Computers and artificial intelligence have come along at an exponential rate over the past few decades, from being regarded as oversized adding machines to the point where they have played integral roles in some legitimately creative endeavours.
Village Cinemas’ marketing chief says a live innovation project running across Melbourne venues this week is not just about finding new ways of incorporating mobile into its offering, it’s about customer centricity.
The cinema operator has partnered with digital and user experience consultancy, Deepend, on a three-day onsite activity that sees a team of six consumer technology specialists engage with local patrons to create, test and prototype a customer-centric app or program. The project will be based on live guest feedback, and could potentially lead to a new digital product or service offering for Village Cinemas to rollout nationally.
Village Cinemas general manager of sales and marketing, Mohit Bhargava, told CMO one of the biggest challenges for the group is transitioning from its bricks-and-mortar history into the omni-channel retail age. Village entertains on average 1 million guests a month.
“Our legacy is not in ecommerce or m-commerce, but we find ourselves operating in that space and becoming a bigger and bigger player,” he said. “Between 35 and 40 per cent of ticket sales are now done via mobile and desktop devices, so digital is a huge sales channel for us.
“As an organisation, we are overwhelmed by the opportunities mobile presents in terms of furthering the customer experience on-premise. Internally, we have multiple views of what can happen – from in-seat ordering capabilities around food and beverage, through to location-based services we can offer to customers, such as ordering over your phone and then notifying our site when you are approaching the cinema to prepare your meal. There’s also reducing dwell times in queues and making the entertainment experience begin from the moment you enter the premises, not just when the film starts.
“There are a lot of use cases we are grappling with internally as a company. We have decided to hand over the decision around ‘what next’ and where we invest our energy and resources, to the customers.”
Like many retailers, Village Cinemas has built up a robust customer service index platform over the years, and the group surveys half a million customers per year.
“Historically, that has been the channel we listen to customers through and based business enhancement and operational decisions on,” Bhargava said. “Then between our suppliers and key stakeholders there are always organic innovations and suggestions that pop up.
“But we are trying very hard to be customer driven. This is the next step up from customer surveys – to aggregate customer feedback in real-time, when they can touch and feel the things they’d like to see, with developers, on-premise.”
Bhargava also noted 60 per cent of total Web traffic is now coming via mobile devices, and 60 per cent of email communications are opened via mobile.
“That is where the customer is – and the vast majority of browsing is being undertaken within 2 to 3 kilometres of our location,” he said.
Bhargava said there is no one ultimate outcome expected from the innovation exercise.
“It’s daunting and exciting at the same time,” he continued. “We have some pre-conceived ideas and priorities around product development. One good outcome is if one of these is reaffirmed by customer feedback... Another is if we identify an unknown area of enhancement or a customer pain point. Something that uses the mobile phone would be ideal; or something on our list of things that are top of mind for customers, so we can prioritise on those.”
The initiative has the backing of Village Cinemas CEO, who is leading a wider transformational charge around customer centricity. Bhargava is also working closely with the head of operations.
“Information technology as an area is increasingly becoming embedded into the overall marketing function,” Bhargava commented. “That’s an interesting area for us – we’re both learning to improve our ability to listen to customers. Marketers inherently can be good talkers, but you create an ecosystem of people which can confuse the voice of the customer. For myself, I’ve had to change how I go about these things.”
The most challenging part of the technology-fuelled customer era is arguably the relationship between marketing and IT, and Bhargava admitted getting IT executives enlisted in the innovation activity has been a hurdle, given the questions around risk and infrastructure capabilities to support any mobile or technology-led initiative identified through the customer listening exercise.
“But that’s not the point,” Bhargava said. “The point is that this not only gives us good insight, it’s a great brand and marketing exercise, where our customers walk away with a level of advocacy around the fact that we’re making efforts to hear what they say. And they’ll see the work being done in front of them.
“We’ll be filming a lot of this, and you can’t hide from what the customer says to you in real time.”
The original idea for the three-day innovation activity stemmed from Deepend, who is an existing digital and user experience partner to Village Cinemas.
“Deepend is passionate about human-centric design and developing solutions based on real-world insights,” managing partner, Kath Blackham, said. “The work will follow this lean methodology to create a product that the customers actually need and want, and will enhance the experience.”