I love free things. But sometimes “free” carries a hidden price tag, and then it’s not generally worth it.

If you can get tickets to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park series, held in New York City’s Central Park for a few weeks every summer, you’re in for a treat. The Public Theater produces great shows, populates them with first-tier stars, and yes, the tickets are free. Seriously. People like Anne Hathaway, Jesse L. Martin, Sam Waterston, Andre Braugher, and even Al Pacino do these shows for free, so regular New Yorkers can spend an evening under the stars watching great theater at the best price of all. It’s spectacular, and it keeps Shakespeare alive. I applaud The Public Theater, The City of New York, and these great talents.

Except you can’t get tickets.

OK, actually, that’s false. You can get tickets, because the Public Theater gives them away each day for that evening’s performance; all you have to do is wait on line. Yes, the lines are long, so you need to really, really want to go, but anyone can get tickets to Shakespeare in The Park. And if that was the end of the story there’d be no story.

But here’s how it works:

Tickets are handed out each day at 1 PM. In the case of a popular show, such as this summer’s The Merchant of Venice, you’re free to get on line at 6AM when Central Park opens, and maybe you’ll get to see Mr. Pacino that evening. I say “maybe” because when I got to Central Park at 6:10 AM yesterday morning there was a line so long that upon doing some quick math and having a conversation with a very pleasant, helpful, and honest Public Theater employee it became apparent that I was there too late.

Trust me for a moment now; this isn’t a sour grapes story, and the ten minutes isn’t the issue, either.

I’m not talking merely about a line of people. The hundreds of New Yorkers who were there before me had … been there. And given the number of them that were sleeping on inflated air mattresses in a calm, perfectly organized line ten minutes after it became legal to be in Central Park I can’t believe they hadn’t been there over night.

Again . . . that’s not the story.

Police in New York City are way overworked, and while I’m sure people get thrown out of Central Park for being there between 1 AM and 6 AM, and even ticketed for violating the park curfew, I’m guessing that it’s mostly about protecting the people rather than the park, so when hundreds of people line up for their Shakespeare In The Park Tickets and create an essentially self-protecting group doing no harm and no mischief, it’s likely that the police just . . . leave them alone.

But The Public Theater states very clearly that they escort whatever number of people have gathered by 6AM outside a specific Central Park entrance to the theater site and build the line then. And I simply refuse to believe that the calm, beautifully-organized, bed-and-cooler-wielding group of 900 people that I encountered at 6:10 AM had all gotten there, arranged their belongings and in many cases fallen asleep in the ten minutes prior to my arrival.

In other words, The Public Theater’s method of providing what is ostensibly some of the most amazing customer service you’ve ever seen—and for free—is a lie. What I saw yesterday at 6:10 AM simply could not have gotten there in ten minutes.

Let’s assume that the Public Theater’s goals are to help maintain public safety and reduce their own liability. They could use words like “it’s illegal to be in Central Park before 6 AM, so please don’t do that”. Instead they point out that people really shouldn’t be lined up on the streets of Manhattan overnight at the entrance they’ve specified as the escort point, then they wink when people get there as early at 8PM the previous night. But it’s OK because those people aren’t in Central Park and it’s technically only loitering, not trespassing, to be on the street overnight.

Oh yeah . . . and they pretend they don’t know about the people who are actually camped out in the Central Park.

Let me repeat, this is not a sour grapes story. I’m talking about customer service as a smoke screen, and the need for real business change when your customer service strategy is built on a lie. Lip-service customer service may work for a short time, but it’s a mistake.

By the way: you don’t have to wait on line for your tickets to Shakespeare In The Park. Instead, you can enter a lottery each day. The Public Theater doesn’t say how many tickets are available or guess at what your odds of winning are, but they do give away tickets that way each day, too.

Or at least they claim they do.

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