Mixed metaphor time! If there’s one albatross around my neck that makes connecting sport with service excellence a Sisyphean task, it’s people’s misreading of the ‘customer service’ dimension.

‘Fan engagement’, ‘fan experience’, ‘growth’, ‘revenue increase’, etc, are all words that have a Pied Piper-like impact on the unconverted, as I gently lead them to the gates and reveal the treasures beyond. But the minute someone whispers he’s really just going on about customer service, my converts scatter like pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

So it’s time I laid the ghost to rest, unhooked the albatross and invited the monkey down from my back.

The misreading has its origins in the definition of ‘product’ when it comes to sport. Most people think it’s simply about maximising the operational aspect of the fan experience: ease of access, speed of retail / refreshments service, throughput management, car park access and egress, etc, thereby revealing the product to be the activities that circle the main event: the sport being played out before us. And that’s fine. There should be an aspiration to optimise service delivery, but it ignores the fact that there’s a more profound product on offer here: the supporter experience.

Time and time again, our research (and personal experience) highlights that sports clubs spend insufficient time understanding what their product is.

I spoke to an avid England football fan last night who told me (without prompting, since I imagine some of you out there think I hypnotise people into agreeing with me before inviting them to ‘come back into the room’) that when following England the thing that concerns him the least is the 90 minutes. The camaraderie, the craic, seeing pals you haven’t seen for a few months, visiting new places, sharing a few beers with new friends, creating a memorable and classy racket in the England end, etc, all dwarf the football in terms of emotional currency.

Taken at individual club level, the same picture emerges. What sports fans desire, at the most fundamental level, is a reflection of the connection they hold with their team. This presupposes that clubs understand what this is, but the majority clearly don’t. Growth and advocacy strategies appear to be based on winning and / or discounting. They rarely evoke a deep understanding of supporter motivation, so the design of the fan experience rarely reinforces the identity, values and kinship felt by the supporter.

This, to me, is what ‘customer service’ is in sport: everything the sports organisation does to reinforce its unique identity, in ways that create recognition, emotional impact, advocacy and value for its supporting community.

In this context, Wikipedia’s customer service definition starts to make sense outside of the conventional customer/supplier world:

Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction – that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation.

Its importance varies by products, industry and customer … the perceived success of such interactions being dependent on employees “who can adjust themselves to the personality of the guest,’ according to Micah Solomon quoted in Inc. Magazine.

From the point of view of an overall sales process engineering effort, customer service plays an important role in an organization’s ability to generate income and revenue. From that perspective, customer service should be included as part of an overall approach to systematic improvement. A customer service experience can change the entire perception a customer has of the organization.

Like me, Wikipedia have also spotted the one obvious flaw, confirming:

Some have argued that the quality and level of customer service has decreased in recent years, and that this can be attributed to a lack of support or understanding at the executive and middle management levels of a corporation and/or a customer service policy.

And that’s why our philosophy is founded on using real fan experiences as a wake up call. We compare the internal and external views of ‘customer service’ and use the gaps as a catalyst for change.

I’ll finish with a perfect example of how the pre-eminence of the customer can be emulated in sport. It’s often about taking standard, conventional systems, processes and expectations and then, through the prism of the customer’s eyes, turning them on their head. Mike Quarino, Head of Fan Services at Philadelphia Union does just that with their innovative loyalty programme.

The concept in most countries usually stretches as far as using loyalty and attendance as a guarantee of tickets for big games or via a loyalty points solution that allows discounts at club retail outlets, etc.

At PPL Park they go way further. Attend a marquee game and you get 10 points. Attend what we in the UK would call a ‘Category B’ game (perhaps less attractive) and you get 20 points. Turn up midweek (perhaps with even less exciting opposition) and you get 30 points. You get more points in inclement weather conditions, more points when you turn up early, respond to a fan feedback survey or attend a fan convention. You even get points when the Club fails at customer service. And once you’ve collected sufficient points you can participate in money can’t buy experience auctions.

Many people tell me that football, for example, is not a business. They’re wrong. It’s a profoundly social business, which will only prosper if the principles of successful business growth are applied. In this context it’s unsurprising that they would turn their noses up at the concept of customer service. Thankfully, a progressive cadre of sporting institutions do see the opportunity – and one day, there may even be enough of them to create the marketplace our little business was designed for.