Comment: ‘Customer Service’? In the West End? You’re ‘avin a laugh!


My recent experiences in the West End taught me one thing; our historic West End theatres© offer the kind of customer service that would make a budget airline blush. Hands up if you remember the fly on the wall documentary (or, as I like to call it, ‘self inflicted exposé) television series, ‘Airline’, a behind-the-scenes look at the incredibly unfair and sometimes downright outrageous policies of Easyjet? How we cringed as the gormless  young ‘customer service managers’ would humiliate themselves on national television with their ‘customer is always wrong’ ethos. How we raged at their ‘make it up as you go along’ policies.

When you consider that a return flight to, say, Paris with Easyjet can cost as little as 10% of the price of a West End ticket for a major musical, all of a sudden Easyjet don’t seem so bad.

During my recent London theatre trip I noted aggressive bouncers, willfully obnoxious box office staff and a dizzying list of other shameful examples of the West End delivering an extremely poor customer experience. Some problems remain unacceptable, but are slightly more understandable due to each theatre’s limitations, and the enormous costs involved in renovation; only in the theatre could a person be charged in excess of £65 for a top-price ticket, yet spend the majority of the interval queuing to use the lavatory. I am incredulous still that we theatregoers still accept these low standards as ‘a quirk’ of our historic West End theatres©. When you do finally reach the front of the queue, what awaits you can be troubling; three urinals (often one has a bucket underneath – never a good sign), one cubicle, no soap, no hot water (or water so hot it leaves first degree burns) and one hand dryer is the norm for the gents; the ladies make do with three cubicles – God knows what happens at shows like Mamma Mia! or Ghost: The Musical where I imagine the ladies go in pairs, I suspect half the audience miss the second act! Mind you, in Mamma Mia!‘s case it is actually a blessing in disguise.

The bar prices are frankly disgusting; I noted a large white wine was a shade under £10 – for a glass. And not even a glass, a cheap plastic container. Make your evening at a ‘glamorous’ West End show that bit more special by using the ever-decreasing twelve minute interval to drink warm, cheap £9.80 chardonnay from a plastic beaker, stood up of course as there are only four small tables to sit at, which are immediately occupied by the frail and infirm.

If you work front of house and you are reading this, please understand; when you are wearing that little red uniform and are selling ice-creams and programmes you are not, I repeat not an actor. You are not part of the production. You are a customer service assistant and the theatregoer pays your wages, you are there to assist them. Not to look haughty and put on an affected ‘RP’ accent – frankly, I couldn’t care where you’re from as long as you have correct change, a good attitude and resolve any theatregoer’s issues as they inevitably crop up. That is what you are being paid to do, whether you like it or not. This is solely a West End affliction; I have encountered nothing but politeness and courtesy from front of house staff at regional venues. Perhaps theatres should focus on employing those from a customer service background rather than wannabe actors who simply don’t care about their work.

Tickets are a nightmare. All of the Really ‘Useful’ Group theatres use Seetickets – the ticketing arm of the business – to handle all of their sales and ticketing issues. The online arm is run separately to the telephone arm, and the telephone arm is run separately to the theatre box office (even though the box office uses the Seetickets system and prints out tickets with Seetickets written all over them). If you book online and have an issue, you need to call the online help team. The theatre will deny all knowledge and insist they cannot help you if you have an issue if you booked either online or by telephone – even if you have been queuing for the ‘online help team’ for over an hour and the show is due to start in twenty minutes. If you book on the telephone, the same applies. So, really, the only way to avoid paying the various booking fees, administration charges and levies – as well as guaranteeing to have someone in place to assist you if things go wrong – is to book in person. Ah, yes, booking tickets in person. At theatre box offices. What a ghastly, painful experience that always proves to be.

Front of House ushers, for all their posing, have nothing on some of these guys. Always rushed and harried – even when there is not another soul in sight – buying the seats you want from a box office assistant is very near impossible. I am reminded of a visit to see the (then brand new) production of Wicked some years ago. With the production completely sold out, I decided to slum it and queue for day seats outside the theatre, with the front row being sold at a discount. I don’t know if it’s the same now, but back then the queues started forming early – like, 5am early, ready for the 10am box office opening. After a drive down the M1 from Yorkshire, parking up and walking to the theatre we were the third in the queue and guaranteed seats. Five long hours later, arriving at the box office booth we were offered seats A1 and A24 – one on either end of the row. Asking how this was possible, having waited five hours outside the theatre to get central seats and being just third in line, we were told that it was ‘first come first served’ and that those were the only seats available. There was a maximum of two seats per person. Fortunately, we were able to swap tickets with a similarly bemused Asian couple and managed to sit together. A simple case of a box office employee making life as difficult and awkward as possible out of spite and bitterness for their (chosen) vocation, souring my experience before it had even started. The superb TKTS booth offers some respite, but for new shows the box office assistant remains an unfortunate reality.

The West End is no longer a glamorous, special night out at the theatre. It is a commercial moneyspinning honeypot for certain producers, with the rest simply trying to aspire to be just like them. Customer service is dreadful, the theatres under-furnished and, with theatres packed out by foreign tourists, we have let standards slip on the assumption that nobody cares any more. The theatre experience used to be part of the ticket price; now you are shoehorned in, shaken upside down until all your money drops out and then rushed out the back exit moments after the final curtain drops.

Why do we accept all this? Because it is never going to change. If you have a truly outstanding customer service experience in the West End then please let me know about it – and help me restore my faith in our historic West End theatres©.

- Harry Zing

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6 Responses to “Comment: ‘Customer Service’? In the West End? You’re ‘avin a laugh!”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I met very nice box office assistants when I went to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Wizard of Oz. Both times I bought tickets about 15 mins prior to the curtain going up, and the box office assistants cheerfully gave me wonderful seats at a bargain price. For Chitty, I ended up with a box to myself, and the usher escorted me to my seat like a princess (and also seemed amazed that I’d been offered the ticket for the price I got it).

    The staff at the sadly short lived ‘Napoleon’ were also lovely, and I had a long chat with one of them about how great the show was and whether a cast recording would be made when I went to see it for the 3rd time.

    On the other hand, the box office assistant at Singing in the Rain was dire. The lady queuing in front of me asked him what the cheapest available single seat was for the show (starting in 30 mins). She was told quite aggressively that it was up in the gods for £25 (or so). She bought one and wandered off. Next in line, I asked the same question and received the same reply. I then said, apologetically, ‘So I don’t suppose you have any day seats left do you’? The assistant then said he did, and offered me tickets in the front stalls for £25 instead! But I’d never have got them without asking specifically.

    A bit offensive in my opinion and I felt sorry for the lady who’d been ahead of me in the queue. I don’t know if the assistant was being deliberately unhelpful or if it’s theatre policy not to offer day seats unless asked. Maybe it’s the theatre – I didn’t find the staff at the same theatre very helpful when I bought last minute tickets for Priscilla either.

    Seems to depend a lot on the show, the theatre and the person.

  2. ML Says:

    Had a good experience with the Cameron Mackintosh online booking, booked the wrong date for Oliver! by mistake and they exchanged the tickets after a polite email to the support. Also had tickets for the first preview of Oliver! which was cancelled and after getting the money back it turned out I lost quite a few Euros in that transaction…a polite email to the CM office and got two programmes for free, very nice :)

  3. theatregirl Says:

    I’m sorry to read you had such bad experiences in West End theatres. Personally I can’t recall any negative experiences (at least not negative enough to stick in my head).

    Actually my experiences in West End theatres have often been extremely nice. The people at the Prince Edward Theatre Box Office (Jersey Boys) for example have been beyond helpful more than once and even sorted out a problem I had when trying to book tickets for Les Miserables online (both shows are run by Delfont Mackintosh).

    At the Adelphi Theatre (Love never dies) the lovely guy at the Box Office advised me to come back an hour before the show when I was asking for a ticket on the day of the performance as he would then be able to sell me a great seat at half price (and he even promised to keep that seat for me so I could be sure no one else would buy it before I got back – and before you ask, yes he kept his promise).

    These are just two examples but they reflect my general experience with Box Office staff in various theatres throughout the West End.

    Whenever I spoke to the FOH staff everyone was nice and helpful. I never needed them to sort out any real problems though so only bought a programme, maybe an ice cream in the interval or let them show me my seat in the auditorium. But I never encountered any rude or snobby behaviour.

    Toilets in theatres – yes, there usually aren’t enough of them. I have by now acquired quite a skill in getting to the toilet quickly in the intervall in order to save myself from endless queuing. For a theatregoer the small number of toilets is basically common knowledge (and if all things fail you can usually just skip out to a pub around the corner and use the toilet there).

  4. Lou Says:

    Excellent and honest article.

    I recently had a dreadful experience in the West End at the Queen’s Theatre (it seems like the theatres playing musicals are worst) where the usher refused point-blank to let me change seats, unfortunately this meant I could not see any of the action taking place on the stage, due to a man of approximately 7 feet tall being sat in front of me. I was disgusted by the service I received and it sums up what a dreadful experience the West End offers for so many people.

  5. Mike Says:

    Funny that your experience was so harrowing at wicked, although you might want to get your facts right first, as seat A1 in the stalls doesn’t exist. And seat A24 is slap bang in the middle so what an awesome seat you would have had. I read this article whilst looking at the many thank you cards I have received from customers over the years working as a front of house assistant at wicked, and am greatful for people like them who actually appreciate the hard work that we do to make the experience a great one for them. The Apollo Victoria also just won an award for most welcoming venue; so we must be doing something right. As for your comments on ushers all being performers, this is a generalisation as myself and many colleagues have never even stepped foot on a stage. I must have served about 1 million customers in my time there and unfortunately the ones I remember most are the rude obnoxious fools who think coming to the theatre means we should lay down the red carpet for them and shine thier shoes while we are at it. People like you I would imagine. You’re no more special than your article. Kind regards, a customer services assistant. X

    • Harry Zing Says:

      You will notice, Mike, that throughout the post I recounted some specific examples of terrible service I have received in West End theatres; you will also know, being such a stickler for research, that I am invited to review productions all over the country – and indeed abroad – and stated in my blog piece; “This is solely a West End affliction; I have encountered nothing but politeness and courtesy from front of house staff at regional venues.” Seeing as you are award-winningly gifted in your job, I suggest you could clearly teach many of your colleagues a thing or two. Incidentally, being a customer service assistant at a theatre where I suffered an appalling customer service experience, I am giving you ample opportunity to rectify the situation; the internet is such a beautiful forum for resolving such issues, don’t you think? Who knows, perhaps I’ll even send you a thank you card.

      Incidentally – and I shouldn’t really have to explain this – I didn’t feel it necessary to check the exact seat numbers, as the point is clearly made as to what happened; it doesn’t matter if the seats were numbered two and twelve; to approach any anecdote with such pedantry is not in my nature. We were given individual seats at opposite ends of the row simply because the box office assistant was having a bad day. Unacceptable all day long. I assume this occured before you won the ‘most welcoming theatre award’ (I thought it went to the Theatre Royal, Brighton?)

      - Harry Zing

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