‘Walk a mile in your customers’ shoes’.

 You know the expression. It’s a little clichéd and sailing awfully close to management consultant speak, but in truth the directive works much better in football (or sport generally) than it does in the business world.

Because, unless we really like walking, we don’t normally use that form of transport to go a mile to the supermarket, and we definitely don’t walk that far when we get in touch with a call centre or order something from Amazon. In that sense, ‘walking a mile in the customer’s shoes’ is metaphorical, but as a football supporter it’s probably the average distance we travel on foot to attend a game.

But how many clubs actually walk that mile? Well, quite a few (if you include the leagues we’re involved with) and there is no better way of understanding what the people who pay money every week to watch a team are experiencing.

We’ve been doing real fan assessments for many years now and although they represent a snapshot view of a club (after all it’s a maximum of two or three visits per season) it’s one hell of a view. That’s because we quite literally walk a mile (and quite a bit further) in the fan’s shoes. In fact, the last mile of the journey to the stadium is one of the key criteria we look at on the day.

There is quite a lot more to it since beyond that ‘last mile’ we also check everything from the website to the exit from the car park at full-time, with a view to developing a view of the overall experience that a fan has and we also do different assessments for the various fan types (family, away supporter, disabled fan, long-term fan, etc) to get a unique and relevant understanding of what they see, hear and encounter.

To tell you what we’ve found would take a hundred further blogs (most of which are elsewhere on this website), but the information we’ve collected is absolutely critical in helping leagues, associations and the clubs themselves to see where the gaps are.

Sometimes, it’s the whole experience with multiple issues and many things that could improve, but more often it’s one or two fixable parts of the journey that are holding the club back, usually because there is a lack of focus; they don’t have the people to fix it or simply because they don’t know about it: since you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken in the first place.

That’s why an assessment (a walk in the supporter’s shoes) is so insightful: because it really uncovers and highlights the issues in a raw and honest way.

It’s not there to catch people out but to identify the gaps where the day-to-day pressures on finances and resources take their toll.

My best/worst (delete as applicable depending on how you look at it) example was at a game this season where I asked where a stand was, and the steward didn’t know the person the stand was named after. It happened to be one of the highest-profile, most successful and best-loved players the club had ever had. To be fair, the steward mitigated his lack of knowledge by saying he’d been ‘brought in at the last minute because they were busy’ but is that a good enough excuse?

Imagine a fan of that club, or worse still, a potential new fan, being given that response. Imagine them going to Anfield and asking a steward how to get to the Kenny Dalglish Stand and them asking ‘who’s Kenny Dalglish?’.

It wouldn’t happen, I’m sure, but it does on some trips and often at the kind of eye-watering detail I’ve described above. But even when it’s lower key, such as stewards not being able to locate the family stand, the nearest toilets or the away supporter ticket office is still something that shouldn’t happen at football grounds.

Yet it does and we have more than sixteen years of evidence, taken from these real-life visits, to prove it. So, there is work to do of course, but some clubs have a culture that wants to put it right, and others don’t. Leadership is one of the key differentiators in this respect (and we covered this in our last blog).

Football clubs, from our experience, tend to be process-focused.  They see things from an inside-out perspective and there are those who prefer to assume what their fans want (rather than asking them).

Surveys help – but a questionnaire completed in front of the TV with a cup of hot cocoa is hardly the same as doing it on a cold, wet, Tuesday night at Morecambe, Crawley or Walsall. Or even a snowy one at Peterborough.

From August 2017, we incorporated the experienced assessor visit into our fan experience programmes. It didn’t replace the real fan visit but complemented it.

The subtle change was a big step in giving clubs the information they need to cover every part of their fans’ journeys. The experienced assessor has, as you’d guess, many years experience of going to games, rating his or her experience and describing it back to the club in a report. But more than that, they check absolutely EVERYTHING and this helps clubs to see the bigger picture.

Take the purchasing of match tickets as an example. With a real fan visit, they will pick a convenient way to buy their tickets whether via the web, phone or at the ticket office. An experienced assessor reviews all of these channels and tests them too, so that the club is able to pinpoint weaknesses in any of them.

Then, after a few months when the club has time to review their report, act upon it and make the changes they need to, we routinely send in a real fan to test it out.

Does it work, all this assessing, reporting, testing and walking a mile or more in the shoes of football fans?

Well, attendances are up in English football (one of our core focus areas) and away fan and family attendances have increased significantly, taking EFL attendances to their highest levels since 1959: the so-called ‘golden age of football’.

Yet we live in a world where there is so much more for a football supporter to do on a Saturday afternoon or midweek night than there ever was in 1959. The growth of video games, streaming, other activities and other sports place a lot of competition in a club’s way, yet many are pushing past it; increasing junior participation and interaction, making it easier for families, for instance, to get to games.

Yesterday, I saw a thank you email, sent to a club from an away supporter who had travelled a hundred and twenty miles to see their team lose by five goals and yet still wanted to tell the home club that he’d never had such a good match day experience in all his many years of following his team. What happened on the pitch was not brilliant, but we know that happens. It was the connection the stewards made that made the difference.

Why was it so good? Because the home club hadn’t just walked a mile in their fans’ shoes but had also thought about the two hundred and fifty miles of the round trip one visiting fan made to their ground too.

That’s what can be achieved if you want to do it.

Ready boots? Start walking.

The Fan Experience Company specialise in assessing and improving the match day experience for clubs, leagues and associations.

Contact us to find out more by emailing Mark (mark@bradleyprojects.com) or Darren (darren@bradleyprojects.com) or by visiting www.fanexperienceco.com