THE BLOG

What I Learned This Week: Pamper the Best But Don't Dump on the Rest

09/22/2013 11:42 EDT | Updated 11/22/2013 05:12 EST

As there has been every day (except Mondays) for about three months, there was a massive line-up yesterday snaking around the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to gain entry to the blockbuster Dale Chihuly "Utterly Breathtaking" glass exhibition.

Despite the grandeur of the huddled masses, many taking shelter under umbrellas because of the rain, I paid them no heed as I strode right by and made a beeline direct to the entranceway turnstiles safely indoors.

Such is the benefit of holding the Museum's VIP membership card. Frankly, there are multiple benefits, including a free subscription to a magazine, discounts on concerts and merchandise, but the "ignore the line" benefit is the one, true ne plus ultra.

Such prestige treatment doesn't come free; a two-year family pass sets me back $166. But my rapid fly-by yesterday, and the looks on the faces of those who knew not of such privilege, made it all worth it.

What the Museum is doing is not new, nor unique. Just about every business still breathing --from airlines to coffee shops to media properties to financial institutions to hotel chains to comedy festivals to pizza parlours -- have some sort of "frequent user" or "subscriber" program that separates the loyal "US" from the random "THEM."

But here's what I learned this week as I flew by the long museum line (and to be frank, something that has been bugging and weighing on me somewhat heavily over the past few months):

TAKING CARE OF ONE'S "BEST" CUSTOMERS DOESN'T GIVE YOU THE LICENSE TO TREAT THE REST LIKE CRAP.

I'm sure no company consciously thinks "let's dump on the majority of our clients," but such is the result in so many cases nonetheless. For example, read this piece by The Montreal Gazette's Brendan Kelly, who unleashed a tirade against Arcade Fire for the way they chose to launch their new album a couple of weeks ago. And as much as I was a bit of a pretentious, conspicuous asshole at the museum yesterday (come on, you WERE thinking that a few paragraphs ago, weren't you?), I am found way more often amongst the "them" rather than the "us," so I indeed get where Brendan is coming from...and where most of you stand.

This "priority reward system" is important, and not going away any time soon. It's business. It's actually good business. It doesn't come easy, or free. You either pay your way in with cash (a la the aforementioned VIP card, or by buying business class airline seats), with frequency, or with influence. And it does serve to efficiently separate the wheat from the chaff.

But the inherent flaw in this reward system is that most of the chaff actually have the potential to eventually become wheat. And pissing them off while in chaff mode may not merely prevent them from ever wanting to become wheat, but the long reach, long knives and long memory of social media may cause enough scorched-earth damage to ever prevent any more wheat from growing.

So here's what I suggest (because it's one thing to learn and another altogether to solve):

Take enough care of the "them" to inspire them to want to become part of the "us."

Delight them. Surprise them.

Give them a dose, a taste, a soupcon of the priority treatment.

Obviously, it can't be a limitless free-for-all; the distinction line needs to be drawn. But why not invite some behind it to cross it every now and then? For example, pull a few people waiting in the "coach" line into the "first class" line at the airport (better still, fill some empty business class seats with randomly-chosen people from the back of the plane). Allow everyone with a lucky "5" at the end of their license number to jump the museum line. Give everyone who couldn't get into the Arcade Fire show a free t-shirt and/or download of the new album.

The specifics of the give aren't that important; you'll figure them out. What is more crucial is the generality of actually doing something of note, because every customer--even the one-off random customer--is a good one.

Recurring customers, though, are the great ones. And the better you treat the good ones, the more chance they'll become the great ones.

Canadian Museum Of Nature -- Vale Earth Gallery