The Missing Link

Thursday 10th October 2013 at 2:50PM

Zappos, the US online shoe seller offers every new recruit $2,000 dollars to quit after one month in his or her new job.  To quote a piece written on

Apparently, when Zappos hires new employees, it puts them through an intensive four-week training program, immersing them in the company's culture, strategy, and processes. Then, about one week in, Zappos makes what it calls "The Offer," telling newbies, "If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you have worked, plus a $2,000 bonus." A BusinessWeek reporter interviewed Hsieh recently. He says only 2% to 3% of people take the offer. The other 97% say no deal—they choose the job over the instant cash.

Why do they do this? Surely there’ll soon be a queue of people wanting to go through the 4-week course, just to get the money. Hell no, as my American chums might say.

Zappos want to be the best. They already offer astounding levels of customer service, but they know that it’s the culture they create inside the organisation that maintains and grows this phenomenon, so they treat their employees fantastically well.  If you join up and the initial course puts your intrinsic values at odds with the company’s, then you’ve an easy exit point. To paraphrase the article from Business Week, if you want to amaze your customers, start by amazing your employees, develop that passion, togetherness and ownership of the customer at the very first moment of joining the organisation, and it’s clear that a differentiating level of service will follow.

And, as the article concludes, taking this approach makes basic financial sense too:

And even from a financial standpoint, the idea makes increasing sense the more you think about it. Most CEOs agree turnover costs tens of thousands of dollars in recruitment, training, and lost productivity. So identifying the misfits early—at a cost of just one-week's salary and $2,000—could just be the best deal a company can make. What would you pay to get a full-time, weeklong look at your recruits' character, work habits, and social skills prior to making a commitment to them?

As part of our work promoting fan engagement in sports, we have collected detailed match day assessments (from real supporters) over a period of 7 years (something like 1,500+ individual feedback documents, stretching over 7 pages each) and you know the one thing that keeps coming up time and time again? The indifference of the club representatives that our visitors encounter.

I’m not just referring to contract, casual and match day staff (though that’s no excuse since they, more than anyone else, should be aware of the vitally important role they play in showing that the club cares) but an institutionalised dislike of the ‘customer’ that prevails in sport and, particularly, UK football.

When you consider the position football holds in most people’s lives (successive surveys reveal that in general the sport means ‘life, family, everything’ to people while our work with individual clubs shows that they can exert such a pull over supporters that little else matters) it’s even more shocking that we can’t develop the capacity to rise above abject disdain.

There is a partial explanation, of course. Football has it roots in Victorian times when the mill owner would begrudgingly allow his workers to have a day off and would provide a rudimentary infrastructure within which they could ‘get things off their chest’. My grandfather worked all his life down the pits. He died from pneumoconiosis within a few years of retiring. Is it any wonder he used to enjoy swearing at the match?

But there’s a more relevant explanation, rooted in the failure of people who’ve amassed their fortune doing the right thing in another industry and simply failing to apply what they’ve learned to football (because, they tell me, ‘it’s different’).  A failure to consult, engage and establish a dialogue with supporters almost always results in them being perceived as a generic group of ‘punters’ for whom only the result matters, until such time as performances fade and we have to adopt plan B (cheaper tickets).

In my experience, many employees at football clubs see themselves if not physically dispensable, then at least psychologically so. I spoke to a friend the other day who, while working for a club a few years back as a press and media officer, was expected to be in at 9 am every day, even though he may have just got back from Carlisle at 3am the previous night (as well as working most of the weekend). This was justified on the basis of ‘treating everyone the same’.

We have seen some positive changes in recent years, but little suggests that the majority of clubs clearly see the connection between a great working environment, happy employees and excellent supporter relationships. That’s why I always advise my clients to take every opportunity to find ways not only of explaining what matters to club colleagues, but using communication with supporters (surveys, etc) to encourage the identification of ‘top performers’ so that they can recognise and reward the people who do the best jobs on a match day.

I was privileged to finally spend time this week in Manchester with Pete Winemiller, someone who has been recognised recently for his work in improving fan experiences and making fan engagement flourish over at Oklahoma Thunder in the NBA.  His concept of ‘guest relations’ (that expression already tells you something about the care with which supporters are treated) has characteristics you wouldn’t be surprised to find: good communication skills, good listening skills, responsiveness, technical knowledge and an ability to connect with people) but his approach most definitely has its roots in creating a vibrant working environment where full time and casual employees know what matters, get recognised when they deliver (mystery shopping is comprehensively applied to all Thunder games) and are celebrated and congratulated during quarter breaks at big fixtures.

Here in the UK that’s the missing link. The two stewards eating, chatting to each other and ignoring you as you stand by wondering where the family stand is are simply a by-product of an industry that hasn’t figured out that if it wants to love its supporters as much as they love it, it needs to start by loving its employees first. 

Training is only part of the solution. Making your employees feel valued is more important.

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