Why expect growth when we're designed to win?

Wednesday 11th July 2012 at 6:44PM

Many years ago when I was a lead assessor for the Unisys / Management Today Service Excellence Awards a fellow judge told me ‘every organisation is perfectly designed to achieve its results’.

It’s the sort of phrase designed to make you want to punch the person sharing it with you in the head, but in actual fact it exposes one of the greatest contradictions facing professional sport today: we know future sustainability depends on growth, but we’ve designed our organisations to win.

I was fortunate enough to be at a talk given by football writer Jonathan Wilson (@jonawils) last weekend. He explained the detail behind Spain’s much revered 4-6-0 system (while we wondered how Scotland had managed to achieve such different results with the same approach in the Czech Republic a couple of years ago). In essence, the message was simple: they’ve set up to maximise their own strengths, nullify the opposition and score a goal. Everything is subservient to the ultimate aim and, in this, Spain triumph.

In business, we’re talking about strategy and organisational design here. If your strategy is to grow your business, then your organisational design must match that aspiration. Not only must your products be attractive and desirable, but you must also have a deep understanding of your target customer base, so you can focus on those things that matter to them. You need a clear set of brand values, so when there’s an issue, you have an instinctive response to it. You need an engaged bunch of co-workers, who share your principles and are happy to work around ‘rules’ to ensure your customers get the best outcomes possible. Your employee of the month wouldn’t be decided on the basis of ‘whose turn is it this time?’ but on the basis of who’s done most to encourage growth / fan recruitment. Finally, you need leaders you can trust and who can be expected to spend more time ‘listening’ to their own organisation than they do telling it what to do. Speaking of listening, that goes for marketing departments too.

I was equally fortunate to be at Sport is Fantastic, the southern hemisphere’s leading sports marketing event, in Sydney last month. There I heard Bart Wiley (@bartwiley) of Seattle Sounders describe how attendances have grown from 3,300 (shortly before their admission to the MLS status four years ago) to predicted attendances of 50-60,000 for some of the team’s remaining games this season.

Sure, this season the Sounders started off like a train, but when I met Bart, they’d gone a few games without winning. Something else was going on. And it’s true that the context is different. Football over there occupies a different place in society, players are paid less (but their wages are transparently published online incidentally) but it still generates the passion we feel over here.

What was striking about the presentation was the lack of reliance or emphasis on winning (that’s left to the sporting part of the organisation) but the enormous organisational emphasis on growth.

There may not be the age-old traditions we enjoy over here, so the Sounders worked with their fan base to invent some. Check out their march to the match. Look at their Scarf day in March when fans are encouraged to upload photos of themselves bearing the famous green and blue scarf (or their cat or dog). The day, Seattleites awoke to the sight of Sounders scarves adorning famous statues, city centre monuments and trees in the City’s avenues.

And check out their approach to selling you a ticket. They find out if you have a favourite team in another part of the world, they find out if you like to sit or stand and sing and they find out if you have an affinity to a local sports or soccer club. That way they can ensure that in one corner of the Seahawks stadium you’ll find a group of Liverpool-loving ‘chanters’ who play for the same sports club up there in the North West Pacific – and you’ll want to come again.

Watching Bart recount the story of the Sounders’ rise made me think about my own team here in the UK. My club’s stadium is usually 75% full, in spite of the fact that we’re enjoying one of the most sustained periods of success in our club’s recent history.

Once I believed that this was owing to socio-economic factors (plus the fact that we’re sometimes really rubbish), but I’m starting to think that the ‘attendance deficit’ is the only natural outcome of a confused strategy. Every club wants to grow, but only appears to have ‘winning’ and / or ‘discounting’ as their long-term strategies.

In pursuing ‘winning’ (in preference to growth) we see the ruthlessness necessary on the field of play emulated in key business areas such as complaint handling (where the onus is on the customer and the experience more like being in a regulated financial sector) and employee engagement (where in preference to creating a positive working environment, staff are simply regarded as ‘dispensable’).

Organisations who manage to grow share one common factor: the pre-eminence of the ‘customer’ and sport should be no different. Consultation is implicit in these organisations, as is the tendency for customers to drive service improvements through continuous dialogue, enlightened service recovery procedures or simply by having staff who listen to them and are responsive to their needs. Underpinning all of this is a deep awareness of what the organisation means to the customer. Delivering on that promise is key – and when the friendly server at Prêt gives you a free coffee because the queues were long, you know that promise is being kept.

A cursory glance at football club websites, for example, gives you an insight into this strategic confusion. A club focused on growth would have deployed services on their websites aimed at re-engaging with lapsed supporters, convincing new ones of the value of taking that first step, while respecting the emotional connection between the core fan base and the club. There’d be offers encouraging fans to ‘recruit a fan’, there’d be ‘first timer’ pages, there’d be tales from elderly fans talking about their earliest memories. The ‘core fraternity’ would be the ‘keepers of the flame’. There’d be things for kids to do, interactive exercises, rather than several adverts for a gambling website and a lot of stuff no one’s interested in. There’d even be a request for feedback. Believe it or not, it’s the hardest thing to find on there.

Taking the online dimension further (and to quote my friend @BrianGainor) the ‘Club would be a Hub’. Instead of keeping your fan’s social media activity at an arm’s length, you’d create your own social community (like Liverpool FC has done with The Kop or like Sporting Kansas City where, once you check in on your phone on a game day, you’re invited to upgrade to join a couple of your Facebook connections in the block above).

How many of our sports clubs have the systems in place to ensure first timers self-identify? It can’t be that hard to encourage new fans to visit one particular place in the stadium where you can learn a little more about them and give them that extra encouragement to come back. Many clubs see the value of group sales initiatives, but if they only ever attend one game, isn’t that just ‘bought’ short-term customer loyalty, rather than ‘earned’ custom? Why don’t we go back to them and ask them how they got on? What did they like? What would get them back to another game?

And how about getting more of our fans to do the things that help our club to grow? Philadelphia Union’s loyalty scheme isn’t just designed to reward season ticket holders for their loyalty and to ensure they get priority for the marquee fixtures. It also rewards them for getting into PPL Park early, for turning up to low key games, for turning up in bad weather, for answering a feedback survey or even attending a fan summit. It’s a recognition scheme you’d find in a growth plan.

How many of our clubs would routinely call season ticket holders who hadn’t made a midweek game to ask them what more the club could have done to have helped them to get there? When Cardiff City (@CardiffCityFC) did that, they discovered that many of the issues were things they could genuinely help with. The fear was that fans would talk about poor on pitch performance, but all it took were a few calls and emails to blow that myth out of the water and generate renewals worth five figure sums in the first few hours.

How many clubs would give their fans a chance to vote on whether or not the GM stays in post every 4 years? Barcelona maybe, or another fan-owned Club like Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Well yes, I guess they have their presidential elections and the like, but I’m talking about a commercially owned club here. You know, the ones who think fan engagement is just fan ownership by the back door. We’re back with the Sounders and their Alliance: a true fan democracy whose main role, from what I’ve observed, appears to be to provide a strong foundation of trust at the heart of the supporter / club relationship.

Every organisation that sets off on the path to growth knows the value of key customer metrics: measures of advocacy and value that determine future growth or future churn. The question you’ve just answered on that email survey is telling someone at HQ something about future revenue levels. The cumulative impact of this data is converting once recalcitrant FDs into ‘customer service’ enthusiasts.

60% of customers leave an organisation because of a perceived attitude of indifference to them and yet the sports industry never asks its ‘customers’ how valued they feel.

So is it any wonder pro sports administrators have a reputation for arrogance? I’ve met some lovely people in sports, but if the definition of arrogance is something akin to ‘not listening’, then these organisations really have been ‘perfectly designed to achieve their results’. A nod in the direction of commercial best practice is long overdue. It’s time to create strategies for growth.

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