How not to lose fans and alienate people

Chicago Red Stars meet their fans

Editor’s Note: Chicago Red Stars President and CEO Peter Wilt returns for his second column on Pitch Invasion, considering the critical role good customer service plays in winning fans in American soccer.

One of the basic tenets of the soccer management philosophy I discussed last week was the importance of providing good customer service.  It seems rather self evident, but surprisingly few businesses in general and few soccer teams in particular seem to properly navigate the intricate world of customer service to the point that they create an organizational culture of it.

Responsiveness to fan complaints and over delivering on fan experience is an inexpensive way to build fan loyalty and turn fans into advocates who will advertise your team for you.  Advertising budgets for American soccer teams are never sufficient to provide the necessary depth and breadth to reach and retain the potential audience in a meaningful way.  Good customer service not only retains existing support, it also builds the fan base virally via positive testimonials from the fans themselves.

There are two general categories of good customer service: 1) providing proper response to the inevitable negative fan experience and 2) exceeding fan expectations when interacting with the organization.

Recently I happened to experience both with the Chicago Red Stars.

An unfortunate reality of any business that deals with the public is the likelihood that from time to time, your customers will have negative issues with their experience.  The team’s response is an opportunity to win over a fan. . .or lose one for good.  Being a tenant at Toyota Park, the Red Stars are once or even twice removed from issues involving parking, concessions, merchandise, security and guest services.  This indirect relationship to the fan experience is problematic, because we have less than regular communication with these contracted employees and thus have less influence on their actions and treatment of our fans.

I’ve experienced this dynamic both at Soldier Field (as President and GM of the Chicago Fire) and Toyota Park.  At Soldier Field, Fire fans reported countless incidents of verbal and even physical abuse by stadium security and ushers.  Our tenant relationship with the stadium was further distanced by the contracted manager who then contracted with separate security and usher firms.  Unlike Toyota Park management, Soldier Field management did not have a soccer culture and had a difficult time understanding or accepting soccer fan behavior and expectations.

It took years, but through the Fire’s sympathetic direct response to its fans and brokering enough meetings and relationships with supporter group leadership, security and stadium personnel, we created better understanding, albeit tenuous, with the various parties, which ultimately minimized the negative experiences for Fire fans.

Cardinal Stadium, Naperville

Cardinal Stadium, Naperville

I’ve also had the opportunity of the preferable situation of operating a facility directly when the Chicago Fire played two seasons at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville.  Not coincidentally, I believe the best customer service our fans ever experienced was during those two seasons.

Positive and negative fan experiences

The first example I’d like to provide is the Red Stars final home game on August 2nd, which resulted in our largest crowd of the season (7,959) at Toyota Park.  Unfortunately, the larger than usual crowd led to a seating problem.  It forced us to open additional seating sections on the day of the game and several of our staff members gave mixed messages to Toyota Park Security and Guest Services.  As a result, at least one fan was rudely told by a security guard to leave the newly opened section he and his family were ticketed for, because our staff had mistakenly told the security guard that the section was closed.  When the fan went to the guest services booth, they were less than sympathetic and told him to go sit anywhere.

Fortunately, I found out about the incident via this Big Soccer thread and was able to take action to both make the fan feel better about the Red Stars and reduce the possibility of similar incidents in the future.  This type of online intervention is somewhat risky for sports executives as it opens them up for online wars or criticism if not handled properly.  But the risk of not intervening was greater.  We could have lost not only the fan’s support, but also that of his family, their friends and colleagues who would hear about his experience.

Internally, we made a point of addressing the issue directly and immediately, which turned a potentially negative message about the Chicago Red Stars into a positive one.  I’ve found over the years that posting on Big Soccer or other soccer forums can effectively resolve contentious issues, clear up public misunderstandings and answer legitimate questions by our most engaged fans.

The second customer service example is quite self serving, but I believe this fan’s email accurately describes the work the Red Stars put into creating a fan friendly culture and shows the tangible benefits of treating fans with courtesy and respect:

Dear Peter,

I wanted to write to you to share our experience with the Red Stars this year.  Having grown up playing soccer, I have always loved the game.  When my oldest daughter began playing at age four and I began coaching my appreciation for the sport grew even greater.

This spring we were invited by a friend to join his daughter and go to a Red Stars game.  We had been to Toyota Park for a few Fire games and watched the USA Women play China a couple years ago.  However, watching a team representing Chicago was even more exciting.  This year we went to four games and our daughters loved them all.

The primary reason for writing though is to commend your staff on two specific experiences we had this year:

1) After one game, I noticed that the Red Stars were having a number of camps.  However, none were near our home on the North Shore.  So I called and talked with Kate Westfall.  She could not have been more professional and nice.  She suggested doing a private camp with a couple players and our daughter’s travel team.  In a matter of two weeks she was able to organize the best sports camp I have seen (and I used to organize these types of camps in a prior life!).  Every girl and parent that attended the camp was amazed the quality of coaching, the character of the players and had most importantly had such fun.  Kate was able to get Frida, Caroline, Natalie and Karen to come on various days.  These five women (including Kate who filled at the beginning of one of the days) were incredible ambassadors for your organization.  I would expect every person they meet will soon be going to games!

2) I had heard that the Wilmette Wings U11 girls played on the field and one of the parents on our daughter’s team asked if I would make a call and see if our girls could play on the field.  I was referred to David Quinn.  Working with him was also great – he was responsive and very helpful.  The girls got to play on the field before the game last week and the look on their faces when we walked down the ramp to the field was priceless.

These two members of your staff are true professionals in my experience and definitely went above and beyond my expectations.

Finally, the players attention to the girls after the games has made the entire Red Stars experience an incredible summer for our daughters.  After the last game Natalie came over and gave our daughter a hug and said “Julia I saw you cheering for us and I had to come over and say thanks.”  That is what sport is all about!  Julia also wrote a birthday note to Frida but when she learned it was not her birthday she was embarrassed and did not give it to her – but it too was so cute and full of innocent adoration.

Sorry for the long email, but I thought you might like to hear about one fan’s experience this year.  If I can ever be of assistance please do not hesitate to ask.

Regards,

Robert J. Birdsell

President & CEO

Cristo Rey Network

Importantly, Rob mentions that “I would expect every person they meet will soon be going to games!”

Gaining a reputation as a responsive organization that truly cares about its fans doesn’t happen over night or with a single effort or event.  It doesn’t ever “end” either.   It’s a process and a culture that develops over time through consistent, honest and fair actions and communication with all team stake holders.  It grows with good experiences for fans and importantly with organizational response to bad experiences.

The result is a team and organization that fans, sponsors, media and observers all feel good about and willing to support and even evangelize.  And that is something that no advertising budget can buy.

I received much positive feedback last week from fans and soccer administrators alike on my first column.  If you would care to read more on the subject of sports management philosophy and find out the genesis of many of my core beliefs, I’d encourage you to read the Pat Williams book “Marketing Your Dreams: Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck Baseball’s Marketing Genius”.  Bill Veeck was a hero of mine growing up and his influence on me is tremendous.

I’d like to finish this week’s column with a link to Ryan Stephens’ tremendous article on fan relations.  Ryan does a great job contrasting the traditional management philosophy of trying to control a team’s fans versus the idea of influencing, facilitating and protecting a team’s brand.  The column seems to embrace several of the ideas of my management philosophy including tenet #1: The Fans are in Charge.