December 4

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How to Create “Listening Posts” in Your Venue

By David Millay

December 4, 2019


As I watched “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+, a simple line from the narrator stood out to me.

“Early on, Walt grasped the Parks’ greater potential. He urged the Imagineers to stand in line with the guests, to listen and learn.”

Like so many other things, Walt Disney was ahead of his time when it came to the concept of gathering customer feedback and continuous improvement. To a certain extent, it happened out of necessity. In Disneyland, Walt and his team of Imagineers were creating something that had never been done before. There was no blueprint for how to build a truly immersive theme park, they were leading the way. When you’re innovating and leading the pack, the only way to continuously improve is to listen to your customers, observe their behaviors and ultimately try to understand their motivations.

For one reason or another, collegiate athletics as an industry seems to have forgotten this concept. As I look around the collegiate athletics landscape, outside of a few shining examples, we either innovate based on what another school is doing (even though are fans are different) or worse, we don’t innovate at all.

This year we’re helping Penn State Athletics run their fan surveys. For some vanity comparisons to other peer institutions across the country, we conducted some bench-marking call with another major D-1 program. We wanted to see how many survey responses they were getting, how long it was taking their fans to park, etc. I’m paraphrasing, but the response I got on one call was “the person who ran our surveys in the past left earlier this year, and so we just didn’t get around to running surveys this year.”

That’s by no means a condemnation on that employee or his/her team. 99% of marketers in collegiate athletics are overworked and underpaid; it’s what happens when you have 20+ sports teams to operate and only a fraction of the workforce needed to keep up with rising consumer expectations. Rather, it’s a condemnation of the highest executives within those athletic departments who aren’t making listening to the customer a high-enough priority.

Another systemic detractor that we’ve seen– even if we DO collect the data, nothing happens with it. “If we aren’t going to do anything with the data, why spend the time and money to collect it in the first place?” I can empathize and agree with that! If only a handful of non-decision making employees are going to see the data, don’t spend the energy collecting. Again, I hold senior leaders accountable for making decisions without data, something Disney would never have done.

As we work with Penn State to help improve their customer experience, one of our goals is to create the best fan experience in college sports. To do that, we can’t copy what another school is doing, we have to listen to our Penn State fans. Because the needs and wants of a Nittany Lion fan are different than that of a Texas Longhorn fan, we had to first establish what we call “listening posts.” Listening posts are a mix of formal and informal workflows that help us get inside the hearts and brains of our fans.

Our email surveys we send out after home football games provide us with lots of valuable data, but we typically don’t have reports done until Tuesday or Wednesday of that week. We send the surveys out Saturday night/Sunday morning, and we close the surveys Monday afternoon. Then it takes time for our team to analyze the raw data and create reports that stakeholders can understand. In addition to this data, we wanted to collect feedback from fans real-time that our team could react to in the moment.

To do so, we partner with a company called Happy-or-Not to set up physical terminals in our athletics venues that capture and report customer feedback, real time. As fans exit the restrooms or receive their food from a POS at Penn State’s stadium, they interact with a 3-foot high stand asking a question such as “Please rate the cleanliness of this restroom,” and they can respond with one of 4 buttons – super happy, kinda happy, kinda sad, super sad.

On the back end, our concessions team and custodial team are connected to the output where we can generate real-time reports. Every fifteen minutes, we get notifications from under-performing locations – each touchpoint has a unique name, and we’ve set a minimum threshold at which we get notified, determined by a minimum number of total responses and a percentage % of negative responses.

When we see a bathroom has gotten over 50% of its ratings are unhappy, custodial can dispatch a custodian to that exact location to address the problem. Instead of waiting til the After-Action Report meeting on Tuesday to say “we got lots of complaints about the restrooms,” we can FIX the problem in real-time before it becomes a real issue for customer experience. Additionally, we know exactly the restroom that was causing the issue, as opposed to thinking restrooms as a whole were a negative experience.

Josh Brooks, the Deputy Athletics Director at University of Georgia, talked to us about some of the many unintended consequences of having these terminals in their stadium.

“Last year I saw one individual with a non-profit group that was working the cash register, and he was very close to the unit and he was being really active and saying ‘Hey, have a good day!’ And someone said, ‘Well don’t you think he’s cheating a little bit?’ I said, ‘I’ll take that any day.’ That’s way better than being a wall-flower and not saying a word. So if they know they’re being graded and they’re cheating and they’re soliciting, that’s way better than the alternative.”

That unintended consequence, managed in the right way, is a massive positive, because that’s ultimately driving what you want– employees engaging with your customers.

The value to these tools, used properly, are boundless. As Josh continued to tell us, the data from the terminals allow us to set a baseline over time, measured against our own historical performance according to the perception of our own fans.

“So if we’re winning by a lot, or it’s a tight game, or we’re losing, or time of the day, I can really see and feel for that. We’ve had one loss in three years at home and we lost to South Carolina this year. So now when the scores dip a little bit during that one isolated variable change, I don’t have to overreact. But if all the other things are equal and there’s a dip, now I can react a little more.”

To Josh’s point, the data allows you to act according to what’s really happening, as opposed to that one harshly written email from one donor. It allows you to innovate based on how your unique customer-base perceives your offerings, not just based on a ‘shiny-penny’ that you saw in an SBJ case-study.

If you’re overworked and under-staffed, this can all seem like a “nice-to-have.” That’s where we come in, to lead and execute this type of work, to help you become more customer-centric and ultimately generate more revenue. At Penn State, our Project Manager, Travis, is on-campus every other week leading the implementation of the Happy-or-Not terminals, analyzing the data, and ultimately collaborating with cross-functional teams to look at the insights and create new experiences that either maximize gains or relieve pains for Penn State fans.

No matter how you utilize this information, the one thing you can’t do is continue with the status quo. Walt Disney asked his Imagineers to stand in line with his guests because he knew customers’ expectations would continue to rise. And he knew they were up for the challenge. I hope you are too.

“It’s just been a sort of dress rehearsal, we’re just getting started. So if any of you start to rest on your laurels, just forget it.” – Walt Disney


To explore how EngageMint can help your organization, feel free check out our podcast or schedule a call with our team.

David Millay

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