The Story Economy Blog

Cinemark Made Me Feel Irrelevant (A Customer Service Refresher)

georgia with bookends copyEveryone has a bad customer service story. They are like badges of honor. You think you were treated badly? Wait until you hear what happened to me!

You know where this is going, right? I have a story of my own to share. However, I share it in service of making a point about irrelevancy. Because this is what causes the wound, and in my opinion, it’s the real crux of the problem with bad customer service.

Let me start my bad story by way of sharing a good story. Creativities Studio, right here in my neighborhood of Madeira, Ohio (suburb of Cincinnati), is quite possibly the happiest place on earth! I know Disney thinks they have the corner on that, but they haven’t been here. Christine Parker started the studio about five years ago, and it’s brilliant. There are tons of classes that teach kids how to make specific things (sewing lessons, working with clay, painting, etc.). What’s extra genius is that you can bring your friends or your kids for open studio, and have a ball creating whatever you want with them. I brought my five-year-old daughter a few weeks ago (I met another parent and her kid there) and we painted wooden butterfly bookends. Pink and purple with sparkles and polka dots! (Pictured above.)

Every single person who works there is fantastic. The atmosphere is so happy and positive. From the minute you walk in, the staff treats you like you are important and creative. They can’t wait to help you. You feel empowered. And valued as a person. And like a terrific parent.

Mostly, you feel relevant.

Relevancy. This is why we care anything about customer service, and why it stings so badly when we’re treated like poop.

Good customer service makes people feel relevant. And bad customer service makes people feel irrelevant.

Irrelevant is certainly how I felt this past Sunday at Cinemark Theatre (Oakley location, for the local peeps). Cue ominous movie trailer music . . .

I took my seven-year-old son and his friend to see the Peanuts movie. The kids talked me into popcorn (of course). I told my son he could only have water, since popcorn was the treat. To my delight, they had a sign at the beverage concession that said courtesy water cups to use at the water fountain were available at the cashier station. Fantastic, I thought! I asked the cashier for one and she told me flatly they were out. “I understand, things run out. But since you’re out, and you say you have them, can I take the smallest beverage cup and use that at the water fountain?”

“No,” she said.
“Really?” I said, pointing to the sign, “Because you have a sign that says you offer courtesy cups, right there.”

“But we’re out,” she said.

I asked to talk to a manager and got the same dead stare, the same one-word answer, the same “you are completely wasting my time” look.

“We can’t give you a cup from over there. It’s a matter of inventory,” the manager said.

“You don’t think you should honor the promise you make in that sign?” I asked, as politely as I could manage.

“It’s not our policy,” she said. And you are ridiculous to even be asking, her subtext said.

I wasn’t going to get anywhere, so I bought my kid the $3.50 bottle of water.

It wasn’t the money that made me angry. I know theaters gouge you. I expect it. It’s a truth of life. What stung was how terrible that manager made me feel. How unimportant. How irrelevant.

To be fair, I get that the stakes could not possibly have been lower. I’m just some woman asking for something for free and then complaining that I can’t have it. Hello, entitlement.

But it isn’t the thing I wanted or cared about. I’ll buy water if I need to. At the end of the day, I don’t care that much. I’m treating my kid to a movie. I’ll spring for it.

I just wanted a moment of recognition. Of, “hey, yes, you ARE a human being, and you’re a guest at our theater, and we’re not doing such a great job delivering on a promise we’ve made, even though it’s the smallest promise ever in the history of consumer promises. Let’s see if we can’t make it right.”

Instead I got the stare of irrelevancy. What they said without saying it was, “We don’t care that you’re here. You’re not important enough to keep a promise to. Actually, lady, in the scheme of things, you don’t matter that much at all.”

Interestingly, when I looked up Cinemark to email a complaint (you better believe I emailed a complaint!), I checked out their About Us page. Their page represents everything I counsel my clients NOT to do. It’s full of facts and numbers: their size, their market share, how many theaters they have, etc. There is not one point of emotional connection on that page (in their video either). Between this page and the way I was treated at the theater, the conclusion I draw is that their brand is not about people at all. It’s certainly not about making people feel relevant. It’s not about delighting customers. Rather, it’s a numbers game. They’ve got the numbers, and I don’t. They’ve bought and built their way to relevancy, and they have the surround sound to prove it.

Will I go back to Cinemark? Well, I’ll choose other theaters over it if I can. But yeah, I probably will—because inevitably, my kids will want to see some movie that’s only playing there, and I’ll exchange my indignation for delighting them. And that’s fine. I don’t need to carry one bad experience at Cinemark with me forever. I’m not that intense.

But I won’t forget either (especially if they don’t respond to me in email or social media). It IS a wound—as silly as it sounds. Bad customer service leaves wounds. It’s not benign. It festers and flares.

The brands that will win are the ones that are able to shore up feelings of relevancy in people. Relevancy heals all of those wounds. That’s why we seek it. I’ll pay $20 for a bottle of water to have that feeling. Money is so, so secondary. I really believe this.

Now, small businesses like Creativities are geniuses at this—they have to be. But the big guys know how to play, too (I’ve written about wonderful experiences I had at both Great Wolf Lodge and Lexus), they simply have a lot bigger cushion and they don’t always feel like it. But nothing deflates an ego cushion faster than making people feel irrelevant. Especially today.

If you don’t know what else do in your brand, just make someone feel relevant. That step will lead you in the right direction every time.

And please, feel free to use Cinemark’s About Us page as a classic example of what NOT to do in your own copy.

PS. UPDATE! Since posting this, the general manager of the  Cinemark location where this happened emailed me personally to apologize. He said the situation was unacceptable and that he had talked to this manager, and was confident it would never happen again. He was articulate and thoughtful, and I was glad for his response. When a company has a mishap, it's good to see how they handle it.


  • Frank X. Stier

    Posted by Frank X. Stier on 12/02/15 3:44pm


    Stick to the locally owned Mariemont, Kenwood or Esquire Theatres. Local is better. (Even if their website stinks...)

    Happy Holidays.


    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 12/02/15 3:47pm

      You're so right! I should have gone there! Next time . . .
      -- Judi

  • Linda

    Posted by Linda on 12/02/15 7:11pm

    I was there this past weekend as well but a female manager , Erin gave me weird clear cup and said they normally don't run out but it was very busy. she said she couldn't give me multiple of these cups because they were bar cups. But she was very nice

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 12/02/15 7:15pm

      That's sort of wild! If it was the same person, I wonder if her exchange with me made her realize she needed to do something? Either way, I'm glad to know that someone there followed through! That makes me feel better.

      • Linda

        Posted by Linda on 12/02/15 7:19pm

        I was there Saturday the manager is normally there, she is black lady very nice always helps when needed. Shocked that this happened here cause she has great customer service

  • Carolyn

    Posted by Carolyn on 12/08/15 8:10am

    I love that you wrote about this, but sorry for your experience. My husband hasn't had soda for nearly 30 years...he gets so annoyed that for being healthy and choosing water over soda hes gets discriminated against with those dumb super small cups everywhere we go.

    So, I can't figure out why one of the theatre employees didn't just make a run to the store and get a pack of plastic cups - good heavens that would have been the logical thing to do, especially since they kept the sign up, without being willing to give out any of their 'special' cups (couldn't they have just kept track of how many they gave out for water?)

    Anyway thanks, your post made me reflect on all the touch-points in my own biz to make sure our clients feel well taken care of at every point of connection. I think we are doing good, but thanks for the reminder to always see things from the customer's point of view. :)

Leave A Comment

Related Posts