I remember when Cragrats won the Unisys / Management Today Service Excellence overall award in 2001. Only 2 years previously they’d been the best ‘small business’ in the UK and now here they were, big enough to battle it out with the ‘best of the best’.

They learned quickly – and when I asked them what they’d learned most from the companies they were now overtaking, their answer was simple: they’d become obsessed with measurement.

In the context of growth in sports, we’re equally obsessed with measurement, but sadly, in a very one-dimensional fashion. From the studies we’ve done, from the experiences of our various fan engagement programmes and from the conferences I’ve attended and meetings I’ve participated in, it’s clear that the only ‘valid’ measure of growth is attendances.

Even though the word valid appears in parentheses that’s not to dismiss it. If your attendances are growing, you’re being successful. Full stop. But attendances are a retrospective measure of growth. This offers no insight into how you achieve growth and sustainability in a context where only 2 or 3 teams can ‘win’ each year and technical sporting success is impossible (for the majority) to control.

Successful service excellent organisations focus on leading indicators of growth: customer engagement data that accurately predicts future growth (or shrinkage). In major spectator sports, they’re only conspicuous by their absence.

Globally, the Net Promoter© phenomenon caught on more than a decade ago. By posing one question to their customers, timed to follow a recent customer interaction, organisations could collect and roll up data in a way that accurately predicted future growth.

Put simply, based on customer feedback, they could see into the future. If it didn’t look good, they could intervene. If things were going well, they’d know why. They had what every embattled customer service enthusiast has dreamed of for years: the BUSINESS CASE for being nice to customers.

The question was ‘based on your most recent experience with us and on a scale of 0-10 where 0 is low and 10 is high, how strongly will you recommend us to friends and family?’ Based on this data, a Net Promoter score can be calculated and this single figure, tracked over time, will determine your direction of growth.

The absence of such a measure in sport can partly be explained by our ignorance of it. It’s used globally in the service industry but only now being adopted in sports and leisure.

Also, as I’ve argued here before, we’re some way short of developing a fan centric culture, so while we might be interested in it as a novelty, it doesn’t seem appropriate for the sphere in which we work.

But those who are embracing fan engagement and accept the need for research and consultation pose an important question. Is recommendation really the right question for sports fans?

Asking about recommendation to a new fan, a new family, some people coming as guests of a host in your hospitality area or, indeed, people using any conferencing and banqueting facilities does seem right. They’re able to be objective as it’s genuinely their first experience and, in the case of visiting supporters, for example, recommendation carries some weight (and has an obvious impact on growing numbers of away fans).

But what about your core fraternity? The people for whom your club is everything, often only second to their families and sometimes (in a manner reminiscent of Bob Newhart’s line from his USS Codfish sketch: ‘I know some of you are looking forward to being reunited with your loved ones … and in some cases, your wives’) even more important.

I’d be happy to recommend my club to people, particularly if they’ve just won 3-0 away from home or are on a record-beating run of victories. However, if a more realistic situation is upon us and we’re NOT doing so well, my levels of recommendation may not be so wildly enthusiastic.

Our work on fan engagement, which has a particular focus on the core fan, reveals that what they want is to be ‘valued’. Integrate that question into your surveying and you’re on to something. In fact, we’re conducting some preliminary research that appears to show that, for core fans in particular, there is a strong correlation between ‘feeling valued’, future attendance, ‘off pitch’ revenue generation and overall club growth.

It’s also a valid measure for your new fans too, perhaps given the emotional and intangible elements of engagement that only sport can truly engender. I’m not dismissing the question about recommendation for these groups, but advocating the addition of what I believe is the truly crucial question.

When your team is winning, it’s always going to be difficult to single out a root cause other than ‘performance on the pitch’, but when it isn’t, the ability to link fan engagement to overall growth in a compelling manner, can be the spark the ignites the new way of thinking that you know your club needs.

Want to make it work for you?

Give me a call on 07740 701598 or get in touch.