When a great experience is critical

Is your customer's experience critical to your relationship? It is to all of us. Here's a piece from our archives about how one organization got their act together and transformed their connection with lots of their most loyal customers. 

This summer’s U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Flushing, New York were a surprising and powerful experience. As big tennis fans, my husband and I were expecting much the same experience we’d had at previous U.S. Opens – a lot of good tennis, plus the typical inconveniences associated with large-scale public events (traffic jams, jostling crowds, long lines, outrageous prices, and rude treatment from the event staff).

But this year was different. The USTA had their act together – really together. Rather than simply putting on an event, as in past years, they created a total experience. And what a difference it made.


What’s the difference between an event and a total experience?
Typical planners often string together a series of events and then shuttle teh guests through them. It can be lovely, but is often impersonal. The focus is on the setting and the function from the presenter’s point of view, not usually on the guest’s experience.

Planners creating a total experience recognize that it’s how people interact with the event that really matters. They deliberately see the event from the guest’s perspective – floor to ceiling, 360 degrees – and take the necessary steps to anticipate and meet the guests’ needs and surpass their expectations on every level.

So, how did the USTA deliver an experience rather than an event this year?
It started in the parking lot. In years past, we’ve arrived at the National Tennis Center only to be guided by a series barely-readable signs to distant parking lots on unmarked grassy fields. We would abandon our car, desperately look around for some sort of landmark so that we could somehow find our vehicle again, and begin the long walk – usually a mile or so – to the entrance of the tournament grounds.

This year we were greeted by very friendly New York police who kindly directed us to well-marked gravel parking lots, where we received tickets with our lot designations on them so that we could easily return to the right place to collect our car after the event. Then, we were directed to nearby air-conditioned shuttle busses, where another friendly tournament staffer managed the flow of people onto the waiting transports and quickly and efficiently drove us to the tournament entrance.

There were the usual security procedures at the entrance, but there were a number of “express” lines for attendees not carrying bags or purses. This made the process faster and more convenient.

Once inside we headed for the café stands where we paid an outrageous $27.50 for two hot dogs, two cokes, and an order of fries – some things never change! But as we ate our overpriced lunch at one of the outdoor tables, we noticed that the grounds looked incredibly clean – much more so than we remembered from past years. Throughout the day we saw grounds people constantly sweeping and cleaning. They were everywhere. The result was a lovely and inviting environment.

We also noticed a lot more small stands throughout the grounds where you could grab a bottle of water or an ice cream to cool down without having to wait in a long line. It was a hot day, and people loved the convenience.

Another remarkable change was the friendliness of everyone we encountered who was associated with the tournament. They were energetic, polite, genuinely helpful, and clearly well trained. Even the maintenance workers would engage you in conversation – asking how you were doing and if they could help you with anything.  Everyone showed their training –  and someone's good thinking with their parting words – enjoy your Open.

The one blemish in this otherwise exceptional experience came when I tried to buy some t-shirts. There were several nice styles, but almost every one was sold out – despite several samples on display. When I asked if I could buy teh samples, they said no – those were for display only. It was tremendously frustrating. Only one vendor was taking display samples down and selling them like crazy. The rest were left apologizing to angry customers.

At the end of the day, we boarded the cool, comfortable bus outside the stadium gate and were dropped off right by our designated parking lot where we easily retrieved our car and set off for home. The tennis was fabulous – as usual. But the experience this year was remarkable. We felt welcome, respected, cared for, and safe – and that enabled us to really enjoy our Open. I can’t wait to go back! And I bet a lot of other people feel the same way.

Disney, Southwest, and others follow this same principle of dissecting and focusing on the customer experience as a way to distinguish their products and services. In doing so, they’ve created loyal customers who are often their best ambassadors and marketers – resulting in new and repeat business that has kept these companies at the top of their industries.


What could your company do to create a really great total experience for your customers? Start by putting yourself in your customers' shoes and seeing the experience you offer from start to finish. Ask yourself what the customer really wants and needs to make this the most enjoyable, efficient, worthwhile experience possible.

What’s missing? What’s difficult or inconvenient? What would you love about this experience if you were the customer, and what would drive you crazy?

Then find ways to begin to fix or at least improve these gaps. It may require some extra planning time, effort, training, and perhaps expense – but the payoff from their satisfaction and enthusiasm could be worth millions.

Perhaps most important – instead of ignoring tHE process because it takes time and money, consider creating a great customer experience as a way to have the kind of lasting impact that can really make money.

Lisa Howell
Sr. Strategist

From our archives