5 Lessons You Can Learn from the San Diego Zoo on How to Deliver an Unforgettable Customer Experience (CX)

I’ve always loved visiting California. There’s something about palm trees, the ocean, and gorgeous weather that just makes my heart smile. As someone who loves nature, I’ve always enjoyed venturing to places where I can experience wildlife. Eighteen years ago, on one of my annual trips from Washington, DC to the Sunshine State, I visited the San Diego Zoo. I’ve been to a number of zoos around the world, but there was something special about the San Diego Zoo. I couldn’t really put my finger on it then, but on my second visit to the zoo this summer with my daughter and a friend, I made it a point to pay closer attention to what made this experience so different and memorable. Here are some of the best lessons on how to build a great brand by creating an unforgettable customer experience. (Take notes: the San Diego Zoo is one of the most well-funded in the world—to the tune of $575 million in assets—and was recently named the best zoo in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler):

1. Clean. Organized. Open.
 One of the first things you’ll notice about the zoo is how clean, open and organized it is. The entire time we walked around, I didn’t see so much as a candy wrapper on the ground on this 100-acre property. That’s quite a feat for a place that hosts more than 3.2 million visitors annually. I’m a stickler for cleanliness and often judge an establishment by how clean its bathrooms are (I really do), so this one is a big one for me. I also loved the fact that even with more than 700,000 plants and 6500 species of animal, the layout was organized and open enough for us to easily get to all the attractions we were most interested in.

The entrance to the zoo.

Look at how clean those streets are!

When thinking about the customer experience in your own establishment, first impressions are everything. This is true whether you have a traditional brick and mortar space or a virtual/online experience like a web site. If your space is cluttered, disorganized and/or dirty, you’re going to find it very difficult to turn your customers into ambassadors for your brand. Which brings me to my next point…

San Diego Zoo volunteer with Galapagos turtles. You could tell she loved what she did. And she gave us lots of great information about the turtles—some which were more than 100 years old!

2. Enthusiastic Brand Ambassadors. Your people are probably the most important part of any experience a customer is going to have with your brand. Make sure you treat them right, give them the right tools and resources, and provide the proper training and professional development so they’re knowledgeable about your product or service and can speak with confidence. Our first stop when we got to the zoo was the 35-minute bus tour. We found that our tour guide was fun and knowledgeable, shared some intriguing facts, and made a great Brand Ambassador. In fact, everyone we met at the zoo—from the volunteer who was caring for the 500+ pound Galapagos Turtles to the cashier who rang us up in the gift store—was friendly and helpful. As we evolve into a more “customer-centric” culture, it’s important that brands invest in and prioritize their employees as the first point of contact with their customers.

3. Great Design. As a design and branding professional, I have a love affair with great design and typography. The San Diego Zoo had this in spades. The zoo did a great job incorporating great design into every aspect of the environment, products, and packaging. Below are just a few examples of some of my favorites.

Entrance signage to Rainforest Adventure Theater

100th Anniversary exhibit

Window decal

Africa Rocks graphics and merchandise

Gift bag graphic

Indigenous Australian totem art

From the window signage to trolleys that took visitors around the zoo, great design was integrated into every aspect of the visitor experience.

4. Unique Experiences Within the Larger Experience. Businesses should consider ways to incorporate unique experiences within a larger brand experience to make customer interactions more memorable. The Skyfari® Aerial Tram at the zoo is the perfect example of this concept. The ride takes you from one end of the zoo to the other while you’re riding in a tram suspended 170 feet in the air—a unique feature for a zoo. I absolutely loved this feature that allowed you to view the entire zoo and the gorgeous San Diego landscape.

Skyfari photos courtesy of Jeremy Thompson

5. Engage Visitors in the Mission. Once a visitor has had such a great experience in a place, they usually want to take a piece of that experience with them. The San Diego Zoo has their main gift shops located right at the exit of the zoo. The shops play double duty as both an additional revenue stream, as well as an extension of the mission of the zoo, which is conservation. The layout was well-designed and there was a diverse mix of merchandise ranging from postcards and mugs to traditional African baskets and larger handmade animal sculptures. From wall-to-wall, you’re surrounded by the zoo’s mission. There was no way we could leave empty-handed—which I’m sure, was the point.

Inside the gift shop

Inside the gift shop

I love this mug!

I wanted this, but it was too big for my carry on!

Whether you’re running a restaurant, clothing boutique or software company, how consumers experience your brand—online and offline—is a major factor in your business success and sustainability. In fact, it’s becoming so important that there are now certificate programs at universities like Stanford GSB and Rutgers that focus primarily on teaching customer experience (CX) as a business priority. When thinking about how to make your brand unforgettable, take into consideration how you can incorporate some of these tips into your own business so that your customers become your best brand ambassadors.

What strategies have you incorporated into your business to help improve your customer’s experience?