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A Zoo Visitor's Guide to Customer Experience and Performance Chain Excellence

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Five customer experience lessons from a zoo map
  • How to successfully balance performance and customer experience needs

If you've ever been to a zoo (and who hasn't?), one of the first things you do as you enter the grounds is pick up a map detailing the locations of the animal enclosures, exhibits, food areas, and, of course, restrooms. Those maps provide a wonderful set of visual cues to the customer-experience and performance-chain lessons we can all apply to our businesses.

Every company has a performance chain—the tangible and intangible elements that have to move from the moment you trigger demand until you have cash in the bank. The performance chain includes all the ins and outs that have to work together and align with your target customer experience to drive outcomes you seek.

In preparation for her recently released book ROAR: Strengthening Business Performance Through Speed, Predictability, Flexibility and Leverage, Chris LaVictoire Mahai, co-author of this article, sat down with San Diego Zoo director John Dunlap for an interview, which she wrote about in the book.

During their interview, John pulled out the current zoo visitor map, and the customer experience and performance chain story unfolded. Here are some of the lessons from that zoo visit we can all apply to business.

1. The customer comes first

When balancing performance requirements with operational decisions, you should always come down on the side of the customer. Ask yourself, What balance is right for the experience we are building? On the zoo map, for example, that might mean providing better routes, clearer icons, and color-coding that highlights the visitor's options at a glance.

The basic lesson is this: Don't make the customer learn your system; help her intuitively benefit from the system you've created. Your business may not require the literal translation of a visitor map. Then again, maybe it does.

2. Observe customer reactions

You can easily get caught up over-analyzing decisions or letting assumptions slow you down. Test and watch customer reactions. Making simple observations and keeping an open mind to alternative approaches can save you time and money.

The zoo map shows customers that many routes run through the park—and each will provide customers a great experience. The layout of the zoo and its pathways certainly first take into consideration the needs of the animals—the zoo itself (terrain, climate, and access)—and, of course, the needs of visitors.

As in a zoo, how many ways can you create for customers to seamlessly and positively interact with your company? On their own terms?

3. Update your business to meet customer needs

If things are too predictable, you're likely missing opportunities. Customers surprise us all the time. High-performing organizations incorporate those surprises into upgrades and extensions. Such ideas would have never emerged from inside our organizations, particularly if we're lulled into satisfaction thanks to predictable performance that is good enough.

The zoo map always notes areas under renovation or construction. Those areas are great reminders that customer interests change, needs change, new technologies and capabilities emerge all the time that are worthy of integrating into our businesses.

4. Be flexible

You can't anticipate everything you'll run into, so you need the flexibility to deal with whatever the marketplace, your customers, or other stakeholders pitch at you. The zoo map doesn't change because of weather, for example, but it provides clues for how to adapt to a wet, chilly, damp day verses a hot, humid, sunny day.

You can do that with your business, too. You shouldn't change your performance chain with every shift in the wind or the weather, but you should build in flexibility to adapt as conditions change.

Top-performing organizations deal with fixed elements and introduce flexibility via variables that carry them successfully over time. The San Diego Zoo, for example, has been at the top of its game for 100 years. How many businesses can say that?

5. Think about the big picture

Sometimes a zoo visit is not about the animals. Sometimes a visit is about the outing. Sometimes it's about a mom or dad (or both) having a great experience with the kids. Sometimes it is an educational opportunity or a chance to experience something new and exotic.

If you look at the zoo map, yes, you see animals. You also see opportunities for a good hike. Food. Entertainment. Stations where you can learn from experts—or one another.

In business, especially our own, our passions run to the product or services we provide, so it's easy to forget that it isn't always about the thing we're selling. A smartphone, for example, is a wonderful invention, but connecting with people in simple, fun, and immediate ways is what's really cool about it. You may dine at your favorite restaurant time and time again. True, the food is probably great; otherwise you wouldn't be such a regular. But chances are you also enjoy the atmosphere, the recognition from staff as you are being greeted, and the fellowship you feel among other diners that fill the restaurant on any night.

* * *

We balance performance and customer experience requirements in our business decisions every day. Sometimes, rising above the daily pressures to think differently about our opportunities to do more, be more, and grow more effectively is difficult. Sometimes balancing it all feels like a zoo!

Our suggestion: If you feel this way—embrace it. Visit a zoo, and map out a few lessons you can take home to your business.

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Linda Ireland is co-owner and partner at Aveus, a global strategy and operational change firm. Linda's book, Domino, covers how leaders can define customer experience and use it to tip everything in a business toward better financial performance.

Twitter: @LindaIreland

LinkedIn: Linda Ireland

Chris LaVictoire Mahai is author of ROAR: Strengthening business performance through speed, predictability, flexibility and leverage. She is co-owner and managing partner at global strategy and operational change firm Aveus.

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  • by Cynthia Fox Thu May 10, 2012 via web

    This was an awesome article. I read it pretending the zoo was our Dental Office here in Mesa Arizona. Although, we don't treat animals here, the analogies can be translated into any industry. I thank you for giving me a fresh way to approach our flow of patient's.... or shall I say, beasts!!

  • by Linda Ireland Tue May 15, 2012 via web

    As patients / beasts of our own dentists, we can say we love your point of view! Seriously, you are quite right that the analogies and questions are relevant for any business. John's story is a great example of aligning everything to the ideal, or target experience -- which creates value for customers and the organization. Everybody wins.

  • by Cynthia Tue May 15, 2012 via web

    Everybody DOES win, especially the patient!! Thank you for commenting on my response.. CF

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