How my theater experience informs your customer experience.


I super love a little, local coffee place in my hometown, Ojai, Ca. called Beacon Coffee. I super less love Starbucks. Not liking Starbucks and liking a local coffee place is probably not an earth shattering revelation, but bear with me. The number one reason I don’t like Starbucks? Dirty bathrooms. The number one reason I love Beacon? Almond milk. Note, Beacon also has clean bathrooms and Starbucks does have almond milk, but Starbucks’ bathrooms are really dirty and Beacon’s almond milk, is amazing. It’s organic, made on site, is creamy, and remarkable, and they use a ton of it in their latte’s making a Beacon latte absolutely irreplaceable. Beacon’s bathrooms? They are so clean I don’t even notice.

I’m not saying everything is remarkable about Beacon, but nothing is overlooked either. They care about all the little things and by extension I believe they actually care about their customers. It’s palpable. On the other hand, nothing is remarkable about Starbucks. Why? Because I don’t think anyone cares about the customer experience at Starbucks. Well, check that, I don’t think anyone at Starbucks really cares about the customer.

Which brings me to the title of this post and my early life as an interactive theater producer.

Knowing nothing of the entertainment business, the disciplined art of acting, or the tricks and trade of live theater production, my business partner and I decided somewhat on a whim to embark on inventing an interactive entertainment product from scratch. An adventure that ended up lasting 23 years. We made back our initial investment of $15k in our little startup in three months and ended up making a profit each and every year. Astounding given we knew absolutely nothing about what we were doing.

The secret to our success was that we cared about our customer’s experience. Okay. Obvious. Maybe. Reflecting back and being perfectly fair to myself, and my partner, we really did care about our customer, not just their experience. You see, not knowing anything about theater, acting, entertainment, producer-ness, or anything other than our own experience attending plays, movies, concerts, and other like live events, we had only one means by which to design our product: Make it work for the audience.

The entirety of the experience had to be worthy of everyone’s time. It was a lot of work for the performers, directors, improvisation coaches, stage managers, and us. It was also a big commitment by our audience to take a risk on a Friday or Saturday night, to attempt to impress their date, to spend their hard earned money, and to stick their necks out walking into an interactive theater environment where most anything goes.

From that perspective, everything had to work. We had to be responsible to the risk the customer was taking. Our intention had to be delivered everywhere. Let’s just say we had very clean bathrooms. We attended to every detail, no stone unturned. Everything was as important as everything else. Makeup, costumes, script integrity, character backgrounds, sure, but also the pre-show experience, the post-show experience, how we answered the phones (back in the day people made reservations with phones), everything. We considered every single aspect from the perspective of one single principle: Audience friendly. That was our thing. Always make the audience member look good, feel good, and feel safe. We made uncomfortable situations wins, whether that was a moment when a customer was “on stage” or calling up to reschedule their reservation or just going to the bathroom. Audience friendly drove everything.

Being “Audience Friendly” is the principle that drove our early success and sustained us for 23 years, until we sold the company and retired from the entertainment business. Sure we were no Starbucks financially. But, Starbucks is no Beacon in terms of “Audience Friendly.”

Here’s the rub, Howard Schultz initially got into the espresso business, and eventually Starbucks, because he wanted to bring to America the intimacy and community he discovered in Italy’s coffee bars. Today, the contrast between the two experiences could not be more jarring. Somewhere along the way, Starbucks made a series of decisions that prioritized quantity of customers serviced over quality of the customer experience. The result is an industrial, fast-food approach to coffee, including dirty bathrooms.

To the customer, every singular touchpoint within the brand orbit is their experience and ultimately contributes to how they feel about what the brand represents. In our theater, we made sure that every little detail made it a safe place to play, imagine, and interact. That’s what made us tick. Beacon gives people a place to net something special because that’s what makes them tick. Understand what makes you tick. Then make that the driver of everything.