“I want criticism, I genuinely do, because you learn from that and that’s value for our business,” says BridgeClimb founder Paul Cave, who notes that customer feedback has been an integral part of his success.
“Every negative problem is communicable and I think that’s what people lose sight of – you can communicate if you’re prepared to!”
Paul rejoins the My Business team to continue the interesting story of his unique business, as well as explain how he implements the feedback of each and every one of his 3.6 million customers within the business to improve and individualise every experience.
Tune in now to hear why Paul reported himself to WorkCover to keep operations safe, how the business works hand in hand with the tourism industry to bring people into the country, and how BridgeClimb guests will be able to dance atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge!
Enjoy the show!
Adam Zuchetti: Welcome to the My Business podcast. It’s Adam Zuchetti here, the editor of My Business. I’m joined by my regular co-host Andy Scott. Andy, how you be?
Andy Scott: I’m very well, thank you. I’m very well indeed. I’m very excited that we’ve got a guest come back, who we had a fascinating chat the other week and he’s managed to clear his day for us, to make some time, so we’re very grateful for that.
Adam Zuchetti: We have, we have. Unfortunately we’re quite restricted for time. So it’s really good to have today’s guest back in to discuss some more issues that were really raised, that we just simply didn’t get to cover. So we’ve asked Paul Cave the founder of BridgeClimb, on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to come back. Paul, thanks so much for joining us again.
Paul Cave: Thanks, it’s great to be back. Thank you.
Adam Zuchetti: I think you, off memory last time you were in, you left off talking about feedback and the importance of customer feedback, and that you get every one of the 3.6 million people who’ve climbed the bridge, at the end of their experience, to fill in an evaluation form. What are some of the questions that you ask them at the end of that, that you can then utilise for future endeavours and things, and improvements?
Paul Cave: Well, we look for their verbal or the words/commentary on the entirety of the experience, including from their booking, to the way the process works, the way the staff have treated them and on their climb experience. And so, that feedback is really important to get.
As I think I mentioned, we get almost 90 per cent of all of our customers fill in that several page document, and it's really ... it’s the guts of our business. It’s the important part of what we deal with then in changes and the value of that feedback. And particularly if it’s constructive criticism – occasionally had a complaint, they’re the valuable things we’ve got as a consequence.
Andy Scott: It’s a very brave thing I think, for a lot of businesses, to ask for honest feedback. Because it can be quite confronting, because a lot of the time it’s very easy to dismiss as well if it doesn’t fit with your world view. When did you identify that you knew it was an integral part of the success of the business, that you had to do that, and how have you found dealing with those negative things, of something that you put your heart and soul into for 10 years, to get going?
Certainly that initial negative feedback – how did you deal with that and how did you then feed that back into the business in a positive way?
Paul Cave: Look, most of the feedback is positive anyway. However, the value ... We really want our customers to tell us, this is experiential business. It’s what we’re doing. So you want your customers telling you how you can make it better.
So, the value then of ... Our climbers now carry a handkerchief. Now, that is as a result of a customer saying, “You know, I get teary eyes up there. So how do we deal with that?” So we got enough customers identifying that issue to make that change. And frankly, the business is really built on what our customers have said back to us, and yes, sometimes it’s confronting and I think the challenge for us is seeing that in a constructive light and being receptive to it. I want criticism, I genuinely do, because you learn from that, and that’s the value for our business.
I think that’s a part of our culture that is really under pins what we do, because we’re forever wanting to raise the bar. You only raise the bar if you deal with the negative as well as the positive and more particularly the negative, so important.
Andy Scott: Yeah, I think so, in terms of the, I suppose, the negative side of things, is that a ... Is it a challenge to ... Because there’s always things that, “Yeah, it’s negative but they’re wrong. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” Is there some negative stuff you dismiss and just – not dismiss but accept, “We’ll never fix that, that’s just how it is.” Or do you think every negative problem is fixable in some way?
Paul Cave: Every negative problem is communicable and I think that’s what people lose sight of. You can communicate and discuss if you’re prepared to. And look, it’s just so beneficial for us to get that feedback. We discussed the whole issue of alcohol on the bridge. Now we have breath test system. But our role is not as a policeman, our role is to protect our customer. So provided the customer and our communication of that is about your safety, people get that.
Andy Scott: And for those that don’t know. That breath test. You’re not allowed on the bridge at all if you’ve ... Do you have to blow zero? Is it under the legal...
Paul Cave: .05 is okay.
Adam Scott: .05, under the legal limit.
Paul Cave: Yes, yes. So, alcohol’s really important and it’s one of the things that probably changed over time and it’s really interesting. Hydration, if I’m jumping a little away from your question, but hydration is a huge thing on the bridge. People will frequently come from an aeroplane and they’ve either drunk alcohol, too much, or they’re dehydrated.
Now when you’re climbing the bridge, you’ve got to be hydrated. People think, “Well, I don’t want to be hydrated, because I can’t piddle when I’m up there.” So, in reality, we’ve got to make sure you’ve drunk some liquid and you’ve eaten something before you climb.
Now people are frightened or height-concerned – they frequently won’t want to drink water or eat because they’re concerned they’ll be bilious or ... So our job is to manage that and asses a climber doing that. And the assessment of climbers is now a huge part of this business, because we want to make sure people are ready to do this and how do we enable that to take place, dealing with all those sorts of issues.
Adam Zuchetti: It must be a big training element to the tour guides to do that? Because if someone is really ... They’ve got their hearts set on climbing the bridge today because it’s their birthday, whatever, but they are nervous, they haven't eaten, and they'll fib to try and get past.
So, trying to train your tour guides to come around those things and to really sort of be able to pick up on subtle nuances and things … it must be quite an in-depth process to achieve that.
Paul Cave: It is indeed an in-depth process and it starts before they get to the climb leaders. So, our check-in desk starts dealing with those sorts of issues and then we’ve got to assess people before they climb. And that’s a really important part because historically, if you go back 15 years, if someone had had a stent put in their heart, they wouldn’t expect they could climb the bridge two days later.
But that’s happening by the day now. Because we just think, “Well, that’s the way life is.” And, “I can do that.” So, our job is to assess the practicality of someone climbing and the sensibility and the prudency of them climbing. So our antennae has improved and our ability to assess those things and work with people, normally finding solutions – not all the time, but seeking to find solutions to...
We wouldn’t have envisage we’d be climbing with blind people or deaf people or people suffering all sorts of medical issues in some instances, but today we’re finding solutions to most of those things, which is good.
Adam Zuchetti: How long does it typically take to train one of the tour guides?
Paul Cave: Several months of training and it’s a pretty thorough process. And it’s a big investment, but it’s really so important, in terms of what we do and it’s a very thorough process.
Adam Zuchetti: Okay. Coming back to what you were just saying about finding alternatives and things like that, we were discussing off air about the breath test issue, and if you’ve got someone who turns up and they fail the breath test, and particularly if they’re on a group booking or something – or as you said – you’ve got someone very high-profile who’s coming, and they’ve been partying during the day or whatever and then they’re doing an evening climb and they fail their breath test.
That can be a real disaster potentially, PR-wise and experience-wise, for the people involved. How do you insure that you really minimise the disruption and the harm to your business from that experience, in that situation, and ensure that they actually come back when they’re able to and they’re in a state to retake the offer?
Paul Cave: So, it’s always about the safety of the person climbing. So their safety is what’s the paramount issue here. And it’s always expressed in a way. No one ever fails anything with us – they pass things or we find a solution for them.
So, our approach is always about how you find a solution and minimising embarrassment and dealing with people with all sorts of issues – medical issues, but that range of emotions can relate to being height-concerned or being ready to make a marriage proposal. How do we enable that and how do we get the ring that someone’s about to handle on the bridge. So you’re dealing with a range of emotional things and that’s our skill base. It is really about how do we enable, how do we find a solution in a practical way that’s safe to do all of those things. And back to the customer, whether it’s a celebrity or not, they’re people that we’ve got to relate to and find a way to communicate with in a safe way, which is in their interest.
Andy Scott: You mentioned celebrities there, and obviously there’s some great photos of various celebs over the years have done the BridgeClimb and have had their photos taken. I’m interested to know, what point did you assess that celebrity endorsement, and we’re talking obviously world-famous celebrities here, but even potentially a local level. At what point did you think celebrity endorsement would be a powerful marketing tool? Was it a decision that you made a list of, “Right, here’s the top five celebs I want to get up.” Was it something you stumbled across, or tell us how that evolved for you?
Paul Cave: We probably stumbled across that. I think with people of celebrity status, and then finding a photograph put in a newspaper as a consequence and then – how do we work with this? And of course the value of that and particularly with the growth of social media, that’s been a significant enabler of that. Of course we’ve worked with tourism, right from the start, to try and do things that will bring people to this country for conference groups or whatever. So, you’re continually looking for how do you promote and your brand and the experience we’re offering, that when we started was unique in the world and it’s still largely that today.
Andy Scott: You mentioned tourism there, and I think we discussed last time how... What a big driver it is for the business. Obviously the New South Wales state government does an awful lot of work with destination ... New South Wales for doing, promoting tourism or promoting the state. How hand-in-hand are you within these organisations? Do you line things up together? Do you find out things happen? Is it ‘you scratch their back or scratch yours’? How does, I suppose, that relationship work with the broader tourism industry – at government and at sort of business level?
Paul Cave: Sure, I think those relationships are critical to us, they really are. I mean, we’re ... Australia is selling itself and New South Wales is wanting to promote itself, and Sydney, and we need to part and involved with them in a partnering way continually. So we’re investing in overseas travel and in destination marketing with BridgeClimb being used as a significant reason for people wanting to come to this country. And so working hand-in-glove with them is really important.
Andy Scott: Are there any sort of specifics that you’ve done with those sort of ... I’m just interested to know how partnerships have revolved and what you’ve done and whether that’s, I suppose, brought things to the business that you’ve never considered doing, that you suddenly find you’re doing that’s coming from maybe an external party or something.
Paul Cave: Well, when you get a big group coming to the country, using as an example, whether it’s an Opera Winfrey, clearly then we’re doing that maybe in conjunction with a Qantas tourism, so that your offering something that’s part of a package which makes it of interest to that celebrity and indeed the people she brought the country.
Then clearly that’s an investment, but it’s a very valuable investment in the way one goes about that. So those partnerships with tourism are really very, very important. I mean in growing the market, for example, in China in the last several years, China’s been a huge investment for us going forward. And we can have a group of 3,000 people come from China to climb the bridge.
Adam Zuchetti: Product reinvention has been something quite amazing for you. Both in terms of the partnerships and the way you’ve been able to do that. But taking all the customer feedback and the sheer volume of data that you collect on a daily basis – and you mentioned before about the handkerchief, that’s obviously a very little or very minor change. But you’ve been able to make really fundamental changes to the business as well by being able to diversify the offering. So, if someone can’t spend three-and-a-half hours, whatever it is, to do the full climb, they can do half climbs and other things like that.
So, can you talk us through some of the more modern changes that you’ve been able to make on feedback and ensure the people are really coming back again and again? Because obviously, as a bridge, you get that mindset of, “I’ve climbed it once, that’s it.” But from a business perspective, you want them to be repeat customers. You want them coming back. And if feedback’s coming through that it’d be good to do this or that or the other. Can you tell us exactly how you’re really getting that to come?
Paul Cave: Yes, frequently, things are happening in an evolutionary sense and obviously Vivid, for Sydney, has been an important part of this city and a Vivid climb is something we’ve developed over the last few years and we put flash, invest on people, and we’re doing things on a dance floor on top of the bridge. And all of that sort of excitement is an evolutionary product that’s part and parcel of the Vivid experience here. So, and that’s about to happen in late May for three weeks. So ...
Adam Zuchetti: A dance floor on top of the bridge?
Andy Scott: I was going to say. Do you just ... Yes, how on earth do people ... How does that work? It’s my only question to that, how does that even work?
Paul Cave: If you’d ask that question 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have thought it was possible. But I guess in finding ways that we can put a dance floor up there, and I guess it’s part of the entertainment and the experiential evolution of the product. But our team have progressively come up with ideas, and how do we then make that, do it safely and ...
But it adds another and a different experience, and it adds to the fact that someone comes back a second or a third or fourth time, to experience one of the new things that are happening. Whether it’s a sample climb because that, yes, time is an issue for some people, they only have a certain amount of time when they’re in Sydney – some of them might only be here for one or two days.
So, a half-day experience they can’t afford, but maybe a sampler experience of two hours they can. All of those sorts of things, just like as I said when we started, we were just climbing during day. Well, now it’s night climb or twilight climb. Some people want to climb at dawn. And the nature of those experiences have evolved.
And dealing with Chinese friends or Japanese friends where karaoke might play a more important part. Karaoke was really developed in response to a greater degree of interest from that culture, and that’s a wonderful thing, and that’s the part of what keeps the fertilisation of developing the business and moving it on.
Adam Zuchetti: I was lucky enough to do a climb myself a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things that I noticed, is that you now have a Mandarin speaking to a group go up. How did that come about? And how recent is that, that you’re now having to cater for different markets in their own right, rather than putting in two general scripts?
Paul Cave: The Chinese market, of course, has been something that we’ve been involved in for that last six or seven years, and it’s getting bigger and bigger. And when you need to understand those cultures and what their requirements are, or what’s desirable for them, then working with them and particularly in their own language has become a really important part of what we do.
Most particularly, when it’s for large groups, we can have groups of some thousands from China who’ll come and want to climb. Now, the big challenge for us in BridgeClimb is that we want every individual climber to have an individual experience. So despite the fact that they’re part of a large group, how do we make that experience special for each and every one of those people as individuals, rather than seeing themselves on mass.
So, we see that as ... That’s the wonderful challenge and the opportunity of one of our climb leaders, singing them a song in their own language. That’s fabulous, that’s the excitement of dealing with a new culture, a new opportunity.
Adam Zuchetti: I’m also really intrigued about the tour guides themselves because they all have such personality and such a connection with the bridge – and a big sort of shout out to Graham – I think was the tour guide when I climbed – and he was telling a story about his grandmother being one of the first people to cross the bridge when it first opened.
How do you find those people and encourage them to really get passionate and involved in what they’re doing and to make it such an experience as it is? Beyond just the climb and what you see. They add such a vibrant part of the whole experience themselves. So how do you really find those people and get them to connect and engage, the way that they do?
Paul Cave: Well, a lot of those people find us. Some of them start as customers and then say, “We’d like this as a career”, and we’ve got a lot of seachange people working as climb leaders. But you want people with passion. You really do. It’s an important part of what we do. But we’re also still wanting those people who can relate to each and every one of their customers and make it special for those individual customers. So it’s a question where ... telling stories about Sydney, about the bridge, about Sydney Harbour and about this city, and about the history of the bridge and its structure and stories that relate to that.
So, people like Graham. And in my own case, if my own stepfather hadn’t been there on the day the bridge opened, we wouldn’t be ... This whole thing wouldn’t have happened for me. Because I inherited the first rail ticket that he got for crossing the bridge. So, this entire journey only started because of that ticket that I carry with me in my wallet of the first train across the bridge. Ticket number one.
So, I think those sorts of things are really very much the culture about BridgeClimb and about what I and what we feel about this business. It’s about people, it’s about that history and it’s the significance of this incredible icon.
Adam Zuchetti: You’re obviously so passionate about the bridge itself and everything it stands for. And it’s almost contagious. Because everyone throughout the business, everyone that I had contact with, were exactly the same. “This is an amazing experience – you’re going love it just as much I have.”
Paul Cave: You’re right, and that’s the aim of the business and it’s really our culture. You know, it is inducted into our people. And we’re the people who keep that fertilisation happening. Sharing those sorts of experiences.
Adam Zuchetti: Now, just lastly, coming back to the experience notion. We were talking about getting celebs and publicity and all that kind of thing. But obviously for security reasons you can’t carry things like cameras and phones with you.
So, you guys now take photos at various points in the bridge and people can purchase those. Was that ... How did that come about? Was that always on the cards that you would do that as an extension to the service? Or was it something that, again, came from the feedback, “Oh, it would have been really nice to have had a picture at the top.” How did that really come to fruition?
Paul Cave: Look, when we started, we didn’t absolutely know that long term, whether we’d enable people to carry cameras. Were there a solution that enabled us to... People to carry their own camera, that it could be done totally safely, that’s what we’d be doing.
The day we opened BridgeClimb, we had 38 press photographers up there. Two lens caps got dropped that day and one film reel got dropped that day by professional photographers. That sorted it for me in that sense. So, the practicality of the safety of the equipment you carry, we can’t afford, obviously, to take the risk of a camera or a piece of equipment falling and hitting a car.
I mean, you wear a hat but it’s attached to your jacket, or your glasses. We’ve got an attachment that attaches it to you. So, the safety and the sensibility. So, a lot of these things have just evolved from experience and feedback and reality checks. When we dropped a cap in our first week of opening – now, fortunately it fell on the rail track. I still recall today, we reported ourselves to WorkCover and there were a couple of government departments that were astounded we would report ourselves. They just couldn’t believe you would do this.
But it surely was the best thing for us to do. Because you’ve then got to confess and you say, “This is the lesson we’ve learned. This is the change we’re making to ensure that never happens again.” So it was great learning for us, I think a couple of government departments we’re dealing with. Because I think they saw at the end of the day, “We get it now.” And look, it’s a... I think life and business is about learning and improving and recognising your mistakes and how you can change and how do you find solutions.
Adam Zuchetti: I think it’s really interesting. I guess, to sort of sum up this conversation for all our listeners out there who operate their own business and they understand the notion of customer feedback, but they might be disinclined to get it because of the answers they may get, or they think, “Oh, my customers are too busy, they’re not interested in giving me that kind of feedback.”
What advice would you get to implementing processes to get that valuable feedback and then to implement change, based on that feedback?
Paul Cave: Customers need to feel that their feedback is of value, so we make it clear that it’s important we get your feedback. So people need to know it’s valued. They also need to know it’s safe to tell you what they really think – you don’t want bullshit. If you do, don’t do it.
If you want real feedback, they’ve got to be prepared to accept the good and the bad, the ugly, and the learnings that come with it. But, “How valuable is it?” If you genuinely, with customers, say, “We really want to know, how can we, you know – we want to hear where we’re good and where we’re not so good.” And then culturally from the top down of a business, unless the top person in a business really wants to be prepared to accept criticism himself, if the guy at the top is not receptive to criticism, there’s no hope for the business.
Use that receptivity, that open eye that, “I want to learn, I want to keep growing. I want to keep improving, so I want feedback”. And you want to value it, and you then want to not necessarily berate your person who’s made a mistake but say, “How wonderful that we’ve now identified that particular mistake. Now what do we do to make sure we don’t do it again?”
Adam Zuchetti: And obviously lead by example.
Paul Cave: Yes. It all starts, doesn’t it, from...
Adam Zuchetti: Yes, from the top down.
Paul Cave: From the top.
Adam Zuchetti: All right Paul, again, some fascinating insight. So, thank you so much for coming back and speaking with us. Andy, thanks for your time today.
Andy Scott: I’m welcome.
Adam Zuchetti: Very good. All right. If anyone wants to ...
Andy Scott: Thanking myself.
Adam Zuchetti: Yes, thanks a lot Andy. Anyone wants to do the BridgeClimb themselves, the website is...
Paul Cave: Bridgeclimb.com.
Adam Zuchetti: Bridgeclimb.com.
Andy Scott: And if anyone wants to go dancing at the top of the bridge...
Adam Zuchetti: Dancing on the bridge, that would be...
Andy Scott: How would one go about organise going for a dance on the bridge?
Paul Cave: We’d love for you to dance and that’s very much part of the Vivid climb, late May, early June.
Andy Scott: I’m assuming that’s just on your BridgeClimb site.
Paul Cave: Yes, it is. Yes.
Andy Scott: Fantastic! Thanks, Paul.
Adam Zuchetti: I think we should do that. It will be ... Get our grove on, on top of the bridge. That will be quite something wouldn’t it?
Andy Scott: Dancing shoes on.
Paul Cave: You’re welcome back as our guest.