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Break a leg—why every startup should take a page from the theater

As a wide-eyed youth, I managed the box office of a medium-sized theater in a medium-sized city. I’m talking about the kind of theater with stages and actors, not screens. It was fun, overwhelming, stressful, and maddening. At times I hated the job and at other times I loved it. That theater is where I made friends and met my now-wife, and lived through a few incredibly hot summers without air conditioning. In three words: it was great.

From the inside of that crucible of art and drama, I also learned some valuable lessons about customer service that I’ve carried with me through the years.

Bold choices aren’t always rewarded (right away)

The theater once hosted a play’s world premier. It was a show that I loved immediately, but after a rehearsal I remember thinking how weird it was, how amazing the actors were, and how much our loyal subscriber base was going to hate it. And they did.

Night after night I’d post up in front of the box office and talk to patrons as they exited the theater. There was usually a line, waiting for a turn to complain. Putting on this play had been a risky move, and in a lot of ways it didn’t pay off. But in other ways it was a revelation. As a support organization, we learned how to have better conversations with frustrated customers. After that, we spent more time and effort ensuring that all staff watched rehearsals and knew how to introduce shows to potential ticket buyers—and how to handle delicate conversations around potentially recommending that someone sit out the next show.

Putting on this play had been a risky move, and in a lot of ways it didn't pay off. But in other ways it was a revelation. As a support organization, we learned how to have better conversations with frustrated customers.

Any new company will find that there are going to be times when you make choices that your customers don’t love. There will also be times when, as a company, you’ll stand by those decisions. These sorts of crossroads are critical for building out a great support team because they teach you how to have meaningful conversations with customers about difficult decisions.

It’s important to have a happy place

Next to the theater there was a big, empty field. That’s where I retreated after any particularly nasty customer interaction, to chuck rocks as far as I could. A colleague of mine would dive into a bag of peanut M&M’s. Another set to work folding origami flowers.

The truth is that That’s why it’s important that you find something to blow off steam for 1-2 minutes. You’ll find as an entrepreneur that customers don’t just have issues with a product—they have issues with your baby. That’s tough, and you’re not always going to have great answers to their questions readily on hand. So, my advice? Buy a punching bag and don’t judge your colleagues when they use it.

You'll find as an entrepreneur that customers don't just have issues with a product—they have issues with your baby.

Take notes and share them

Back in my non-profit days, we ran an old version of Filemaker Pro on a collection of donated computers. The first fields I added were all specific to subscriber notes: Did the subscriber prefer comedies to drama? Did we need to use their ‘Dr.’ honorific? Were they high on our donor wall? In what row did their grandkids like to sit? Basically, all our notes were around making patrons’ experience better and more personal without them having to ask.

There are a lot of great systems out there for keeping up with your customers (I’m partial to this one in particular). Your knowledge of your customer base is valuable, and the best way to pass it on is to make sure your team can find it as you scale.

Rules are meant to be broken

We hosted a children’s theater on one of our stages. During shows, the hallway into the theater was dark and liable to have actors running through them. That’s why, if someone left mid-show to use the restroom, we weren’t supposed to let them back inside. It was a rule motivated by safety, to avoid a potential collision, but I defy you to sit in a room with a kid choking back tears because they can’t get back into the show. Kids need to use the restroom, and the rule just didn’t work. Insurance policy be damned, it was unreasonable to inflict on customers in practice.

While I’m not advocating throwing legal caution to the wind, it’s worth considering that the more policies you set for your business, the more you’ll end up breaking. So remember to pass on at least a bit of that leniency as you build out support. Allowing a new employee to act as the voice of your company is hard and requires trust, but you’ll be okay if you hire people equipped to make sound judgments at a time when what’s actually happening doesn’t align with how you think everything should work.

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