Museums create exhibitions and installations for people. We most often describe those people as visitors. The word visitor has some strengths. A visitor is invited and wanted. But, a visit is transitory and not-participatory. There are so many other words that we could use. There might not be an ideal word, but for the sake of argument, let’s think about the word customer. This is a word that might feel at odds with museum culture. Customer implies a transaction and a transfer of a commodity; both of which are not usually the focus of museum culture (though do occur in museums). But, customer is a useful concept, as this is the word used in service transactions. This service arrangement is central to capitalist culture and has a refined customer culture. The norms of being a customer are inherent in almost every monetary exchange in the U.S. (and most capitalist countries). Customers are being who are treated well and who gets to determine what well means. They are, after all, always right.
Stores and restaurants spend real money on getting the customer culture right. They can’t afford to get it wrong. Design and service are honed to ensure clarity and conformance to brand. People walk into a place of business and know what they do. You don’t walk into a burger shop and wonder if they sell dresses.
Museums, on the other hand, eschew some aspects of customer culture. Whereas almost every public building makes finding the bathroom easy, many museums prefer to be coy. Museums are notorious for their poor wayfinding, no bright arrows for museums. Museums often use volunteers instead of staff to communicate their message.
I’ve been to hundreds of museums. Thanks to years of dealing with patrons, I am highly attuned to hot-button challenges both from the side of the patrons and the front line staff. I can see the pain points and the failures. And, the challenge is that visitors might not be able to articulate the points of challenge, but they can certainly feel those problems.
Signage is a perennial problem, and a topic for a standalone post, but just think of the negative reaction a person has when the bathroom sign is too small to be seen. Their momentary (and visceral) negativity will be felt through the rest of their experience and will spill into their word of mouth reviews. In fact, everything that happens onsite effects the visitors feeling, because visitors are used to a customer culture that centers them.
With the many checks and balances in museums and the legislative pace of decision-making, often the most effective way to improve customer service is to train front of house staff to be more friendly. This decision is, of course, not free. Training takes time. As front of house staff is the lowest paid, they are often the most transient portions of the staff. But, the investment is huge. One good experience with a person can easily erase bad experiences with inanimate items (signs, maps, etc).
One of the best experiences I have ever had with staff happened recently at MassMOCA. This museum is a bit of a pilgrimage site, nestled in the Berkshires. The enormous campus hosts contemporary art that can be esoteric and inaccessible. So, this is a museum that hosts people who really want to be there.
On a random Monday morning, we arrived two elementary aged girls in tow. Children make many museums nervous as if those erratic beings are just waiting to attack. My girls are used to museums and guards, so are okay when guards are a bit brusque. We were all totally surprised when the guard leaned down to their height to tell them which artworks could be touched. When they stood there a bit dumbstruck, he even cajoled them to interact. Every person who worked there communicated that they wanted us to be there. I cannot understate this. When the staff exudes welcome, the visitors/ customers feel positive about your institution.
That first experience was then translated throughout the institution. Staff throughout the organization smiled and helped. They welcomed, encouraged, and intuited, all the while remaining respectful. They were able to hang out at hand rather than hover creepily.
The impact of human experiences on visitors/ customers is huge. We happily bought lunch and knick-knacks, because we felt positive. We stayed longer because we felt comfortable. We told friends with families to make a stop there. (And, I wrote this blog post :>)
While that sign might give you bad vibes, a good experience with a person will be a concrete moment that visitors will remember. These are the kinds of experiences that are returned exponentially in word of mouth and repeat visitorship.
Improving Customer Experience
Front of House plays into the customer experience at the research, initiation, and consumption phases. Each of those points of interactions is chances to foster positivity. But, without thought, organizations end up with erratic service. The heterogeneous siloing of roles (visitor experience and education) often means that customer service feels fragmented. Foremost, museums need to think about customer service systemically across their departments as well onsite/offsite. Visitors/ customers don’t care that people work in different departments. They see all the people working at the museum as being on the same team. The plan needs to be produced with authentic input from people who actually work with visitors. (This plan cannot be top down if it is to be successful). Once this plan is in place, the service goals and benchmarks need to be communicated to the whole organization. Then people need to be trained and commended. Staff who are unhappy will not perform in positive ways. Finally, the customer experience plan needs to be iterative and evolving. Doing better for visitors/ customers requires trying to do better.