Bonnaroo Music Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After a weekend at Bonnaroo—Tennessee’s sprawling, four-day music festival that wrapped up early this morning—one lesson rings loud and clear: Enchanting customers isn’t just about selling a great product; it’s about showing them how happy it makes you to serve them. It’s about honoring them.
This is the kind of sugary mantra that usually makes my stomach churn. Then I spent nearly 30 hours with 80,000 fans and 150 musical acts on 10 stages scattered across a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn.
It all started to click on Friday afternoon while watching Colin Hay, former front man of the band Men At Work, whose 1981 album Business As Usual hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, as did two singles, “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under.” The band disbanded in 1986, but not before playing its share of packed stadiums. Hay has gone on to have a respectable, if not resplendent, solo career. At 58, he is stockier, with thinning, spiky hair and a rakish grin. Unlike many bona fide rock stars, Hay is a natural raconteur, with genuine comic timing to go with a thick Scottish accent.
Hay performed with only his acoustic guitar. (He’s at his best unplugged, and can still hit those high registers at perfect pitch.) After nailing the opening number—the familiar “Overkill”—he wisecracked: “My grandmother always told me: ‘When in doubt, play ‘em a hit.’” But Hay knew Grandma was only half-right: You have to play ‘em a hit and mean it.
As Hay strummed “Down Under” for what must be the 15,000th time, it never occurred to me that, after all these years, the stage might feel like an office to him, that our cheers might not fill his heart, that all of this might be, sadly, old hat.
I realized later that it didn’t occur to me because Haydidn’t let it occur to me. He honored the crowd not by playing a few hits, but by playing them as if something was truly at stake—and by assuring us that even a bona fide rock star still feels fortunate to be one.
That’s what stayed with me long after the 30-minute set was over: I enjoyed the tunes, but I savored Hay’s commitment—and, silly as it sounds, his respect for our relationship.
Hay wasn’t the only seasoned performer at Bonnaroo who knew how to honor his customers. Half-way into his high-energy performance, Michael Balzary, aka “Flea”, the quick-fingered and sinewy bass player for Red Hot Chili Peppers, walked across the stage, in perfect form, on his hands. The guy is 49 years old—that’s commitment. “We are so @#$ing lucky!” he shouted to the roaring horde. He meant it.
Perhaps no one understood more about what it means to honor his customers than Charles Bradley, a 63-year-old former James Brown impersonator who put out his first record in early 2011. The “Screaming Eagle Of Soul,” as he’s known, grew up on the Brooklyn streets and worked on and off as a cook most of his life, playing gigs where he could. Singing for a sea of thousands at Bonnaroo reduced him to tears. He managed an “I…love…you” before regaining composure and shaking the main stage with some ferocious funk.
Okay, so maybe honoring your customers might come a bit easier when you’re playing for throngs of sweaty, adoring fans than it might if you’re, say, working the early morning shift at the local Waffle House.
Then again, maybe not. On Saturday night, a famished friend and I swung by for some late-night breakfast near the festival. The service was cheerful and attentive, and the hash browns were tasty (and, yes, we were sober enough to taste them).
Maybe our server actually cared that we were happy. Maybe she was in a particularly good mood for some reason. Or maybe she was faking it to get an extra two-dollar tip. I don’t know, but when Bonnaroo comes around next June, I’ll look forward to feeling honored by rock stars and putting away some hash browns.
How do you honor your customers? What specific tactics do you use to build a loyal customer base? What works and what doesn’t? Please share your thoughts by commenting on this post.