SXSW: A Customer Experience Journey

*Note – I’ve been writing this post on and off for a week. Things come up – clients, children, marketing, new business – and this somehow was difficult to finish. My apologies for the tardiness, but I felt it was still important as a different angle to SXSW. Hope you agree.* JCW

As much as some will disagree with me, I have yet to see a true standard when it comes to customer experience mapping, and I personally think that’s ok. How can you map an experience for an insurance company the same way you would for a software-as-service company? There are different needs, different priorities, and different outcomes. And while this is FAR from a complete or complex mapping, it helped me to evaluate my own experience with things.

So as I thought about MY experience as an attendee at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference a few weeks ago, I thought about it in these phases:

Pre-Conference: A-

While some of the communication (like the First Timers Guide) around SXSW was very good, I also thought the technology-enabled human connections were powerful. You could follow people and share schedules online, as well as get a good idea of what topics were presented. The minus comes from the fact that all of this information was overwhelming for a newbie like me. It would have helped to have more explanation – or what about using videos, podcasts, or other ways to disseminate official information? The glossy magazine via snail mail was nice, but not all that informative.

Onsite Onboarding: B

In any experience, onboarding a customer, employee or member is critical to laying the groundwork for the emotional connections. From what I heard, the registration process this year was much better than years past. When I arrived a few hours before the first panel, there was not much of a line and I was in and out in about 10 minutes. I know others waited much longer. The excessive conference bag was a pain to haul around that first day, and it seems wasteful to include so many one-sided papers at a conference that is supposed to be somewhat “green.” I saw many people tossing most of the paper in the trash to relieve the crushing weight of the bag. I also think there was little direction for what to do between sessions or before the actual formal conference began. While there were various “lounges” offered some interactive experiences, I thought the official information and literature lacked coherent direction. That first day, many people sat by themselves, poring over the gigantic official guidebook, trying to make sense of things on their own.

Conference Navigation: C

Most analysis of the actual panels were that for the most part, they weren’t worth much. Too many unprepared panelists and moderators, too little presentation skills or even new ideas equaled underwhelmed audiences. The best thing to do, in my humble opinion, may be to limit the scope a bit and somehow vet the panels selected by the voting masses. This is not a basic crowd. This is a crowd that knows enough to attend SXSW and has their own ideas already. Don’t talk down to the group and lecture. We didn’t come here for that. Help us join in. Gary Vaynerchuck did a great job with this by spending most of his time with the audience answering questions. AND he was still prepared.

The staff and volunteers seemed to have very specific jobs and often didn’t seem to look around and proactively assist those who appeared to need it. The t-shirts helped identify them, but in many cases they seemed like glorified door holders and didn’t take it upon themselves to solve problems. I saw exceptions to this, like those who really helped seat people in crowded audiences or those who worked at the Connection Centers.

Conclusion & Feedback: C

I’m not sure what to call the conclusion of a “thing” like SXSW. Some people head out before the official closure, and I myself opted for a private gathering over the final party. But it did feel a little flat to just walk away. While specific panel evaluations were sort of attempted, I’m not sure how they really got honest feedback on panels and speakers. It seems that with all the technology connecting us, it would be easy to set up a technology-centered way to gather real-time feedback. I hope they watched the tweet streams. There was a ton of information there about how individuals were actually FEELING about the sessions. The post-conference online survey sent out was actually pretty good. I especially liked the inquiry for solutions to any problems you identify with the conference. But I’m curious how they actually got busy people to respond in numbers that matter. The paper evaluation forms for individual sessions were half-heartedly attempted at best. With the budding online community created at my.sxsw there is an opportunity to really gather feedback, listen and respond to it in very meaningful ways.

So all in all it was a positive experience, but there are definitely ways to improve the customer experience.  What other suggestions do you have for next year for the SXSW Organizers?

Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the Chief Customer Experience Investigator™ and founder of 360Connext, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in the cornerstones of customer experience: customer engagement, employee engagement and connections like social media. 360Connext serves mid-market companies and larger by helping them evaluate their true customer experience. The evaluations always lead to improvements which then lead to results like increased online conversions or loyalty.

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