By Design

Friday 23rd May 2014 at 3:31PM

When a supporter-facing colleague goes the extra mile in pursuit of fan engagement, you know you’ve cracked it, because this is a sign that making people feel valued has become part of your culture – part of the way you do things.

Julian Jenkins (at the time of writing shortly to leave his position as Commercial Director at Cardiff City to become CEO at Geneva Sports) often tells the story of the Birmingham City fan who was delighted to get a parking space at the Cardiff City stadium a season or so ago, but even more delighted when the chief steward told him that he’d noticed he had a flat tyre and would he like to leave his keys with the stewarding team so that they could fit the spare on while the supporter watched the game?

The point of the story is that at no stage did the steward receive a direct instruction to do this.  He’d never been briefed to do this on a training course. It wasn’t in his ‘manual’. He’d just become aware from what was going on around him that the club was starting to evolve around the needs of the supporter and felt that he was free to play this wonderfully kind little cameo. For him, customer service (or, in the context of sport – fan engagement) had become a core business activity.

But making fan engagement part of ‘the way we do things’ has long eluded businesses outside of sport, so with all of the emotion and irrationality associated with sport, how do we make fan engagement a core business activity in our clubs?

This is about organisational design.  In a sport like Formula One, gaining that extra centimetre could be the difference that gets the podium finish, so it’s not uncommon for some infinitesimal and apparently random improvements to be considered (angle of steering wheel, viscosity of oil, distribution of weight, etc) if they get you that extra inch of performance. In business and especially in customer engagement, organisational design is everything.

Most businesses, in my experience, treat customer service as a low priority. They may say it’s important, but customer value isn’t measured, senior officials don’t talk about it, it’s not a priority at meetings and, as is clear to anyone who works in the organisation, sales is everything. There’s something of this in sports clubs, where (and I have written about this before) the defining culture is one of aggression. To achieve sporting glory, that is what is needed, I grant you.

However, when this culture infects supporter-facing parts of the club (ticket office, complaint handling, problem solving) you have a problem and we continue to uncover horror stories from a range of sports where the customer appears to be nothing more than an occupational hazard for the staff member.

Sport can learn a lot from businesses who have ‘designed’ customer service into the way they do things and this is usually immediately visible in three areas: 

  1. Everyone believes that outstanding customer service improves the financial performance of the business. If you don’t believe valuing people contributes to the bottom line, then don’t expect anyone else to
  2. Everything the organisation does is focused on winning and retaining customers and, when things go wrong, moving heaven and earth to recover that customer
  3. Each and every ‘touch point’ has been designed not only to meet the basic needs of customers but also to genuinely make them feel valued

And in those businesses that really excel, there are a number of innovative ways in which the customer takes pride of place. One company’s CEO has lunch with every new recruit on their first day and takes advantage of the new recruit’s different perspective by handing them a small black book and asking them to record all of their honest observations about their new working environment over the following days.

A week or so later, the CEO invites them to lunch again, at which point they go through the content of the little black book. This exercise has continuously helped isolate and remove all of those insidious little barriers to putting the customer at the heart of the business.

The leaders, of course, are key since they set the tone for the rest of the organisation. If my marketing director never shows any interest in ‘listening’ to the customer, then why should I do anything different? If it’s about the volume of calls over the quality, or the output over the process, then what else should we expect but poor outcomes? If, however, before a game, the CEO is out talking to supporters in the stadium vicinity, collecting feedback and encouraging discussion, then all of a sudden, the stewarding team is on its marks too.

What we measure defines us also. It’s still true that some football clubs can only distinguish two segments of supporter: concession and full price. Clearly that prehistoric level of nuance is not conducive to a customer culture.  Have a dashboard that shows me how many supporters we’ve won or lost, how valued they feel and what’s currently driving value for different segments and you have my interest.

If and when UEFA consider the next iteration of FFP, I’d like to see it include a requirement for clubs to evidence levels of fan engagement: how valued does the supporter base feel and, more importantly, what is driving this? If you’ve just been relegated after the worse season in living memory, I’ll accept that this might have an impact on the way people feel, but if it’s a feeling that the fans lack a voice, that there is a lack of transparency, that the match day experience is poor, that the club is apparently in flagrant conflict with what its supporters see as its natural DNA etc, then perhaps that’s just as worrying a trend as financial imprudence.

What we get recognised for is a huge part of the ‘way we do things’ too. Take a leaf out of Oklahoma City Thunder where game day co-workers are recognised for doing the right thing by the fan (and this is possible because their full time colleagues are actually out there engaging with fans and observing). They’re reward imaginatively in ways that they value. It means something. It could be money off their weekly shop. They gain by making fans feel valued and, in turn, the club gains too.

Here in the UK organisational design in sport is a relatively new concept. Fan engagement is starting to be grasped by some and the innovation in a range of game day touch points is truly remarkable. However, we trail in terms of organisational culture. Supporter engagement is still an extra curricular activity for many clubs with employee engagement an even more distant goal. Getting through to the next match day unscathed is still a much bigger part of ‘what we do around here’ than looking after our supporters.


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