’m hoping I can be the one to pull the bag off his head.

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