by Keith Diggle
Securing the ‘best’ seats is probably uppermost in the mind of a person teetering on the brink of buying tickets. A high level of favourable awareness brought about by good public relations work, a specifically focused interest and a desire to experience created by advertising, bring potential customers to the point where they are ready to buy. The sales function plays its part in smoothing the path from wanting to buy to buying. Sales promotion offers customers ways of improving the value/price relationship. Mentally committed to the purchase the customer is now very likely to be concerned with the specifics: when do we attend? Can we get a baby-sitter? Where do we park the car? Most important, where do we sit? How much will it cost to sit where we want to sit? Will the best seats have gone? What will I do if there are only cheaper seats left – this is meant to be a good night out – do I want to buy cheaper seats?
It is a topic worth attention in its own right – and this is not the time for it – but one can see how the traditional multi-priced offer can cause confusion and hence delay at this stage. At one level the organisation is saying ‘We are promising you the most wonderful experience, absolutely terrific, you’ll love it’ and then it says ‘And you may buy it for £8, £10, £12 and £14’. Very few other things are sold in this way: if there are price variations they are almost always linked to very specific and significant variations in what is being sold. There are, of course, variations in the quality of experience offered by different seats in an auditorium but, beyond the distinction of ‘a seat at the front’ or ‘a seat in the gods’ or ‘an aisle seat’, they cannot be accurately described or quantified – and these variations in quality of experience certainly cannot be linked in any realistic way to the variations in price. The multi-priced offer often raises questions in the customer’s mind to which there are no answers. This can lead to delay in buying … and a sale delayed is probably a sale lost.
Whatever your pricing policy, you can encourage faster action by making use of the customer’s wish to secure the best possible seat. It is generally better if all your seats have the same price but the technique can still help you if you charge several prices; it is a slightly more sophisticated version of the old ‘Buy now while stocks last’ slogan which, of course, has exactly the same intention.
The message that has to be delivered to the teetering customer is that seats are available now, (now being different for each customer, remember) and that other people want these seats as well. If you give too much emphasis to this latter point then you run the risk of delivering the message ‘the seats are probably all sold, don’t bother asking about availability’. You want your message to make it clear that prompt action stands a very good chance of securing a place in the customer’s desired seating area or price area (you have no way of knowing which of these is the most important). You also need to make it clear that your response to their prompt booking will be equally prompt.
I believe that the best way of delivering this message is a technique I invented in the early eighties when working on the first subscription scheme for the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. It was used by another client of mine at the time, Perth Theatre, and subsequently copied by many others. The ticket booking form is used to deliver the message, ‘You can have the seats you want if you book now’ by the inclusion of a seating plan and making part of the booking procedure the physical selection of preferred seating areas by the customer. The seating plan is given in outline only, no seat numbers are given. The customer is asked to ring three preferred seating areas and mark them in order of preference 1, 2, 3. With this instruction is given the undertaking that the best available seats will be allocated according to these stated preferences on a first come first served basis.
The orientation of such a booking form is clearly towards postal booking but this does not stop you from encouraging telephone booking now that you have made the point – which is that if you want your choice you should act swiftly. Indeed a telephone response, where a sales person in your box office can discuss seat preferences and move the customer into a satisfied state is ideal. This booking form is intended to work at two levels: first, to stimulate rapid response and secondly, to provide a device for postal booking.
If a show is finding its audience very effectively the time will come when customers who book later in the sales period will have to be contacted so that their seat allocation can be dicussed. They will probably not get the seats of their choice but experience shows that most customers will accept without rancour the inevitable consequence of late booking.
The results of using this type of form have been excellent. The customer feels ‘in control’ and the fears about being fobbed off with less than perfect seats by an indifferent box office are considerably reduced. As the three circles are added to the form the customer is reminded of the need to complete and despatch it immediately because he will want to feel satisfied. Also, and this is a subtle psychological point, the seating plan is empty apart from the added circles – it is very different from a box office seating plan all marked up with people who have already made their purchases, who have got there first. It is quite likely that having added the circles the customer will then decide to make a telephone booking in order to speed up the process – and that is highly desirable given that you have trained staff and adequate telephone lines.
On the introduction of this booking form fears were expressed by box office staff that it would not be possible to satisfy everyone’s preferences. Two factors worked to prove the fears groundless. The first is that where there are several performances, as in this case, one may also ask people to give their preferred evenings for attendance as well so a late booker may be offered a different evening so that a preferred seating area may be allocated. The second factor is that some people have more specific ideas about their seat preference than others and this can be seen by the size of the circles they draw:; it appears that people whose preference is fairly precise use small circles and people who are happy to sit in an area rather than in specific seats use large circles.