Where Business Meets Museums – Visitor Experience

A number of business management phrases – silo mentality, change management, resilience – have found their way into the common parlance of art museums, and not without concern. As people who choose to work for charities and non-profit organisations, I think museum workers have a complicated relationship with money; we like to distance ourselves from those who focus on the bottom line and profit margins (culture is a higher calling, darling), but we literally can’t afford to ignore rigorous financial accountability. On the one hand, I loathe the commodification of my every waking experience and love that museums are civic, communal spaces that anyone can access without charge; on the other hand, I’m really quite fond of being able to pay my mortgage and museums don’t fund themselves. Some might turn their noses up at ubiquitous ‘exit through the gift shop’ kettling, but what’s the alternative? Planting money trees?

I think business practices can teach us a lot about understanding audiences and how to meet their needs through innovative programme development. They may use different words, but the principle is the same. A successful business must have a clear understanding of its customer-base and potential for growth markets; it must invest in product research and development to stay ahead of the competition; respond quickly to external factors that could have an impact on its work, both positive opportunities and negative threats; and ensure high quality and efficient service. If the customer feels good about interactions with the business’s representatives, this will lead to repeat business, customer loyalty, and ongoing revenue streams. Our motives in museums are different, as we don’t measure success in financial profit and shareholder returns, but I see so many operational parallels – for customer, read audience; for product, read programme.

There is a famous case study of SAS Airlines being turned around by visionary leadership. In 1981, SAS was losing $17 million per annum and had a reputation for appalling punctuality; one year later, with its customer service revolutionised and decision-making decentralised, the airline was ranked the most punctual in Europe and turned an annual profit of $54 million. This extraordinary change of fortune came down to the new CEO, Jan Carlzon, who instigated a training programme called ‘Putting People First’ and empowered customer-facing staff to “[solve problems] on the spot, as soon as they arise. No front-line employee has to wait for a supervisor’s permission”. Carlzon’s book, Moments of Truth (1987), is considered a classic.

This all sounds very familiar – aren’t we aiming to ‘put people first’ too? I can already see how the influence of retail is feeding into museum practice. Visitor Services is increasingly being retitled Visitor Experience or Visitor Engagement, and museums are coming around to the realisation that informed, welcoming front-of-house staff have a huge impact on how audiences feel about the place. Bellowing ‘DON’T TOUCH’ and lunging across a gallery towards an unsuspecting member of the public is unlikely to encourage repeat visits. Carlzon compared the changes at SAS to inverting a triangle. Instead of forming a power hierarchy with CEO at the pointy end, management in the middle, and the lowest paid, usually customer-facing staff along the broad base, he flipped it. When customer is king, those who have most to do with the customer (and the company’s reputation) are at the top, and everyone else needs to be working upwards, supporting those above them to, in turn, support the customer’s needs. The CEO is at the bottom, serving everyone. If you know of any museums working in this ‘inverted triangle’ way, I’d love to hear from you.

Header image: By SAS Scandinavian Airlines (http://images.flysas.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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