10/25/2012 10:13 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

"Striking" Success Through Customer Experiences: What Corporate America Can Learn From Bowling

In the last two decades, it seems everything in our world has undergone some sort of change -- from the way we watch our entertainment, make purchases, or even communicate with friends and colleagues.

But despite market shifts and technological innovations, some things just don't change.

Let's talk about the industry I love -- bowling. It's an industry that has seen profound change but at its core, the game remains the same: the person who knocks over the most pins wins.

Bowling centers themselves, however, have undergone a significant transformation, from the demographics of our most frequent customers to the investments we make and the services we offer. And in the last few years, bowling's popularity has remained America's largest participatory sport -- ranking higher than football, baseball, basketball or golf. In fact, last year, more than 71 million Americans hit the lanes at more than 3,500 bowling centers around the country.

The bowling customer has evolved as well. While there are still lingering misperceptions of smoke-filled lanes dominated by male bowlers, the reality of today is quite different.

Walk into any bowling center across the country and you'll see a clean environment filled with women, kids, young adults and hipsters (and some of us middle-aged guys too). Our consumers today are educated and in higher income brackets. As a result, we've had to tailor the bowling experience to these new crowds -- competing not only for their money, but more importantly for their time.

There are a few things we believe other brands can benefit from our successes and experiences, such as:

It's not about the brand -- it's about the experience. Bowling centers saw attendance drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As an industry, we were failing to evolve and the world was changing quickly around us. However, we listened to what our patrons wanted and made investments in our offerings accordingly, from the kinds of food we provide to in-center games and entertainment and even to the music that we play across our centers. The bowling center once again became more than a place to bowl It was a place for friends to gather, eat good food and have a memorable experience. That's when we saw the numbers start to rise.

Seek first to understand and then be understood. Great bowling proprietors tell us that they stay at the top of their game by listening to their customers -- mingling with them, asking questions and gathering as much feedback as possible. And we do the same by speaking with our proprietors -- these people know our industry better than anyone and help our association maintain relevancy and deliver value. The underlying message here is that before you move forward in marketing to any of your stakeholders, it is wise to do plenty of listening and engage with them to help you shape your approach in creating a stellar customer experience.

Adapt to the local community without the national pressure. Fine dining, laser tag, sports bars and redemption arcades -- every single bowling center has its own unique footprint shaped by the needs of that particular community. That doesn't mean the bowling industry is decentralized; rather, we've empowered our local proprietors to act on behalf of the customer. If anything, solidarity across our industry is now unprecedented. Remember, it's not about building a big national brand -- it's about providing that memorable customer experience to each and every customer, no matter where they live.

Think outside your four walls. In many ways, the essence of social media has been alive in bowling centers for some time. People from all backgrounds and age groups gather in one place to share a common interest and express their affinity for a game they love. So, social media was a natural evolution for the bowling industry. Today, we're working on increasing our social media presence with apps that share scores and tips and increasing the conversation among bowling fans and supporters, including celebrities ranging from Justin Bieber to Jeff Bridges.

Work just as hard as your employees do to enhance the customer experience. Bowling is a seven-day-a-week business and an industry with an incredible work ethic and "roll up your sleeves" attitude -- not just at the local level but at the national level. It's imperative that our senior leaders "walk the talk" and demonstrate the importance of the customer experience by showing personal efforts to connect and deliver service to consumers.

Walk in the shoes of the customer. In the bowling industry, this could be taken literally -- and from time to time, we do slip on some bowling shoes and take a stroll. But more importantly, we aim to understand exactly what our customers expect from the moment they walk into our doors to the moment they leave. We make sure we know what defines a good customer experience and, equally as important, what could turn a good customer experience bad. It only takes one unpleasant interaction to leave a bad taste in the customer's mouth. Make sure you're providing your managers with constant education, opportunities for knowledge sharing, and the tools to train their staff to ensure every customer experience is the best it can be.

The world is still changing, and few businesses will be the same in 10 years as they are today. But the customer experience should always be the number one priority of any growth strategy -- and the hallmark of a timeless brand. In today's environment, the competition is fiercer than ever and it is the brands that deliver the best customer experience that will win.