The Quantum of Customer Service

How can movie theaters get away with such terrible service?

I purposely cropped out the "TM" as a sign of disrespect.

I purposely cropped out the "TM" as a sign of disrespect.

I’m not a big fan of seeing movies on opening day. It’s always a zoo, and the movie will look exactly the same way two days later. But for certain films, waiting two days is not an option. Quantum of Solace qualified.

So I got a group together (which included fellow Overthinker Stokes), we bought tickets online, and we showed up at the AMC Loews Kips Bay an hour early. I was so busy debating the number of times Daniel Craig would appear shirtless, I didn’t really notice that they were keeping us in the line for a suspiciously long time. Finally, an annoyed murmur made its way through the crowd: technical difficulties in the previous show, broken projector or something.

Now, this happens. Totally understandable. But what happened next, I take issue with: they offered us all either a pass to another movie at the same theater, or a refund of the ticket price.

This was the only person we had to complain to.

This was the only person we had to complain to.

I suppose in a manner of speaking, this is fair – they were unable to provide a service, they refunded our money. But everyone there wasted about two or three hours, between going to the theater, waiting in the line, and then drifting off to whatever the evening’s Plan B was. This was a big inconvenience and a big bummer. And while a refund might have met some minimal standard of fairness, it didn’t seem like AMC Loews was really trying to apologize.

That’s probably not by accident. AMC Loews is a big ol’ company, and I bet they’ve thought through their options here. They could have given us a consolation prize, like two free passes each, or a voucher for free popcorn. That would cost them money, but gained them goodwill.

But does anyone pick a movie theater based on your feelings towards the management? Of course not – you pick a movie theater based on location and showtimes. People don’t even really pay attention to the corporate identities of their movies theaters – you just ask Fandango what your choices are and go to the most convenient one.

Contrast this to the restaurant business. A restaurant lives and dies by word of mouth. People need to like the restaurant to recommend it. And while a lot of the restaurant experience is food, bad customer service can be the kiss of death. That’s why if you don’t like the wine, you can send it back, no harm no foul.

And now we’re getting back to Philosophy 101. A lot of the time, people act  ethically not because it’s the right thing to do, but out of an enlightened self-interest. Being a good person brings you good things. Similarly, “the customer is always right” sounds like an ethical position, but it’s really just good business. Here’s Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations:

The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is that of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence.

But if circumstances change so customers will continue to use your business even if they don’t like you, then why bother trying to get them to like you?

A good example is the airline industry. It used to be (pre-internet) that it was nearly impossible to compare prices between every available airline. You’d either just call your favorite one and book a flight, or let a travel agent do the comparison shopping for you. Either way, the airlines had a lot of incentive to make you like them. Of course, they didn’t always succeed, but at least they tried.

Now, thanks to the web, people can pin down the lowest priced flight, regardless of airline. Once you know that one flight is $30 cheaper, it’s hard to pass it up just because they were rude to you last time. And as a result, airlines start cutting amenities and generally treating people like crap. If all people are looking at is the price, than cutting customer service is actually one of the best ways to save money.

We like to think of good customer service as our inherent right. But customer service is another item on the ledger, and as a result, it’s subject to the principles of economics. We get exactly as much customer service as is consistent with maximum profits.

10 Comments on “The Quantum of Customer Service”

  1. Gab #

    Gah, airlines. I was charged for water on my way to Washington in August. Water.

    I had a really long post, but I’m working on reducing my circumlocution and rambling nature lately. Ahem.

    Basically, I think the airlines are in trouble more because of the global economic crises going on, whereas movie theaters are losing profits because Hollywood isn’t making good movies as often nowadays. In the past, like during the Great Depression, people still went to the movies, but they aren’t now. Yet if you look carefully, it’s clear they *are* willing to go, but only for certain movies- the huge openings for TDK and, yes, HSM3, for example. I don’t know a person that doesn’t go because they think the movie ticket is too expensive, but I *do* know plenty of people that have cut down on their flights because of the cost of airline tickets.

    Tangent: Given all of the st00pid bailouts going around, should Congress give one to airlines? Their last one was in 2001, I believe.


  2. Wade #

    They didn’t even give you the option of switching out your ticket for the next showtime? If it’s AMC or Regal or Carmike or any of the big chains, chances are the big event movie’s going to be playing on more than one screen opening night. Now, I get that people are already buying tickets for those other showtimes, so no everyone can choose this option, but they oughta at the very least give you a raincheck for another showing that same night. If I went through the trouble of getting a group together to go see the big event movie opening night, I’m gonna see it by hook or by crook!


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Wade –
    Yeah, they were playing it on a whole mess of screens, but everything was sold out. I don’t really blame them for not getting us into the next showing. To do that, they would have had to bump THOSE people, so it compounds the problem. Besides, if the projector was really broken, that probably meant they lost one or two MORE showings that same night – accommodating all those people wasn’t an option. But they could have, for instance, given us all free cardboard standups for old movies. Beverly Hills Chihuahua would go great in my living room.
    – Matt


  4. Siwi #

    I have actually developed a movie-theater-preference that impacts my choices, but it took several technical problems with poor service in a row and the fact that it’s located on the same 3 blocks as two other same-company theaters I can choose instead (which, wtf). But this with the convenience shopping and the airline prices, this makes a lot of sense.

    Even the theater I’m trying to avoid had to actually mess up the experience of the movies as well as the customer service for me to say no more. And in the year since I said it, I’ve actually been back once, because they were showing what we wanted to see when we wanted to see it.

    Is there a path that would reverse this and make customer service more important? I live in LA, so when we’re feeling especially committed to our movie-going experience we go to the fancy, expensive, assigned seating, no late-comers allowed theater. But I suspect it may take cities full of movie nerds before that is a real danger of harm to other theater models.


  5. Siwi #

    A danger… of harm? Clearly I need to invest in some sleep to go with my blog-surfing.


  6. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Siwi –

    Thanks for commenting! Take a listen to today’s podcast if you get the chance. We talk about the trend of fancy-smancy movie theaters, and whether people are willing to pay more for a “premium” experience. Hey, anyone know if New York has any place like that?

    – Matt


  7. Matthew Wrather #

    I’m originally from LA, so I love the Bridge and the Arclight as much as anyone. Growing up in Santa Monica, I did most of my blockbuster moviegoing at the AMC, Mann, and Cineplex (later Loews) on the Third St Promenade…

    But I would also regularly hit up the Monica, the Royal, the Nuart (Rocky Horror at midnight on Saturdays), and the NuWilshire (sadly now a shoe store or something) — art houses, none of which qualified as luxury accommodations. (They’ve been much improved since I was a teenager.) When I moved to New Haven for college, I started going to the York Square Cinema, where broken seats, leaks, and movies canceled on account of the film snapping were regular occurrences.

    My point, other than name-dropping and establishing some movie snob bona fides, is that — customer service complaints be damned — there is a strain of film culture that actually treasures how shitty the experience can be. Having the most godawful uncomfortable circumstances guarantees that dilettantes and the weak self-select out of the experience, leaving only the true priesthood.


  8. Siwi #

    Agh, cruelly exposed–I’ve spent hours and hours on this blog, but I have some kind of weird podcast-resistance. Perhaps I will try to finally overcome it!


  9. Hazel #

    I don’t think it’s true that people are still going to the movies as much as they want – the fact that people are still shelling out $12.50 a ticket to see the big films like HSM3 and TDK means that they’re willing to go above and beyond for certain movies, not that the prices (and services) aren’t driving people away. How often have you heard someone say, “It was an okay film – it’s worth seeing, but wait until it comes out on video”? I personally hear that a lot.


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