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TOPIC: Thinking Clear

Thinking Clear 30 Jan 2001 14:13 #19593

  • take2
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I know that most of us out there know all this. But with all the closings of the bigger multiplex's and the filings for bankruptcy. I thought it would be a good read to focus in on. So here goes.

By Dan Harkins

My father began Harkins Theatres in 1933 with a philosophy of making each customer feel more like a guest or friend rather than "just a customer." During my younger days, I saw my father with the likes of Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra. While at his theatres, he treated them like the stars that they were. The great thing about dad was that he treated all of his patrons the same way. He knew their names, knew their families and, in a word, he was their friend.

He also treated his employees as if they were family. He cared deeply about everyone and went out of his way to help when he could. Of the many lessons he taught me, two are still the bedrock of Harkins Theatres today, almost 70 years later. They are caring for and about your customers and empowering your employees.

My father died in 1974 and at the age of 21 I took over the theatre chain. It was a very difficult situation. We had a few theatres spread throughout the Phoenix metro area and all of the major chains were building around us. We were having a hard time getting films. We almost never met payroll, and I wasn't able to cash my own paychecks for almost a year. I collected the quarters from my game machines to buy food.

I was virtually bankrupt and almost ready to give up when I remembered my father's advice. "Take care of your employees and they'll take care of you," he would say. "Remember that your customers should be treated like guests, not just a dollar bill walking through the door."

When you're down to taking quarters out of game machines to live, it's difficult to pay heed to such lofty advice. My decisions were more in the vein of: "How high can I raise ticket prices?"; "Can I sell more popcorn?"; and "Gotta slow down payments of bills."

When I was at rock bottom, I discovered what my father knew all along. Your employees, vendors and customers will be at your side through thick and thin if you treat them with dignity and respect. My company was failing and I knew I had to change the way I did business or I'd have no business. What I knew I could do better than anyone else was to provide outstanding service to all. After all, I'd spent literally every waking moment of my life watching my father do exactly that. From that day on, Harkins Theatres became dedicated to superior customer service for our customers, vendors and employees. It was one of the defining points of my life.

It seems that today's defining points for some exhibitors are stadium seating, digital sound and megaplexes. Others add highback rocking chairs, THX and gourmet concession stands to the list. However, the single most important defining point for our industry should and must be customer service. Gone are the days of "If we build it, they will come." We know now this is simply not true.

At no time in our industry's history have moviegoers had such a fantastic choice of great theatres, films and amenities. And yet, many of us are facing difficult times.

In our industry's rush to expand, we've strained the system. There are fewer corporate employees doing more work. Theatre managers are expected to work well over 50 hours a week. And in many cases theatre staffing levels have fallen to an all-time low on a per customer ratio. For example, not long ago you could count on an usher to check each auditorium at least twice during a film. Today it is oftentimes difficult to find an usher, other than the harried individual tearing tickets at the front door.

Customers want, demand and deserve high quality service at every step of their moviegoing experience. This means that we must re-evaluate how we provide service to our guests.

At Harkins, our customer service strategy is part of our corporate mindset. We have guests, not customers. We have team members, not employees, and we have guest concerns, not customer complaints. We also believe that our internal customers (team members) are as important as our external customers (guests).

For most customers, the moviegoing experience begins well before they actually see their film. Therefore, customer service rituals must begin before the guest arrives at the theatre.

For example, to anticipate any pre-show service issues, I ask myself several service-related questions each week:

* Can our guests read the newspaper directory?
* Is the information accurate?
* Is our Web site providing the right information in a timely manner?
* Is our phone system operational?
* Are our parking lots clean and well-lit?
* Are our theatres inviting and attractive?
* Are we playing films that people want to see?

All of these questions address items that happen long before the guest enters the theatre. I feel that at every step of the way, Harkins Theatres is responsible for providing the best service we can.

Once a guest reaches our boxoffice, we expect our team member to greet each guest, making eye contact in the process. Once the transaction is complete, the team member will wish the guest well and close the sale with a smile and an "enjoy the show."

At the door, every guest is greeted and directed to the appropriate auditorium. At the concession stand, fast and friendly service is the standard. Of course we hope our guests see smiles and friendly faces on every team member, and in order to help us achieve this goal, we reward our team members for smiles and great service.

We have a team member incentive program called "Star Cards" that enables team members to "purchase" products from our company store. Team members earn Star Cards by providing great customer service to our guests as well as performing the rest of their job responsibilities to the best of their ability. Additionally, we reward theatre-based team members, both managers and staff, for outstanding checkers reports.

We are also proponents of theatre-level marketing. We have empowered our theatre-based team members to not only promote films playing in their complexes, but to promote moviegoing at Harkins as well. There is no long chain of command for our managers to get approvals to do promotions. Usually, it's one phone call or email.

Through our weekly managers letter and other in-house communications tools, we recognize our managers' efforts in the promotions arena. We have found that a well-placed and sincere word about a team member's efforts goes a long way in soldifying our relationship with our team members.

Through training, our theatre-based team members understand that they're our direct link with the public. Our ongoing training program provides a constant, secure base of knowledge from which our team members can operate. If your team members don't know the rules, how can they best serve your customers?

Yes, there are easier, less costly ways of doing things. You can have less staff. You don't have to greet everyone. There's no overwhelming need to check auditoriums every 30 minutes. The problem is that the less time you spend with your guests, the less time that they'll spend with you. In other words, people take care of what they value and we value our guests. We also value our team members. They are the backbone of the company.

Every time we open a theatre, I speak personally with the new team members. I let them know that the $15 million theatre they're sitting in is worthless without them. We also discuss the fact that any customer that has a negative service experience doesn't care what the theatre cost to build or what amenities we have.

At Harkins, our number one goal is to provide each guest with the best possible moviegoing experience. If we fall short of that goal, and sometimes we do, we take every step possible to ensure that the guest is satisfied.

In order to do this, we've empowered our team members to make decisions regarding customer service. If a free popcorn or other concession item will make a guest happy, our employees have the power to give it to them. If a free ticket is in order, "No problem" is our response. "Make the guest happy" is rule number one. If a guest is happy when they leave our theatres, they'll be back, and they'll tell people about the great customer service they received.

Knowing that our guests expect the best from Harkins Theatres, our vice presidents spend an inordinate amount of time making sure that our theatres and team members are ready for action every day. They spend time not only going over reports, they spend quality time with the managers every week. This engenders a high level of trust between our VPs and managers and also allows them time to communicate the company's objectives and goals directly to our theatre-based team members.

The object of paying so much attention to customer service is to create loyal Harkins guests that will consistently choose us over our competition. However, not every guest has a great moviegoing experience. This is when something has gone wrong in the guest's eyes. Again, you can take a potentially negative situation and turn an upset person into a long-term loyal guest. It's up to you.

At Harkins Theatres, virtually every guest that has a concern has direct contact with at least two Harkins team members. Usually it will be a department head or vice president as well as the theatre manager. Many times I also write the guest a short note thanking them for their input. Generally speaking, we move heaven and earth to please our guests. Again, all of our corporate office-based team members are empowered to do what it takes to make the guest happy. It is important to me that our guests understand that Harkins Theatres is not just a business. It is a customer-friendly entertainment company made up of caring team members.

There are always going to be guests that are hard to please. We've trained our team members to realize that no matter what you do, you will not be able to make some people happy. In that case, you provide the best service you can and know you did all you could. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the guest is simply never going to come back.

These are the guests that wind up in what I call "the customer graveyard." Once a guest goes to the graveyard, there is no way to get them back. They have, for all intents and purposes, died. We will never see them again. It doesn't happen often, but I hate it when it does. What could we have done to save the relationship? How can we make sure that it doesn't happen again? What have we done to help them get there? What can we do as an industry to keep our customers from going to the graveyard?

With megaplexes everywhere and the Internet just around the corner, customer service is the one essential tool that we have to keep our guests out of the graveyard. In order to do this, we must provide great service for external customers all of the time or they will go down the street to the next megaplex, rent the video or, in the not too distant future, simply download the movie.

However, without a great customer service strategy for our internal customer (team member), our guests will suffer and our competitors will win the day. This goes for large companies as well as a single-screen theatre in a small town. You're not only competing against another megaplex, you're competing against video, the Internet and every other form of entertainment that keeps guests from coming to your theatre.

No matter the size of the theatre chain, it's important to foster team spirit by soliciting ideas from our team members and rewarding them when one of their ideas is implemented. Team members should be encouraged to participate in designing and implementing new procedures. They should also be rewarded and recognized for their efforts.

Most of all, team members must be empowered. They must be allowed to make decisions. And yes, they must be allowed to make mistakes. As you know, some of the best training available is through our mistakes. Instead of berating a team member when a mistake is made, take the time to have a counseling session with them. It's almost always possible to turn a team member's mistake into a positive training experience. A well-trained team member is getting more and more difficult to replace.

Today's job market being what it is, many prospective team members are asking, "Why should I work for you?" It's almost like a reverse interview.

What do we tell them? What do we have to offer other than free movies and all the popcorn you can eat? We all have a labor problem. There are just too many jobs chasing too few people. We have to meet the new standard for internal customer service or our prospective team members will be working for our competitors.

This means empowering the team member to do their job as well as offering a host of other amenities like 401K, profit sharing, liberal vacation and sick days and more. We must treat members with dignity, honesty and respect. This includes paying livable wages.

Many companies don't like it when a line employee challenges the way a company does things. We should, however, celebrate the differences in our team members' opinions and encourage them to challenge the old ways. Many times they'll surprise you and have the perfect idea or thought that makes it all work. This philosophy has made companies around the world more dynamic and more profitable.

With the quality and quantity of today's theatre complexes, customers both internal and external have far too many choices to be trapped into working for or going to any particular theatre. Even knowing this, sometimes we make it more difficult for our customers to be loyal without knowing it.

To save money or increase revenue, many exhibitors have raised prices frequently, reduced the number of staff hours, changed concession items, reduced or eliminated advertising, haven't cleaned theatres as often as they should and don't clean the auditoriums and parking lots as frequently as they used to. It's very easy to make decisions from our prospective ivory towers without fully understanding the consequences of our actions.

If you have a solid team that understands your company's goals, you can't lose. If you have empowered your team members to make decisions, they will not be afraid to let you know their opinion regarding your decisions. They are, after all, the people that must implement the company policies. And -- trust me -- they know what works and what doesn't.

Customer service really is the last battlefield. In order to win this battle, we must all provide the very best customer service possible including superior amenities, great theatre complexes and having well-trained, empowered team members.

If we as an industry are not prepared to provide great customer service to our internal and external customers, we will come out on the short-end of things. Yes, it costs money, but we are all here for the long haul. We simply cannot cut corners in today's ultra-competitive environment. Our guests and team members will find other places to spend their time and money.

We are a part of the most exciting business in the world. People love to go to the movies. Many people dream of working in the movies. Every day of ever year we fulfill that dream for the thousands of people we employ and the millions of guests we serve. Now is the time to take the next step. Are we prepared?

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Re: Thinking Clear 31 Jan 2001 13:50 #19594


I've heard some good things about Harkins Theatres, and this article supports it. Unfortunately, too many theatre circuits lack this clear focus on pleasing and serving customers and employees. I'm glad customer-focused "showmanship" lives on in some good theatre companies.

Where was this originally published?

John P. Pytlak, Senior Technical Specialist
EI Worldwide Technical Services
Research Labs, Building 69
Eastman Kodak Company
Rochester, NY 14650-1922
Telephone: 716-477-5325 Cell: 716-781-4036 Fax: 716-722-7243
E-Mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
John P. Pytlak, Senior Technical Specialist
Customer Technical Services
Entertainment Imaging
Research Labs, Building 69, Room 7525A
Eastman Kodak Company
Rochester, NY 14650-1922
Telephone: +1 585-477-5325 Fax: +1 585-722-7243
E-Mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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Re: Thinking Clear 31 Jan 2001 23:47 #19595

I worked for one of those circuits who cared only for the bottom line and not the customer. They are now suffering greatly, not realizing that the customer is the reason you have a bottom line. I read the article by Dan Harkins in Box Office and give him two thumbs up. I wish I lived the AZ area I would love to work for him.
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Re: Thinking Clear 01 Feb 2001 12:08 #19596

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Hi John - I got this article from the last issue of Variety, but I've also seen it in BoxOffice awhile back. I don't know if it appeared anywhere else. But it just struck me that this was something that people should read. It would probably make some people think and others smile because they knew most of this all the time. Have a great day.

[This message has been edited by take2 (edited February 01, 2001).]
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