I don’t usually blog about my bad buying experiences, but occasionally there’s a debacle that oozes horrible from every pore. When that happens, I take it as a civic duty to write about it. It’s a way to help others avoid the folly I’m about to describe.
This incident started last Saturday when I asked my octogenarian mother to accompany me to dinner and a movie that evening. We agreed on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I went online to select a showtime and seats.
I was presented four purchase options. One was to buy directly through the theater’s website, and the other three were through different ticket services. The theater’s webpage loaded slowly, so I bailed and clicked on a link to a ticket broker called Fandango, a service I had never used. The Fandango page popped right up, and I quickly selected two adjacent seats. My mom and I would go to the 7:40 pm screening, which allowed a leisurely 6 pm dinner, and an unhurried amble around the block to the theater. Perfect for mom!
But not long after I completed the ticket transaction, it began to snow. A lot. Then, right on cue, my cell phone rang. It was Mom. “Hi Dear. It’s really a mess out there. I’d rather you not drive over,” she said. “Let’s do this tomorrow.” Her tone of voice imparted that any protest would be futile.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll swap the tickets. We’ll go Sunday.”
“Call the theater and tell them your mother doesn’t want to venture out in the snow,” she helpfully suggested, adding, “They’ll understand.” Awwwww! How adorably pre-internet!
“Well Mom, it’s like this, I bought these online through a ticket bro . . . .” I cut myself off in mid-sentence. My mother does not use the Internet or email, so my e-commerce explanations have always ended with her changing the subject to something less baffling. I pivoted to a simpler, more dependable assurance: “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of it.”
After I hung up, I armed myself with my newly-minted Fandango confirmation number and pulled up the Fandango website. I navigated to the section for refunds and exchanges, and populated the requisite fields. Although I’m not a chat fan, that was my only option for interaction. I clicked Submit.
Immediately, Fandango returned a little informational box that showed I was #82 in the service queue, and the expected wait time for chatting with a chat-person was fifty-seven minutes. Fifty-freaking-seven minutes! For a ticket exchange. Fortunately, the box dynamically updated my position in the queue, which meant I could do other tasks while I endured the inconvenience.
The queue melted slowly. 78 . . . 66 . . .61. I felt like the 50’s and 40’s went on interminably, but still, I hung in there. When my position nudged south of 40, I felt encouraged. Over halfway there . . . Can’t be long now . . . 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . It’s happening! Finally, #1! Yes, there is a God! But please – this would be a terrible time for a power failure, or for my router to spontaneously reboot. Relief. Then . . . It happened. The Fandango chat-person I had waited almost one hour to chat with burst onto my screen, like a long-lost friend. “Hi. I’m Chelsea.”
I explained my issue by typing, “I purchased one adult and one senior ticket for tonight’s 7:40 show of Three Billboards at AMC Shirlington, and now it’s snowing in Virginia, and the senior doesn’t want to go out in the snow. Can I exchange my tickets for tomorrow?” Chelsea replied by asking me to be patient while she “investigated.” Investigated? This didn’t bode well.
A few minutes went by, and with her investigation apparently completed, Chelsea responded that I could have a refund, but Fandango requires that I enroll in their VIP Club to process the transaction.
“You’re kidding, right?” I typed, concealing the magnitude of my dismay. Had I used all caps and followed my question with six exclamation marks, Chelsea would have had a more accurate impression.
“No, I’m not,” Chelsea retorted. It was the most meaningful clue I had indicating she wasn’t a chatbot. But her response was wrapped inside bloated Fandango policy mumbo-jumbo that I was too angry to parse. Over an hour had transpired since I initiated my exchange request, and Fandango was browbeating me into joining their VIP club. That seemed wrong. Here I was having a terrible experience, and Fandango wanted me to sign up for . . . their VIP Club? Damn the ticket exchange! Joining the VIP Club for the sole purpose of exchanging my ticket would send Fandango the wrong message.
As you probably guessed, my chat session with Chelsea did not end on an upbeat note. I’ll just say that if she had any confusion regarding my opinion about the exchange policy, it’s because she stopped reading her screen.
At this point, I became wistful about my mother’s quaint suggestion to call the theater to facilitate the exchange. It reminded me that in many ways, online commerce has not lived up to its promise. Contrary to what pundits often assert, it certainly hasn’t “put the customer in charge.” Far from it. This vignette underscores how, for consumers, the most banal transactions have become unbearably complicated.
Pre-Internet, a moviegoer tendered payment to a cashier at the theater’s ticket window, a machine would spit a generic paper ticket, and an usher would rip the ticket in half when the patron entered the theater. The experience was pretty easy for customers, but cumbersome and labor-intensive for theaters. But the bigger pain for theater operators was their dearth of information. Which consumers went to which movies? How often? What were their demographics? Who did they go with? What were their buying proclivities? They knew very little, and what they did know required expensive and time-consuming research.
Today, information power has swung all the way to theater operators and their channel partners, where it’s likely to stick. Every activity involved in a customer’s movie journey is tracked, measured, archived, and data-mined. And in Fandango’s case, contrivances such as VIP Club membership as a vehicle for ticket exchanges have been established to fatten their information power even further. The ancillary systems driving an online ticket transaction in 2018 are so deep and expansive that it would take hours to figure out how it all works, and even longer to understand where the data goes. Sure – it’s sophisticated, but from the customer’s point of view, it’s hard to think of what I have described as progress. “Your position in the queue is now . . . 82. Please be patient while we investigate . . .”
I don’t blame bad customer experience on technology. I blame it on the executives who misuse it. When that happens, you get Fandango, hour-long service queues, unresolved transaction problems, the coldness and anonymity of online chat, and weird demands to join a VIP Club that you have no interest whatsoever in joining.
My resistance to joining Fandango’s VIP Club emanates from a widespread marketing practice euphemistically called engagement, and marketers delude themselves into believing that customers find it appealing. Many routine activities that consumers do online uncork a torrent of follow-on stuff from vendors, including post-purchase satisfaction surveys, confirmations, confirmations of confirmations, reminders , promotions, deals, newsletters, thank you correspondence, updates, and gratuitous advertising. All from the one-off car rental I made with Budget when I travelled to Chicago in 2017, or the pair of comedy club tickets I purchased from Ticketmaster. Extinguishing outreach from these vendors and their “partners” compares to scraping a wad of chewing gum off my shoes – you never quite get rid of it. “What part of unsubscribe don’t you understand?” Little wonder that I cringed when Chelsea delivered her membership ultimatum.
Back to Fandango and their VIP Club coercion. I have a question for marketers to ponder: if a person bolts from your company after completing just one transaction, and he shrilly Tweets to four gazillion followers that he’ll never buy from you again, is that churn? Or, does the scenario merit a category unto itself?
Fandango, if you’re listening, some lessons for your next strategy meeting from this permanently alienated one-time customer:
- If your business model adds friction to the most basic transactions, tweak your model.
- Develop scenarios for the most common service transactions – say, a ticket exchange. Then figure out how to blow your customer’s socks off with how easy it is to accomplish through your service.
- Sell your new customers (you know who they are!) on your VIP Club by first delighting the daylights out of them (see #2). From there, your VIP Club membership sales pitch will sing, and conversions will soar!
- Integrate your ticket exchange process to an open-source weather or road condition app. A tiny bit of BI (Business Intelligence) would have tipped off your service software that the reason I contacted Fandango was to reschedule a movie reservation.
- Accept that not every person who purchases through Fandango wants a relationship with your company. Some just want to purchase a movie ticket. Shouldn’t you design a way to make that happen profitably?
There’s little doubt that information technology enables better outcomes for both customers and businesses. Like with any technology, as some problems are solved, new ones are created. Pre-Internet, our professional watchword was “give customers what they want!” IT has encouraged a mutation of that ideal: “give customers what we want them to want.” In that regard, Fandango has made their intentions abundantly clear through their ticket exchange policy.
A post-script: The weather cleared up, and my mom and I saw Three Billboards the following night. I thought the movie was OK, though not great. But my mom and I had a wonderful time together.