Monday, September 28, 2009

Three reasons to love a bad economy

Like most businesses, the economy has had its effect on Idaho Select. We are still figuring out the best way to move through it and remain successful. And while we don't know what the perfect solution is, there are three specific things that we definitely have learned.

When things are great, everything works. Nobody asks a lot of questions, your clients pretty much move along like normal and you keep an eye on your competition.

But when things hit the fan, the little cracks in your company's armor become huge. This is the best time to make progress and learn who your real clients are, what your competition is really like and where the flaws are at in your systems. Introducing the three hidden gems of a bad economy.

The best clients don't always spend money
If your company is like ours, your accounts receivable are creeping up and the days past due are getting longer. With everyone struggling to pay their bills, there is no better time to see where you stand on your clients priority list. Take note!

Are your phone calls being returned? Do you get half-ass excuses on why bills aren't being paid or are you just flat out being lied to? Right now, unfortunately, that is the norm. With these clients, our strategy is to put a plan in motion, remember where we stand with them and try to move on. Because here's the other side of the coin.

Some of your clients don't owe you anything, actually like you and might be willing to help. They may not need your services but they can provide other valuable intangibles such as feedback, public relations and cross-promotional opportunities. Take advantage of these and reciprocate their offerings. It will build stronger relationships and may help you stay afloat until things get better.

Who is your real competition?
The reality about the current economy is that it is going to wipe out a lot of the weaker players. I remember just 5 or 6 years ago I only knew one real estate agent. Suddenly in the boom I could name off 10 agents, 8 lenders and 15 builders. Just about everyone was trying to get in to real estate. Now, things have calmed back down and I'm only seeing those that were truly committed to their craft still in the business.

This is true in most industries. In sports, even the big leagues are cutting back on staff and expansion. Minor leagues, such as the Arena Football League, arenaleague2 and Continental Basketball Association are suspending their operations. In my business we compete with other leagues, clubs and entertainment options that range from video games to the movies. But as times get tough, we are starting to see who is really committed to what they do and who was trying to make a quick buck.

It's tough, but you must continue to watch your competition. If they are continuing to survive, try to understand why. If they are starting to sink, get ready to grab their best clients. This might seem brutal but the truth is, if a competitor is going out of business their clients will still need their service or product. It might as well come from you.

Close the loop holes
When times get tight, you are almost guaranteed to have your competition and some of your less desirable clients attack you where ever they can. They will take shots at your policies, procedures and methodology. Out of pure desperation some may even challenge you to legal and moral showdowns. And while you are sure to be vulnerable in spots, pay attention and fix them. If you don't, you are going to be attacked again in the future.

As a guy trying to earn a living, the current environment is unpredictable and scary. But as a competitor I love it! It is challenging and revealing. It brings out the best in us. And I can tell you that we will certainly be focused on these three hidden gems.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Customer service is everything - what sports can learn from Verizon

So the other day I'm having problems receiving emails on my Blackberry. I give Verizon a call to check on the problem and the next thing I know, I've signed up for an extra three months of service...and I feel great about it!

I love the customer service that Verizon provides. I have been with the cell company for several years and every time I need some help, their technical support people do a great job. They didn't make BusinessWeek's 2009 list of Customer Service Champs (link below) but they do great for me. They listen, give me an update (even if it is simply saying that they are working on it) and then take the opportunity to explore how my experience is going. They turned my problem into an asset. Now that is excellent customer service!

It got me thinking about how customer service plays a part in the business of sports. In a business primarily built around customer experiences, the service the fans receive is the only thing that you can control. You can't control the wins and losses, the officiating, the weather. But, you can control what the fan (or for event managers, the participant) experiences when they interact with you and your staff.

Business Week's Customer Service Champs 2009

In sports, customer service generally starts when a fan inquires about tickets or a sponsorship package and does not end until you or the fan/sponsor completely sever all contact (which may be never). So as an organization you have to consider the ticket purchasing process, sponsor development process, in game experiences and outside fan interactions.

The Box Office Knowledge Gap

In the current era of internet marketing and purchasing, fans can now choose to purchase either online or in person/on the phone. Assuming you have a smart web strategy, we'll focus on live interactions for the sake of this posting.

When a fan makes a phone call or visits a box office, it's usually an independent third party that operates it. This means, especially for a minor league team, that there could be a knowledge gap between what the box office personel knows and what is reality. This can create some poor first impressions, reduce your team's level of customer service and likely lose sales.

It is the job of the team's director of ticket operations and director of customer service to ensure that the box office is knowledgeable of all ticket matters (pricing, seating location). Plus, they need a high understanding of general information that is not directly related to their job, such as game schedule, start times and even the team's website.

Want to see how they do? Just call the box office and ask a few questions. Within 15 seconds you'll know if you're in trouble.

The Sponsor Experience

If you are selling sponsorship packages, customer service may be the only thing that sells. While it is easy to ramble off number of impressions and activation opportunities, what you are really selling is that you will deliver on your promises. This comes down to trust, which comes down to customer service.

Do you call them back when you say you will? Are you providing the information they are looking for? Some sponsors may not be familiar with your product, team or event so you have to deliver great service before anything else. (Be sure to see my post on Managing Your First Impression)

In Event - Whose in Control?

Obviously each team or event will have a director of operations. Their job is simple: make sure the fan experience is the best it can be. Some teams are lucky enough to have a person or group in charge of sponsor development. But, what if there's a problem? How are you addressing fan's and sponsor's suggestions, complaints, comments and questions?

It starts with making it easy for them to voice their concerns; knowing where to go or who to call or email. Do you direct them to a particular area in the arena? A person? A website? Where ever they should go, make sure it is very obvious to them.

This will increase your feedback. Fan and sponsor feedback is the best source of improvement you have. Especially when they care enough to make a complaint. Listen to what they say and pull something out of it. The hardest part, especially with a complaint, is taking the emotion and pride out of it. Even though the comments may seem ludicrous, you can usually learn something. Try and empathize with them. Let them know you've heard them. Let them know of possible solutions. Even if you can't immediately help, at least you've listened to them and possibly kept a client for one more day.

Be Aggressive, B E Aggressive

Also known as being proactive. Not all fans and sponsors actively voice their opinions. But don't assume that means everything is OK. Following your event or season, hosting a focus group and doing surveys can prove to be very enlightening.  These can be done expensively (hiring a market research company) or on the cheap (

Be sure to check out "Event Planning Starts the Day After".

Informal focus groups can provide some of the insight you are seeking. And though this is just a small portion of the group you want to learn more from, it can lead you to the type of questions you should be asking in a survey. A word of caution: creating your own survey can be difficult and may lead to useless or misleading information. Be sure to do some research prior to creating and distributing your survey.

The bottom line is simply this: the service you provide your customers is the most important thing in the business of sports. Be like Verizon; turn your customers' problems into an asset.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Managing your first impression

The other day, I had breakfast with a great friend of mine. We were talking marketing (he is in real estate) and the topic of image and first impressions came up. We were discussing what is appropriate to wear and how your appearance can affect the image you want to portray.

Image is a funny thing. The PC thing to say is that image doesn't matter. That it's the substance of the work you do that is important. In an established relationship/partnership this is true but in the initial stages, we all make little assumptions about the people we meet based on how they look and present themselves. And while this may not make or break a particular deal, early on, it can be a factor in how a relationship progresses.

Any first impression that I make, my goal is simple: show that I'm on the same level as the person I'm meeting and create enough initial trust that we can proceed in our conversation. My ultimate goal is to create an open communication with the person. I don't want to have to overcome an initial impression of any of the following: he is lower than me, he is higher than me, he thinks he is better than me or he is not confident in what he is saying.

While our breakfast conversation didn't lead to any definite conclusions, we did come up with some basic guidelines, which turned out to be pretty common sense.

Consider your circumstance
Most of the time, how you dress depends on what your job is, where you are meeting, when you are meeting and who is going to be there. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? If you are a graphic designer working with a surf shop owner that you've known for years, you would probably dress different than an account executive meeting with a potential client for the first time. While mirroring can come across as fake, insight on whom you are meeting with can be helpful.

Dress up to dress down
I remember the first time that I did some customer visits in Texas when I worked for Agilent Technologies. I had a new suit, a great tie, newly shined shoes and felt great! I came in from headquarters to meet with some of our sales team who were going to show us off to some of their top customers.

I stepped out of our rental car at the sales office and before I could shake our sales people's hands, they told me to lose the jacket and tie before I scared off their clients! There were two valuable lessons here. First, if you know someone that is familiar with the clients you are about to meet, it is always worth the time to do a little extra research. The second lesson is that it is better to scale your attire down then up. Yes, I could have shown up with the jacket and tie in the car and put them on later. But this way, they knew I was taking the visit serious and was ready for whatever.

Be yourself
If you are trying to establish long term relationships and want to build credibility, one of the worst things you can do is make promises that you can't or won't keep. That includes the image that you are selling someone about yourself.

Clearly, you need to consider your circumstance and meet the minimum requirements. But if you are absolutely not a shirt and tie guy, don't do it if you don't have to. If you like to dress up and wear the latest styles, go for it when appropriate. Things like Bluetooth earpieces, jewelry, and sun glasses are generally not required in business meetings. So if they are not your preference don't worry about them. The point is that you don't want to start your relationships off with a lie. If you do, you'll have to continue those lies until either you come clean or get found out!

When I was with the Idaho Stampede, we did a visit to a Utah Jazz game to go behind the scenes and observe how their game operations worked. Our staff was trying to decide what to wear (casual, business casual, business formal, etc.) One of my colleagues suggested we dress for the job we want. Good advice...just make sure you know what job you want.

Not everyone is going to like you
The truth is you can't please everyone. If you think you can, get over it. In fact, I could make an argument that you don't want to please everyone.

There are such things as undesirable customers. Those are customers that monopolize more time then they should reasonably need. They may negatively promote you or your organization or create additional stress. While you can't avoid this all the time, you can certainly be sure that your first impression doesn't mislead them into undesirable behavior.

Your first meeting is probably not their first impression
Finally, keep this in mind. No matter how well you plan, coordinate and tailor your first meeting, the first impression of you probably came before your meeting. It may be from a referral, your website or a Google search. For the most part, you can control these elements but be sure to consider each in your personal marketing plan. Google search yourself and see what's out there. Get some feedback on your website and see how easy it is to use and what people think after they've been there. Being proactive is your best bet here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

When 7 + 3 = 6

Getting your customers to take the action you want can sometimes seem like hitting a moving target. But, when you look at a little theory behind consumer decision making, you see that you can move with the target.

When we do promotions for Idaho Select and any of our events, one of the goals of our marketing campaigns is to create a purchase. There are six steps that have to occur for someone to purchase, or take any action. We strive to achieve that goal in seven attempts via three media.

A purchase happens after 1. a person is exposed to a marketing message, 2. a person notices the message, 3. a person understands the message, 4. a person makes a positive association with the message, 5. the person plans to take action from the message and 6. the person actually takes action in the way you intended (from the "Handbook of Social Psychology").

To get a person through these six steps, we try to connect with them seven times. These efforts are outbound efforts attempting to reach out, as opposed to a website, for example, which is where you may be trying to get people to go as a result of your efforts.

Creating your campaign is where the fun really begins. Knowing your market and being creative are critical to your campaign's success. Marketing is sometimes seen as a fluffy step that can be skimmed over. And while a planned campaign doesn't need an extraordinary amount of time to execute, a well thought out marketing strategy can make the difference in who and how many people you are able to influence.

Depending on your budget, it's unlikely that you can try and market to each individual. At the same time, your mass marketing efforts won't connect with everyone. Some of your market will need to see images, some connect to things they hear while others need to read about the information. Our theory is that if you can get a combination of these three methods in front of someone at least seven times, we are more likely to move them through the six steps toworard a purchase.

There are several ways to do this, all ranging from free to very expensive. We always make use of our free resources first. Community calendars, event booths, Twitter, Facebook and public relations are a few of the free ones we utilize, though our Facebook and PR efforts can be timely to create and execute. Just to be clear on this point, having a Facebook page is not enough. However, because of the ability to push content out to "Friends" and "Fans" you are able to generate attention from your Facebook posts.

Inexpensive items can be things like newsletters, Facebook and web advertising. With new tracking software that Facebook and other websites provide, you can set a weekly budget and know what you are going to get.

Some of the more expensive forms of advertising include radio, television and newspapers. Fortunately, we've been able to establish some great partnerships with some of these channels to keep our expenses down.

The better you get at this process, the more advanced you can get. Often, if you connect with your market in the right way, you can actually move them 2 or 3 steps through the purchase process at once.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Event planing starts the day after

Recently, we completed our second annual BAM Jam 3 on 3 charity basketball tournament, The feedback was great and as far as we can tell, there were no major incidents. At the end of the day, it was a successful event that grew by almost 40%. Time to take a few months, recharge the batteries, worry about other things and then get ready to go on the 2010 version.

That is exactly the wrong approach.

I'm the first person to admit that putting on a great event takes a toll on those that host it. However, if you truly want to improve and make the event better the next time, the last thing you want to do is take time off following its completion.

The reason you can't do this is valuable information is lost. Have you ever heard the theory that if a homicide is not solved in the first 48 hours, the chances of solving it at all go down by 50%? The reason is people forget things when its not fresh in their minds. They remember things incorrectly. The same is true with events, even sporting events.

That's why, within a week of BAM Jam, I sit down with Clint, the other director, and we spend hours going over everything from the past year. We grind out a review of the promotions, sponsorship sales and plans, accounting procedures, the website, and the event from set up to tear down. We look at what worked, what failed, where we can improve and what we could add the next time. It's grueling. It's time consuming. And it leads to a good chunk of next year's success.

But that isn't the end of it. After that, we sit down with all of the unit directors and do the same thing with them. We run past them new ideas and ways of doing things. They tell us what they liked, what they would change and present new ideas to us. Now we are getting close.

Some of the most important information comes from (you guessed it) our sponsors and participants. We sit down with our sponsors and let them grade our performance. We survey our participants and see what they think. We'll even talk to the local agencies (police, fire department, downtown businesses) to get their input.

Now we have a more complete picture of where we need to go next year. And we are only 3 weeks removed from the conclusion of this year!

Could we do all this later when we are more rested? Of course. But you lose some valuable emotional ties to certain things. For example, we got feedback from one team about the registration process (which is a nice way of saying that one mom yelled at several of us for about an hour**). Some of this feedback, though childishly communicated, had valid points. However, if we waited a month or two before discussing the points, the edge would have worn off. It may not have seemed as significant and we could have missed something important. When it's fresh, it's harder to forget.

**Parents, please note that I am not recommending nor am I in favor of a juvenile berating of grown adults. We prefer calm communication.

Teams and organizations that are seasonal should consider this review as well. Hockey, football, basketball, baseball and soccer teams as well as college sports should be constantly reviewing their home games.

Each of these examples has game operations director. Especially at the professional level, the director is writing a game script that includes entertainment, sponsor activities, music, announcements, etc. You control everything other than the players, coaches and referees. That means that every single one of these can be improved.

When I was directing games at the Idaho Stampede, I always had an idea of how I wanted my games to unfold. I had various goals that I wanted to achieve. We would usually have a three game homestand (Wed, Fri, Sat) and then a break. I found that in between homestands was a great time to review the games...starting Saturday night around 11:00pm. Did we start the game on time? What promotions worked? How was the volume on the music and PA? Did the halftime show take too long? Could we have run the 20 second timeouts better?

Like any event or game, you are trying to put on a great show for your spectators and participants. So start by asking them questions. One thing I would do differently is interact more with the fans and sponsors, seeking their feedback. The die hard fans will always give you their thoughts. Yet it is the quieter more casual fan that represents the majority of your crowd so find a way to hear from them.

You can never start planning too early. If you wait, it is probably too late.