Much as though many would like to paint it as a hastily-called PR event post-Bradford City, Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis’ appearance at a Fans’ Reception at the Emirates the following night was, as it happens, a long standing and regular commitment.
As many Arsenal fans would no doubt point out, he didn’t need to open a bottle of wine to get a temperature reading of current sentiment. But by directly and transparently engaging with supporters in an informal setting, the club is helping to break down a barrier that’s held football back in this country for decades (in spite of the obvious disappointment of the Sky Sports presenter, who’d been following tweets from the meeting and expecting confrontation and controversy).
My interest in promoting dialogue between clubs and fans – honest dialogue, rather than the lip service you often see – is not just because it’s the right thing to do (which is a good enough reason in my book), but because if football wants to adopt a culture of engagement and growth, it must embrace the cultural dimension first – and customer engagement is at the top of that list.
As I’ve written previously, I believe football is trying to embrace supporter engagement, but is hamstrung, if I can pinch that analogy, by a tendency for the aggressive, uncompromising attitude required by the sporting side of the business to seep into ‘customer’ interactions, thereby damaging supporter perceptions. So the determined aggression your team needs to succeed is welcome if it’ll get you a 1-0 win on a frosty day in Southend, but less welcome when it’s on the lips of the assistant dealing with your complaint about the lack of hot water in the toilets (when you’ve paid a fortune for your season ticket).
As a consequence of this (and with very few exceptions) the positive examples we see in the game, such as fan panels, etc, are often honest attempts to improve things, but without the more fundamental commitment to truly understanding the customer base (which I’ll explore in more detail below), they remain fleeting, sporadic flashes of goodwill.
When I was an assessor for the Unisys / Management Today Service Excellence Awards, what we looked for in any organisation devoted to its customers was not just improving results, but also of the things that happened in the business to make it clear that culture of customer service.
If this were applied to a football club, then the sort of things we’d be looking for would be:
The club encourages supporters to give feedback and acts on it
The club understands what affects sentiment towards the club (fans’ motivations, expectations, experiences and perceptions) and what creates advocacy for the club among the different supporter groups
The club is clear about the different ‘customer’ groups it serves (supporters, commercial customers and the wider community)
The club assiduously tracks supporter acquisition, retention and renewal
Naturally, leading organisations are run according to a set of values – words and principles that reflect the company’s ultimate purpose – and given that football plays such an important role in people’s lives, this really should be easy for our industry. It’s not as if we’re trying to create an emotional frenzy around a tin of beans.
For example, in a leading organisation, you’d expect everyone in the business to know what those values were and to know how they should impact on areas such as decision-making and dealing with complaints. You’d expect senior managers to behave in a way that reinforced those values, especially when it comes to putting customers first.
I can understand those Arsenal fans who criticised Tom Fox for saying that Arsenal as a club was ‘about more than winning’, but he wasn’t trying to deflect attention from recent poor performances, he was simply stating a fact. If it were just about winning, I’d have given up on Sunderland decades ago, but my life would be immeasurably poorer as a result. The fact is, Arsenal are one of those few clubs who’ve worked hard at understanding what makes their supporter base tick.
That’s why Ivan Gazidis keeps his appointments with supporters regardless of the team’s performances and the easy life that he could no doubt have as an alternative. That’s also why Arsenal is one of the few remaining clubs (and the only one I know of at their level in the game) who do not charge families who would like their children to be mascots at games. They randomly choose a lucky child from their fan base and give them the experience of a lifetime (including tickets for the whole family and a surprise which is so utterly stunning I’m forbidden from mentioning it here).
I don’t have privileged access to Arsenal’s internal processes, priorities and commitments and like all clubs, I imagine, life’s rarely a bed of roses there. But by following the clues, I can see some positive signs of the broader approach that most clubs lack.
Try as you might, you can’t control what happens on the pitch, but you can commit to developing a deeper understanding of what the Club means. My view is that the Arsenal community’s cumulative collection of memories is likely to endure way beyond a difficult run of form or a series of bad results, while in the same way the look of joy on my Bradford City-supporting son’s face the other night will probably be equally as transitory.