This article was commissioned by Musical America and published in October 2014.

“If the Box Office didn’t exist, would we have to invent it?”

In 2001, the BBC Technology Correspondent Bill Thompson said that the Box Office would be dead by 2010. He thought the Internet in all its facets would ultimately replace the need for face-to-face ticket sales counters or phone bookings. His prediction, despite being overtaken by the impact of the Smartphone and hand-held Tablets, has not yet come true. But there is an increasingly loud debate about the future of ticketing and the role of the Box Office.

It is an old truism that, to get into a performance, someone in your group will have to pay for tickets – in the current debate that is the only constant, with questioning of how they might book, how they might pay, and what form the “ticket” will take.

 New questions: What channel will they use to book? On what devices? How will they pay? What form of “ticket”?

These are key questions around the technology: the ticketing, marketing and CRM computer systems now at the heart of interactions with customers. Some of these have become “platforms” to enable organisations to link their software solutions around the central customer record. This provides the “database of truth” so all customer interactions are recorded in one place, and can be used in communications and when staff are handling customers.

Systems such as Tessitura are a great example of this, its’ not-for-profit model meaning it works with its users to provide solutions throughout their enterprises. Stalwarts in the past such as Theatre Manager have ‘joined-up the thinking” to provide comprehensive solutions, but now market leading technology from the likes of AudienceView, TopTix, and Spektrix enable interfaces deep into social media, state-of-the-art web sales tools, and the ability to serve multiple sales channels on different devices.

Getting closer to people through data

Clever marketers recognise the power of the data in the customer records from all those interactions, and now want their systems to profile their customers, enable them to segment them meaningfully, and help them deliver more interactive relationships. There are already specialist suppliers emerging that can offer socio economic profiling tools for arts and entertainment customers, such as Culture Segments from

Instead of pushing carefully targeted information out to segmented customers, venues are starting to pull responses from their attenders, canvassing their opinions, polling them, for example, about performance times and dates. There have been successful one-off examples of this, but the tipping point is coming for venues to engage closely with their audiences on creating and delivering their experiences. (See Changing the Vantage Point). All this needs more dialogue.

Big Data needs more dialogue, not less, using intelligence to get closer to customers

Ironically, it is a truism that in many venues, even today, the people that customers get to talk to most are either sales staff in the box office or the ushers checking their tickets, if they speak to anyone at all. Could it be that if the Box Office did not exist, we would have to invent it?

 Keep on talking

In these difficult economic times, we need to move from a transactional relationship with attenders to one based on deeper engagement and longer term personal relationships. Just when we need to personalise and tailor communications to the individual customer and their specific needs, the Internet, e-marketing, online ticket sales, have meant that we are in fact in less direct dialogue with customers. Even when communicating personally on Smartphones, Tablets like the iPad, we are using emails, texts and Apps.  Social media is providing an open channel of communication, and we are seeing engagement via Facebook, crowd-sourcing and even content creation from attenders. But how real is this as actual dialogue in practice?

 But how real is this as actual dialogue in practice?

Real dialogue with individual customers remains essential if engagement is to include donations and other personal support for your organisation and further, deeper, involvement. The dilemma appears to be for those organisations that developed separate offices to provide personal help and service to say subscribers or members and friends, when now they face an apparently inexorable trend to transfer to a self-service Internet model, as part of saving costs and ‘working smarter’. The good news is that some organisations are rationalizing to a ”One-Stop-Shop” point of contact for all customer service. And seeing some opportunities in this for providing added-value concierge-type services to certain categories of attenders.

It is possible to categorise the types of customers whose needs must be addressed by real dialogue:

  • New first-time attenders who need help with the buying process
  • Returning single ticket buyers who want personal service
  • Subscribers: assistance with subscription purchase; in season customer service
  • Members, Friends and/or participants in Loyalty Schemes who have specific benefits
  • Donors, Funders, Sponsors and Board Members given special service
  • People with special needs for accessibility
  • Older attenders not using Internet and smartphone technology
  • People with enquiries seeking information of all kinds

It is hard to see the Box Office becoming redundant as a customer-service point for real dialogue with potential ticket purchasers and attenders.

 Taking the time to talk

After all the years of pressurizing staff to complete transactions with customers as quickly as possible, either over the counter or on the phone, now some organisations are stressing that staff can take their time and use the dialogue to find out more about the customers, possibly finding up-sales opportunities or enabling conversations about fund-raising.

Of course, the volume of online sales through various devices is steadily taking ticketing into a virtual environment for most customers. When organisations can see more than 40%+ of their ticket sales happening online (some over 60%), there is clearly a reduction in phone and counter sales traffic. There is also a change with people printing tickets at home, having tickets sent to their Smartphones, going straight to the door of the auditorium, possibly swiping past access control devices as they go in.

 Negative scenarios: Reduce staff? Shorter opening hours? Fewer people on the phones? Close the counter except pre-performance? Self-service kiosks?

What is the constructive way to respond to this? Some venues are simply reducing their staffing levels – fewer people behind the counter or answering the phones. Others are reducing their opening hours, only providing service at limited times of the day. Others are providing self-serve kiosks for in-venue purchase. Some are even encouraging purchase on Smartphones right up to the performance start-time. Some new venues are being built with Box Office facilities that could not serve the entire audience any more.

What is convenient for the ticket purchaser and what appears to be convenient for the venue may clash here. Remember that those customers making purchases online, or in kiosks, or when in the venue on their Smartphones, often need help from a person when they have queries or are experiencing problems.

Customers are valuable and we still need to invest in relating to them and helping them buy.