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Lego Missteps, Leaving Adult Fan’s Experience Out In The Cold

Published July 18, 2013

Lego, maker of those beloved bricks, sent an unintended message to an important customer (and customer segment) this week: “Go away.”

In what has quickly become a PR and social media talking point this week, Lego turned away an elderly, lifelong fan at the Lego Discovery Center in Toronto. The man, a 63-year-old cancer patient, was denied admission because he wasn’t accompanying a child.

Though the policy seems reasonable on the surface (who isn’t in favor of protecting minors?), it’s execution is painfully shortsighted for a company renowned for its customer experience program–and whose resurgence is due, in large part, to its adult fans. Has Lego lost its way? Or is it just failing on the “execution” part of customer experience?

The Worst Policies Are The Poorly Communicated Ones

The policy of denying admission to adults without children is common to all of the Lego Discovery Centers, not just the one in Toronto. These are smaller, indoor centers—very different from the Legoland theme parks. They’re more like kids museums than tourist attractions, making safety a big priority.

So the rule isn’t the issue. What is the issue is the expectation of an experience vs. the actual experience delivered. A gap occurs when customers expect one thing and get another. The problem is that Lego does a poor job of informing prospective visitors of this rule.

If you’re really looking, you can find the warnings on its Web site. But it’s not mentioned anywhere on the home page; it’s well-hidden on the “Book Online” page (unless you click to expand a special information section), and it makes two buried appearances in the “Plan Your Visit” section.

The Discovery Center’s general manager points to a monthly “Adults-Only Night” as a reasonable means to give adults access, as well. The man who was denied admission said he would’ve visited on that night had he known about it. But you have to know that special event exists in order to look at the Events page to buy a ticket.

There’s an important lesson here for every company to keep in mind. The more restrictive a policy is, the further you have to go out of your way to inform your customers and combat their preconceived (and, in this case, perfectly reasonable) notions. Lego missed the mark badly.

Closing The Experience Expected vs. Experience Delivered Gap

What makes this story all the more confusing is that there’s plenty of reason for Lego to anticipate adults being interested—or at least curious—about the Discovery Centers. Adult Fans of Lego (AFOLs) are a huge part of Lego’s successful turnaround. For example, the man in this story has 75 Lego sets and more than 50,000 bricks. And this isn’t a true kids-only entertainment center, like Chuck E. Cheese. In a section of the Discovery Center called MINILAND, Lego master builders have re-created the Toronto skyline using 1.5 million bricks, complete with lighting effects and movement. An attraction like that is almost guaranteed to draw interest from AFOLs.

So why didn’t Lego at least consider a more kid- and adult-friendly approach to these centers? I sure hope it didn’t make this decision lightly. In fact, I hope it agonized over it. That’s because there are more than 200,000 AFOLs in North America, and while they only make up 5 percent of the Lego market, they outspend the traditional family-with-children purchasers by 20-to-1. (How many kids do you know with 50,000 Lego bricks? Yup. None.)

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I suspect this was a well-thought-out rule given Lego’s forward-thinking, creative approach to customer experience design. After all, its “experience wheel” version of a customer journey map (click on image, below, for a larger version) has been widely distributed in the service and customer experience design community.

But as forward-looking as an organization is, if it doesn't focus its experience design on specific segments, it’s easy to have things (and people) fall through the cracks. As important as AFOLs may be to Lego, this is one customer journey it clearly didn't map.


Empowering Employees To Do The Right Thing

One thing that would’ve helped Lego quite a bit here is a critical component of any customer experience strategy: employees who are actually empowered beyond the proverbial exception to deliver the experience customers expect. For example, if an adult fan just wanted to see the Toronto skyline exhibit, surely he could be accommodated. Right? Lego missed a step here, too, providing another “teaching moment” for customer experience practitioners around the globe.

Like Lego, not nearly enough companies trust and empower their employees to do the right thing. In this case, the marketing manager said she would’ve gladly taken the man to the exhibit as her guest had she been alerted to the issue. But in another article, the general manager stated that solution (an exception to the policy) would’ve been unacceptable.You can guess whose point of view wins out nine times out of 10.

I completely understand how difficult it is to foresee every situation, particularly in an organization with such widespread destinations, products, services, and customer segments. But the reality of delivering a great customer experience is that one size doesn’t fit all. If your employees aren’t allowed to act in ways that are best for your customer, usually that means they can’t act in ways that are best for your company—whether that means lost customers, bad PR, or something else entirely.

We’ve been living in an age of increased information transparency long enough to realize that bad policies and bad service cannot remain hidden. That, alone, is reason for otherwise smart companies like Lego to make sure issues like this don't occur. At the same time, it’s a little refreshing when a company like Lego trips up. After all, if it happens to Lego, then it can happen to anyone!

It’s not schadenfreude. It’s a reminder–both that we’re human and will make mistakes, but also that we always have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. The question is: Did Lego learn from this one? (And are you learning from yours?)

This blog originally ran on CMO.com, where Michael Hinshaw writes the weekly "Get Customer-Centric" blog.

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