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