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Pearl Jam’s Lessons for Great Customer Experiences

September 29, 2011

Stay with me,
You’re all I see.
Did I say that I need you?
Did I say that I want you?

-Pearl Jam, ‘Just Breathe’

I’m a passionate Pearl Jam fan – I’m in the fan club, haven’t missed a New York area concert in 15 years, and immediately purchase any kind of recording, DVD, CD, vinyl, etc. that they release. I am not alone – this band has a vast and devoted following, many of whom have been following the band since their debut album. As Pearl Jam recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, it occurred to me that their durability and fanatical fan base may have developed through efforts that offer ideas for improving Customer Experience that can be applied more broadly. And I enjoy the challenge of finding a way to inject Pearl Jam into a business discussion. So what can we learn from Pearl Jam?

Stay Customer (fan) centric

Pearl Jam has remained focused on their fans. They describe themselves as music fans first, and make decisions from that perspective. They tour often, take up causes relevant to their fans, and seek to make their music as accessible as possible – their years long battle with Ticketmaster to keep concert ticket fees low highlights this well. My colleague Howard Lax reminds us in a recent post that ‘Maximizing customer value – which is accomplished by driving loyalty behaviors such as retaining customers, keeping customers longer, selling them more goodies and getting positive word of mouth – is, by definition, core to boosting shareholder value.’ The band’s approach has clearly worked on this fan at least – in addition to the buying all of their latest releases, I now also buy all kinds of merchandise from them, including clothes for my son (their collection of Pearl Jam onesies were a particular hit when he was a newborn!). They are seeing significant lifetime value from me, and finding exposure for the next generation as well.

Make your Customers (fans) feel special

Perhaps more than any band, Pearl Jam has done a masterful job of making its fans feel special and part of an exclusive group. They have a well-regarded fan club that is a vehicle for special offers that are meaningful to fans – the most coveted of which is the chance to buy concert tickets before they go on sale to the general public, and the seats are often the best in the house. They make available recordings of all of their shows (‘bootlegs’); something most other bands strictly prohibit. Loyalty programs are very common – but do most truly excite customers? Do they develop a sense of being in an exclusive group?

Allow your Customers (the audience) to be part of the experience

Pearl Jam’s concerts have become legendary as unique, shared experiences. Because they try to ensure that their ‘real fans’ get access to shows, the concerts seem to have more energy and camaraderie than most. Their shows truly are a celebration of the music – it seems everyone in the arena knows every word to every song.Pearl Jam encourages their fans to ‘own’ the experience. Got a camera? They say go ahead and click away. Want to record the show? No problem. They are happy for fans to enjoy the recording again and again, and share with friends. They let people participate in the experience in a way that most other bands are extremely protective of.This sense of ‘common fan-ness’ encourages a shared experience that could not be possible were the band simply pushing out a formulaic show every night. We’ve written before about a few key trends we’re observing in Customer Loyalty, one of which is ‘understand my needs, customize to me’. Pearl Jam do this well by performing a different show every night (as the Grateful Dead did before them). The songs they sing are almost always completely different from one night to the next, which again enhances the feeling of being part of something unique and special, and encourages fans to attend multiple shows.

Build a trusted relationship

A second key trend we’ve seen is ‘make me feel comfortable, earn my trust’ which Pearl Jam have done through their clear communications with fans, pursuit of making connections, and efforts to keep pricing fair. Pearl Jam have a strong bond with their fans.

Be Genuine

The trusted relationship has developed because Pearl Jam do not seem to engage with fans in this way as a marketing ploy- they genuinely mean it. After 20 years they still have the energy to chase causes they believe in, and still fully focus on every concert. They are not just stepping through the motions and fans recognize and respond to that. Customers, too, know when a company is ‘mailing it in’.

Many of the lessons above are fairly obvious guiding principles that most people recognize should be followed – yet so many companies lose sight of them. If a 90’s grunge band can succeed by faithfully adhering to these basics, perhaps they can have a positive impact on customer experience in others aspects of our life as well.

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