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What a Billy Goat from SNL Taught Me About Customer Experience

Peter Kozodoy logo Posted Wednesday September 14th, 2016 What a Billy Goat from SNL Taught Me About Customer Experience

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Last week I crossed paths with a Chicago icon: the Billy Goat Tavern in downtown Chicago. Sorry, I should have said, the "World Famous" Billy Goat Tavern, as its many signs suggest. So, you ask, what made me become a patron of this old-fashioned bar-in-a-basement, known most famously for its ties to Saturday Night Live?

I'll tell you what: It looked like an experience.

First, as I meandered down E. Hubbard St towards N. Rush, I was met by an unusual, street-wide sign, stretched across the Hubbard Street pedestrian overpass, declaring the presence of the World Famous Billy Goat Tavern. All well and good - until I realized that the sign doesn't point you in any particular direction, but instead forces you to enter into the dark underpass in search of any sign of existence. Fortunately for me, I wasn't disappointed with the neon that met me further down the street, so I proceeded down the half-century-old stairwell into what could only be described as a bad day from the mid-20th century.

The signs on the wood paneling were old and dusty. Faded photos and political paraphernalia hung from every nook and cranny of the place. The menus looked like the food options - and prices - hadn't been changed for decades. The staff drifted lazily about, not caring in the least that a prospective customer had walked in. I ambled towards the bar and sat down, before the diverse array of faded colors, mismatched styles and ponderous signs on the wall made me too dizzy to stand.

The elements were arresting to the eyes, offensive to the nose and stinging to one's design sense. But altogether, the customer experience was beautiful. Yes, I said, "beautiful." Here's what I learned from the Billy Goat Tavern when it comes to customer experience:

  1. The best experiences are truly diverse. People and their preferences are as diverse as snowflakes, and there's a customer for every type of brand. With its innate outlandishness, no restaurant could reflect the values of the Sianis family better than the Billy Goat Tavern. Its experience is, of course, the complete antithesis to Chicago's iconic Gibson's Steakhouse (which yours truly also thoroughly enjoys), but that's very OK. Dining is one of the most elemental human activities, and how we dine should be as different as we are.
  2. Outrageous is newsworthy. How did a dirty, dingy, old-fashioned, cheap and standoffish place earn worldwide acclaim? By being remarkably dirty, dingy, old-fashioned, cheap and standoffish! In fact, the Billy Goat is remarkably remarkable for its frozen-in-time theme. Case in point: SNL made a satire out of it, and here I am, many decades later, still writing about the Billy Goat.
  3. Effective experiences are memorable ones. When you see something interesting, your brain relapses into a childlike curiosity. How could I not venture into a dark basement with neon signs that proclaimed itself "World Famous?" This was an experience worth having, I mused, because it seemed different from anything I had experienced before (or at least in recent memory). I couldn't forget this place if I tried, which means I'll be able to talk about it for years to come when people ask me, "how was Chicago?"

From a strategic branding perspective, the Billy Goat Tavern nailed its essence beautifully. The customer experience you get in that basement is remarkable - as in, you can't help but talk about it with your friends and colleagues. To change it now would be to give into the norm and accept a certain, vanilla standard. For a restaurant that carries its own standard, that would be a horrific violation of its brand.

Sitting in that restaurant, I pondered two questions: First, how can every brand embrace a diverse, outrageous and memorable experience that will make it truly remarkable?

The second question I actually did ask: How much are the t-shirts hanging on the wall?

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