Apps & Gaps: What's holding Fan Engagement back?

Friday 5th June 2015 at 3:41PM

Today’s long overdue new instalment of the Fan Experience Co blog eschews the usual poorly constructed arrangement of poor humour and badly thought out arguments in favour of something a little deeper: a comprehensive exploration of the origins of the term ‘fan engagement’ and an explanation as to why it’s failing in some clubs but prospering in others. 

Although I’ve attempted a couple of definitions of fan engagement myself in recent years, I’m coming round to a two-dimensional explanation:  (1) it’s the process of creating and delivery supporter value and (2) it also describes the resultant ‘emotional loyalty’ that our engagement efforts produce.

However, when I look around at sports businesses’ efforts to sustainably grow both here and further afield, I can’t help thinking that in the genuine progress that has been made, there is something fundamentally missing.

Let’s acknowledge some of the positive developments first. 

For a start, there is plenty of evidence to show that we’re getting closer to our ‘customers’ (the fans, supporters, followers, stakeholders and communities whose lives are intertwined with the glories and failures of our teams). Where once we might deign to allow a group of supporters to have ‘access’ to the CEO so that they can ‘hold the club to account’, we now have research insights teams linking motivations, expectations and perceptions, leading to a clearer understanding of the needs of different groups (see, for example, how family engagement has dramatically changed football’s mind set in recent years).

Secondly, the quality of service delivery is improving dramatically. The match day experience, for example, has evolved from a metaphorical conveyor belt through which a ‘punter’ is forced (and where the extent of consumer choice is as restricted as a North Korean voting slip) to something more recognisably designed around the needs of different supporter groups. Cardiff City’s work on persistent standing (and the subsequent creation of the Canton Stand model) and Brighton & Hove Albion’s imaginative work for away fans both stand as excellent examples of this.

Thirdly, the impact of technology has revolutionised the connection between club and fan, specifically through fan apps and the impact of social media.  Right now, FIFA’s Women’s World Cup is seeing levels of engagement that could not have been imagined even a year ago and the second-by-second ‘connected’ intensity of the match day is pushing me and my Dad (both of whom used to get over-excited watching Sunderland away games on Teletext) over the psychological edge.

However, in the wider context, these steps (customer understanding and service delivery) are no more than half of the critical success factors in any effective growth programme. As I said, there’s something missing.

To understand this we need to understand the history of consumerism and this has its roots in a comment made by John F Kennedy who, in 1962, first connected good customer experiences with the national interest:

If consumers are offered inferior products; if prices are exorbitant … if consumers are unable to choose on an informed basis, then (their) dollar is wasted and the national interest suffers.

Customer service emerged as the way of describing the quality of the interactions underpinning the American economy.

As the services industry first grew and then outstripped manufacturing in the West, thus did customer service become ever more visible. And yet it was still connected to the product and the price, rather than the quality of the ‘transaction’.

As more and more academics explored the connection between customer service, performance and profitability, ‘service excellence’-based management theories emerged, culminating in the breakthrough made by Bain & Company, Satmetrix and Fred Reichheld in 2003, when they produced the first globally accepted business case for customer service: Net Promoter.

Put simply, improving the net difference between a company’s percentage of fully engaged customers and their unengaged ones could be shown to drive improving sales and business growth. So we finally had a business case for investing in customer service, but what was customer service?

Many definitions emerged between the 60s and the early 2000s, focusing initially on operational factors, such as ease and speed, but ultimately incorporating more intangible factors such as trust, empathy and ‘value’.

During this time, and with the very best of intentions, the emergence of customer service training solutions appeared. Six step solutions, augmented by ‘hints & tips’, ‘dos and don’ts’ supported by mystery shopping & apparently all to do with ‘eye contact’ and ‘smiling’ proliferated: such was the customer service at the turn of the 21st century.

You could not get served out of hours at the beginning of the 80s, but by 1988 the arrival of First Direct meant that, not only could you access your bank account at a time convenient to you, but the call was likely to be answered by a friendly, knowledgeable and motivated professional who would take their time to get to know you, to connect with you in a memorable way and, ultimately, to make sure your needs were not only met, but exceeded.

First Direct had effectively ‘designed’ their organisation to deliver outstanding customer experiences and was, for me, the first significant British company to genuinely build their brand around an experience, rather than a product. The result was the creation of a new form of advocacy across their customer base: emotional loyalty.

Emotional loyalty arises where the customer continuously experiences a level of service that demonstrates that their needs, expectations and, importantly, deeper motivations are fully understood and woven into the service design of the provider.

Emotional loyalty is also the outcome where traditional hierarchy is turned on its head: where everything in the organisation is done to serve the customer and to create the conditions for exponentially improving customer advocacy.

Unfortunately, the bombshell that it was all about emotional engagement quickly exposed those companies for whom differentiating through the quality of customer service was NOT the ultimate aim or a core business activity.

The leaders may say it is important, but company employees discern more important messages about priorities in what their leaders do, rather than what they say – and on what is measured and rewarded. Indeed, many organisations who are now struggling owe their poor public perception to their long-standing tendency to relegate customer service below a range of other more convenient internal priorities.

This self-defeating attitude was perfectly described by Consumer Focus in their 2008 report ‘Stupid Company’, which, among other things, showed how a failure to engage pro-actively with customers and provide decent levels of customer service was costing UK industry millions.

As if that wasn’t enough to act as a catalyst for change, we saw, during the late 2000s, the advent of a new more powerful customer cohort: web-empowered customers.

Even in a country where customers had, for decades, preferred inertia to stepping outside of the confines of the British character to actually demand better service, the arrival of Trip Advisor and Twitter (among other services) arguably made the British customer ‘mouse’ begin to roar.  In a generation we’ve gone from acquiescing to exposing poor service.

The consequence of these changes is that businesses must regard customer service as a core business activity: not something to be ‘refreshed’ every year ‘off site’, but something for which the whole enterprise is intrinsically designed. 

This implies transparent, customer-focused leadership, values and ethics, genuine customer and employee engagement, customer-driven service delivery and a level of organisational agility tuned closely into the needs of each and every consumer micro-market.

And it’s this that returns me to our theme: there’s something missing in many sports businesses’ rush to embrace fan engagement: we have embraced the need to understand our ‘customers’ and we have gone some way to developing services, products and experiences that directly impact on their emotional loyalty.

But how many clubs have a measure of fan engagement beyond attendances (and they are a consequence of many complex factors)? The absence of KPIs and measures is just one warning sign. Have we really designed our businesses to 'produce' fan engagement?

Until it becomes embedded into our culture and strategy - until it becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ - we may achieve the occasional ‘win’, but we’ll always fall short of sustainable growth.


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