Net Promoter & Sport

Monday 30th September 2013 at 8:19AM

Any football fan hearing the phrase ‘net promoter’ might be forgiven for recalling the hilarious attempts of 4th tier German side FC Magdeburg’s fans to direct their players towards the goal with giant arrows. Certainly a form of ‘net promotion’, but not quite what I had in mind.

Net Promoter (and the accompanying NPS® - explained later) emerged from research undertaken by service excellence guru and writer Fred Reichheld, Satmetrix and Bain & Co. For me, as a jobbing customer service practitioner, it was an epiphany of sorts, for it allowed us to create a business case for investment in the customer experience.

Prior to then, there was data connecting culture to employees to customers and profit (the Internal Service Profit Chain) and also some excellent models such as the Unisys / Management Today Service Excellence framework. However, in spite of the revelatory nature of this work, the simple question ‘how much money will an improvement in customer service give us’ still eluded those of us who were beating a path to the Finance Director’s door.

Simply put, Net Promoter allows you to calculate the net difference between those customers who ‘love’ your organisation and those who don’t. By asking the specific Net Promoter question ‘On the basis of your recent experiences and on a scale of 0-10 where 0 is lowest & 10 is highest, how strongly would you recommend us to your friends and family?’ you are able to produce a single score which is an accurate leading indicator of future annual sales and business growth.

Those who mark you 9 or 10 in response to the Net Promoter question are your ‘promoters’ (advocates): customers with a strong emotional connection to your organisation who, without prompting, would recommend it. Those who mark 0-6 may range from those who are hostile to your organisation (where I’m going with BT, as you ask) or simply indifferent to it. Either way, they are ‘detractors’. Subtract the percentage of respondents who are detractors from those who are promoters and you produce a Net Promoter Score or NPS®, which you then track over time.

What the originators of the research could prove (and which was subsequently acknowledged by the London School of Economics) was that there is a direct correlation between this score, as it moves over time, and your future sales and business growth.

What about those who marked you 7 or 8? Well these respondents are known as ‘passives’. In other words, they make, for example, routinely describe themselves as ‘satisfied’ with the level of service they receive – and research has existed for man years now to provide that there is no reliable connection between simply ‘satisfied’ customers and future loyalty and / or repurchase. Which is why I always laugh when a bank CEO announces that customer satisfaction levels are at, let’s say, 80%. All that means is that the vast majority of your customer base is at risk.

Net Promoter is now acknowledged to be the most common global customer experience measure, used as it is by the likes of Apple, First Direct, Disney, Sony as well as all business sectors. Well I say ‘all’ but one area it’s yet to penetrate is sports and leisure. And this is what interests me. You see, as someone who advocates Fan Engagement as the most sustainable growth strategy for sport, anything which proves the business case for focusing on this area, is more than welcome, especially in a sector that sees attendance levels as the only metric worth thinking about.

For the last few years I have been working with clubs (the work with Doncaster Rovers FC, detailed elsewhere in my blog section under Rovers and Over Again and featured by FC Business Magazine recently) with the added objective of collecting data to help them understand and influence the link between fan experience, engagement, benefits, sales and growth. So what have I learned?

It’s early days – and I’m not about to add another book to the burgeoning list of Net Promoter-related titles – but there are some factors that are appearing obvious to me and which help sports clubs understand the potential for Net Promoter use in their organisation.

Let’s take football as an example. A football club’s ‘customers’ range from new ones to existing ones and lapsed ones. It also has fans of every age and type: from those who come for a day out, to those who come once or twice a season, to those who are regulars and those who are utterly devoted to their club – whose loyalty does not depend on a Champions League placing but which is simply a badge of honour to the thing that connects everything they love (family, friends and life’s true heartbeat).

And it is this emotional connection that weakens the case for comprehensive use of the Net Promoter question, since those most devoted supporters will find it difficult to separate their individual experiences and interactions with the Club from the deeper love they hold in their hearts for it. I saw that in a project I was involved in at a national Football Association, where the most devoted fans would probably accept a slap in the face at the turnstile and yet still love their country’s best eleven, come back and talk it up with friends.

But there are other ‘customers’ of a football club for whom the Net Promoter question is absolutely appropriate and they are those who by nature of their status are more likely to be able to address the question objectively. They may include guests of hospitality hosts, fans attending for the first time (accompanied by an existing fan or not), ‘away’ fans supporting the visiting team (likely to only happen once a season) and, naturally, clients of the club’s conference and banqueting services. The fact that few clubs even collect feedback from these groups, never mind use Net Promoter, is probably of more concern to me now, but if a club wanted to build a growth strategy over time a measure of progress is required and for these groups I believe My Reichheld’s formula holds sway.

So what about the ‘core fraternity’ then? They must represent the biggest segment of supports for most clubs and the above would appear to rule out applying this philosophy to measuring their engagement and advocacy. Well, in my view, you simply need to ask a question that better reflects their emotional connection to the club and one that allows them to separate out the emotional and rational strands of their relationship.

It’s early days, but I believe the question is ‘based on your recent experiences, how valued do you feel as a supporter of (club)?’

In my experiences with Doncaster Rovers and other clubs (on behalf of several of whom I’m currently collecting this data) then the results are interesting to say the least. Asking the Net Promoter question to core groups often produces a NPS® that would put the club on a par with some of the country’s best customer service providers in any industry. This is strange, as I’m often called in to help clubs whose fans feel a huge sense of disconnection and disenchantment with them at that very moment. Well, I believe this ‘softening’ of responses is simply a result of you using the wrong question, since when I add the ‘value’ question, the results are, in my view, much more representative (and way way way lower).

That’s not to say I have the ‘scientific’ proof to absolutely justify the wording of my ‘value’ question and also the scale and formula I’m developing. However, what I can point to is some hugely positive benefits when this approach is deployed, as it gives you a ‘true’ reading of levels of engagement amongst the group who, arguably, are the most influential when it comes to future fan ‘recruitment’.

Tracked over time and using both approaches side by side, also gives you an insight into how ‘on field’ performance affects levels of advocacy. It’s too early to call right now, but early indications are that ‘off pitch’ factors wield far more of an influence of levels of continuing sentiment than ‘on field’ factors do. Unless, of course, your team is as bad as mine (Sunderland AFC) in which case this may not apply!

And the more clubs I work with, the more persuasive the theory becomes.

If you do some research into Net Promoter, you’ll see that it’s often marketed as the ‘only question you need to ask’. Well I doubt that. What I’d do is to encourage clubs to invest in FEEDBACK and MEASUREMENT first.

Collect feedback, find out what matters to different groups of fans (generally and at each ‘touch point’ that’s important), understand what their club means to them and how they see its identity, engage them in discussions and begin a dialogue in earnest. Share my philosophy with them, see what THEY think about it and urge them to help you collect the data that will help you build a persuasive case for growth.

I’m seeing good evidence in the work Doncaster Rovers has done over the past 18 months with some attendant benefits that have genuinely been ‘head turners’ (including a softening of message board tone, a broader acceptance of the more difficult decisions and a willingness for fans to partner with the club on researching further improvements to the club’s relationship).

It also strikes me that the Supporter Liaison Officer role could be instrumental in creating some momentum around this approach, as well as the Supporter Consultation / Liaison groups that many clubs have established.

As a Mackem I’d be happy for my club to promote the net a bit more effectively to Messrs Altidore, Wickham, Borini and Johnson, but I’ll always experience that deeper love regardless of our performance this season. Net Promoter isn’t, by itself, the answer, but a curiosity about how supporter experiences affect levels of engagement and future behaviour is long overdue and maybe, just maybe, in addition to an affection for the Black Cats, the introduction of a compelling ‘sport-specific’ alternative might be the legacy I leave my kids.

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