Monday, 19 April 2010

The sports fan experience at Saracens RFC

I recently went to a rugby match - Northampton vs Saracens in the semi final of the Anglo Welsh cup. A friend of mine is Finance Director at Saracens and he invited me along. We arrived 3 hours before the game in a cold windy car park in Northampton and he told me that his CEO was passionate about creating a positive customer experience at their games. He had a vision of creating a pre-match atmosphere at English club games similar to the Southern Hemisphere, where fans turn up a couple of hours before the game creating a party atmosphere in the car parks, with meats roasting on BBQs and rival fans enjoying a pre-match drink or two as they welcome the teams into the ground. Intrigued, but somewhat bemused as the icy wind smacked across my face, I looked across a vast, empty, desolate car park next to an industrial estate and I couldn't help but question the sanity of such a vision.

We waited in the car park for around 5 minutes then I watched a Land Rover pull up about 300m away from us. The driver got out and put up 2 tall Saracens rugby club flags. As we walked closer to the Land Rover, another car arrived and set up a couple of tables with drinks and meat pies. We arrived and helped ourselves to a drink and some food. Within 10 minutes over 200 people had joined us; fans, ex-international players, current squad members (not playing through injury), junior players and back office staff. The CEO had been on Twitter and the club's web site and had publicised a pre-match Tweet-up to ensure that a large group of fans would greet the players as they arrived at this hostile away fixture. For the next 30 minutes or so, the CEO and many of his staff gave out food, drink, flags, horns and even Saracens tabards to those supporters who had made the early journey to Northampton. All of the Saracens staff mingled with fans, listened to their views and discussed the game ahead.

By now nearly 300 people were in the car park and we marched in procession to the ground to welcome the players as they arrived at the ground. The players got off the bus to find a mass of cheering supporters, mascots and a double-decker Saracens bus (set up as the mobile club shop) waiting for them. They looked amazed, and I hope, also inspired by the support.

When we got into the ground I understood why they needed that support. Northampton supporters seemed to outnumber Saracens fans by around 20 to 1. On the pitch, Saracens put up a good fight in the first half but suffered from indiscipline and in the end were soundly beaten by Northampton.

From a customer experience perspective, my interest is in the learning's that can be drawn from my day at Saracens.

1.       Customer Experience is a continuous process; not a one-off, end of season party - many organisations treat customer satisfaction as a one off event, measured annually by customer satisfaction surveys. Often they hold an annual customer party or invite key customers to an event just before the annual survey. Of course, customers don't think that way and aren't so easily bribed. They remember the basics (the late deliveries, the broken promises, the inaccurate bills), just as much as the end of season party. The customer experience is the sum of all of the individual customer interactions which typically take place across formal (organisation-owned) channels, as well as the Social Web, normally outside the organisations control.

2.       Changing customer attitudes takes time - Saracens are trying to create a new and different experience for their supporters. This is not going to be simple or easy. Customers have ingrained habits, just as much as organisations have ingrained culture or practices. Instead of trying to start with a big bang and failing, Saracen's are starting small and building their tribe. They are listening, engaging, understanding what their fans value, and over time they are winning the right to create the vision they are aiming for.

3.       A little generosity creates enormous good will - speaking to a few of the Saracen's fans, none of them expected to receive free food or drinks from the club. Let along flag or tabards. I'm sure the club won't do that at every game! However, once in a while, unexpected random acts of kindness can help make an experience memorable.

4.       The best CEOs immerse themselves with their customers and they encourage those around them to do the same - I guess it would be easy for most sports-club CEOs to spend all their time wining and dining in the corporate box with sponsors. Of course those sponsors are key customers. But the best CEOs try and understand the customer base, from top to bottom. Sure they may allocate their time towards certain customer segments, but they never lock themselves away and they expect the same from those around them whether they work in Marketing, Sales, Finance or Logistics. No one is too senior to sit in a call centre for a day and take customer calls, or shadow an account manager to speak with real customers.

I enjoyed my day with Saracens. It's great to see customer experience thinking being applied in areas you don't necessarily expect to find it.

Disclaimer and disclosure - I was a guest of Saracens for the Anglo-Welsh semi final. Saracens paid for my ticket to the game. However, I am not a Saracens supporter! I support one of their main London rivals - Harlequins. Saracens had no input whatsoever into this article which represents my personal views only.

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The Customer Revolution Blog by Laurence Buchanan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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