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January 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 8
CRM, BPO & Teleservices

CRM, The Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Lions

By David Sims,
Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

One thing about following CRM as a full-time beat is how much latitude there is for professional research. Everybody’s a customer, everybody has opinions on customer service, and everybody applies the principles of CRM to other parts of their lives.

Take one of the most popular industries in America today, professional sports. If the principles of CRM are true as they apply to customers in the B2C and B2B environments where they’re usually applied, they’re also true for customers as people doing other things with their time — following sports teams, choosing schools for their kids, voting.

San Francisco-based CBS Sports columnist Ray Ratto (www.tmcnet.com/2645.1) is certainly nobody’s idea of a CRM writer. But he’s a heck of a good sportswriter, as just as the CRM writer can use sports to illustrate CRM, a good sportswriter can use CRM to illustrate sports. Simply translate “fans” as “customers,” “games” as “products,” “team owners” as “vendors” and see if the principles apply.

` What’s the basic principle of CRM? That if you don’t treat your customers better than the next guy, offer them better products, services and prices than the next guy, that they’ll take their business to… the next guy.

When looking at why fans (i.e., “customers,” see above) buy tickets or team paraphernalia, the motivation isn’t hard to find: They want to enjoy themselves identifying with the team brand. One goes to a sporting event to participate vicariously in the ancient battle of good vs. evil, to place yourself in the narrative unfolding on the field — fans say “We’re winning!” not “Those millionaires in the red uniforms are beating those other millionaires in green uniforms!”

So the customer value proposition in sports is pretty simple. Give fans a good fantasy, which lets them “win” a reasonable number of times. Sell jerseys to identify fans with specific individuals on the team and you’ll make money like a toll road.

But the one big difference between sports and retail, as Ratto notes, is that in sports the fans have far less influence on the team owners and the quality of their team’s product than customers have over vendors and the quality of their products. This is because sports teams are essentially monopolies, with a few regional exceptions — New York has reasonable alternatives for sports fans tired of seeing one team lose all the time, in the South the NFL has always faced steep competition from college football for the fan’s wallet.

So whereas with the vast majority of products usually considered by CRM writers — you can always turn into Starbucks or walk a few doors down to the next coffee shop, buy this car or that, order from this supplier or that, read this author or that — with professional sports, the choice is frequently stark: This ‘sucky’ team or nothing.

And when fans take Door #2, Ratto notes, when the stadium for Tampa Bay Rays games is mostly empty, it gets ownership’s attention in a way that nothing else does. Forget showing up to the stadium with a bag over your head or to hold up a protest sign, you’re still buying a ticket. Forget mouthing off to a radio show, owners don’t care. Forget wearing team jerseys with a big “X” on them, the owner’s interest in you ended when you paid $75.90 for the jersey.

Whereas the response of any vendor to people not buying her product is “Gee, what can I do to attract more customers,” the response of sports team owners is to castigate “fair-weather fans” for being “disloyal.”

To see how stupid that is, imagine a cook in a restaurant cooking food that’s unpalatable, berating people for their “disloyalty” in not patronizing his restaurant.

As Ratto notes, “an empty seat doesn't mean a bad fan, it means a smart fan. It means that the team did not do enough to fill that seat.” Conversely, an empty restaurant table doesn’t mean a bad diner, it means a smart diner. It means that the cook did not do enough to fill that table. An unsold product does not mean a bad customer, it means a smart customer. It means that the company did not do enough to sell that product.

The Detroit Lions, to put it delicately, suck and have sucked for years. Yet such is the power of emotional identification in sports, Ratto notes, that only very recently have fans stopped attending games. “The fans have trooped out loyally for years and years and years, largely because their parents did. And what do they have to show for it? Nothing… They should have stayed away years ago.”

Will it work in improving the Lions’ product? It worked for the Rays. “Without their militant absence, ownership would not have changed hands, nor would the new owners have been so interested in customer service, right down to the free parking,” Ratto explains, pointing out that “the fans had been given a sub-sub-substandard product for so long that they had not only the right but the obligation to make the owners crawl for their love a bit. The message? You have to earn our money.”

To their credit, Rays ownership decided to earn their fans’ money, and as a result of those efforts made the World Series this year. Anybody in retail understands the Rays’ ownership mentality and the reason for their actions. They would agree with Ratto’s observation that the sellout “should not be the fans' responsibility but ownership's… the idea of customer service does not mean that the customer serves. The team is responsible for the level of entertainment it provides, and smart teams do that regardless of the level of support.”

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