March 29



David Millay

March 29, 2019

Imagine. You’re back at your alma mater for gameday, for the first time with the whole family. As the adult with the best phone, you take pictures of the group throughout the day… goofing off in front of your old dorm, smiles in front of the famous library, and candids at your tailgate. If you’re lucky, your spouse agrees to trade off and you can jump in some pictures with the rest of the family. But there’s always one of you missing from the picture.

It’s time for your last snap before going into the game, just in front of the famous statue outside the stadium. As you organize the group and get set to take the picture, a security guard walks up to you, warmly offers to take your picture, and encourages you to join the group. With a huge smile across your face, you join your loved ones for the only full family photo of the day.

That’s incredible customer service. Undoubtedly, a positive feeling that you’ll remember and tell your friends about. It’s a specific moment in time where an individual staff member does something genuine and unscripted to make magic for an unsuspecting customer.

In a second hypothetical scenario, all the same occurs- but instead of a random security guard taking your picture, there is a designated staff member positioned at the statue who surprises you all the same. This employee’s whole purpose is to greet fans and take their pictures.

That is the difference between having great customer-service and being customer-centric. While the former scenario happened because of a single employee’s courage, the latter was a designed experience based around an intimate knowledge of customer’s behaviors, needs and wants. Having great customer service is important, but it’s just one piece in the puzzle of customer experience. I often hear these two concepts confused, so let’s unpack the dynamic between “customer-service” and “customer-centric.”

According to Investopedia, customer service “is the process of ensuring customer satisfaction with a product or service. Often, customer service takes place while performing a transaction for the customer, such as making a sale or returning an item.”

Contrast that with the definition of customer-centric 

“an approach to doing business that focuses on creating a positive experience for the customer. Customer-centric businesses ensure that the customer is at the center of a business’s philosophy, operations or ideas.”

Customer service is ultimately about behavior in specific interactions with your customer, versus an approach to doing business where the customer is forefront in how you make decisions. Service can be designed, and to deliver any sort of consistency, it MUST be designed. Intentionally designed service is about creating a framework that drives certain behaviors, whereas being customer-centric is wider reaching- it drives systems and processes, everything from capital planning to operational design.

Becoming Customer-Centric

So how can an organization become more customer-centric? Being customer-centric means putting the customer at the center of everything you do as a business. I’ve seen far too many leaders think that just creating some catchy buzzwords and attempting to update their values will solve the challenge. Before you go about updating your mission, vision, or values, how can you put the customer at the center of everything you do if you don’t know who exactly that customer is?

Gathering Insights on your Fans

Back when I worked for Disney, I remember having breakfast with the Vice President of Consumer Insights, Rick Merriman. We were discussing a job opening on his team and brainstorming the type of person who would be a good fit. While the role’s title seemed to heavily focus on data, Rick stressed the most important requirement was knowing how to ask the right questions. What questions are you asking about your fans?

Most consumer insights I’ve seen with athletic departments capture and attempt to analyze data from disjointed CRM systems or surveys to season ticket holders. A truly customer-centric organization looks deeper than traditional demographics and purchase history and dives into psychographics. Forget your organization for a second and think of your fans as individual human beings. What makes Joe Fan happy in life? What prevents him from attaining that happiness? What are his goals and desires for his life? Effectively, what are the jobs-to-be-done that he can hire your organization to fulfill?

Creating Culture

Once you’ve determined the jobs your customer is hiring your product/service to fulfill, you can map out a philosophy that reinforces this customer and his needs. But don’t let that philosophy sit on a shelf. Create visual reminders that can decorate hallways and sit on desks. Build five minutes into the beginning of your weekly team meeting to have someone share how they created value for a customer that week. Put metrics that customers evaluate you by into performance reviews. Change your recruiting and selection practices to hire people with a passion for serving.

You know who your customer is, and now you’ve got a written philosophy to inspire action. You clearly have a customer-centric mindset. But to truly become customer-centric, you’ve got to put your customer insights and culture philosophy into practice. This will come to life in multiple areas.

Taking Action

A truly customer-centric organization structures its operations in such a way to create value for the customer. From labor planning and staffing to venue policies and procedures, value for the customer is at the forefront of decision-making. Mike Millay, a Partner at EngageMint, has a unique perspective from his time leading ESPN Wide World of Sports’s business development and event operations. Reflecting on his 20-years as an executive at the customer-centric Walt Disney Company, “So many decisions about our operations behind-the-scenes came down to three things — how will this decision impact our Cast Members (employees), how will it impact our Guests (customers), and how will it impact our bottom line? If the decision couldn’t check all those boxes, we often went back to the drawing board.”

If you are truly customer-centric, experiences that you create for your fans won’t be copied from another organization — experiences will be based around your customer’s needs, wants, stereotypes and emotions. From unique environments in and around your stadium to the way you take advantage of in-the-moment memes, these experiences will create emotional connections with your brand, which can lead to brand loyalty and positive financial outcomes.

In college sports, even the ways in which you generate revenue must be done in a way that puts your fan at the center. Selling every bit of advertising space available at your arenas and stadiums is bound to generate short term advertising revenue but crush your fan’s emotional ties and negatively impact long-term goals. At the same time, tight budgets significantly limit the ability to create new fan experiences without a corporate partner’s assistance. A customer-centric sports organization can strategically walk the line between what a fan receives as a value-add versus what they pay for themselves.

One of the best examples of a customer-centric business model has been Mercedes Benz Stadium’s “Fan First” pricing for food & beverage. Former SVP of Fan Experience, Mike Gomes, wrote this blog post explaining the customer-centric, industry-changing model. The model continues to evolve, as earlier this month, the venue became the first in the US to be completely cashless, reducing concession line wait times.

As technology rapidly evolves our industry, your ability to tell stories must evolve with it. Today’s fan wants more than just the game. Everything points to change in sports fandom, where fans care just as much about the stories in-between as the results on the court. One look at’s top headlines will tell you that.

No longer can you just focus on selling tickets and broadcast rights for your games. What content are you creating off-the-court? Across which channels is that content is being pushed out? Are you capturing content and making it easily accessible on the platforms where your fans are? What tools are you providing to your natural ambassadors to help you create storylines? New companies like INFLCR can help with that. Instead of looking at how you’ve always done it, look at where your customers are consuming content and tell your stories there.

While it’s tempting to believe that an executive retreat or training your employees to smile will make you customer-centric, the successful athletic department of the future will think holistically and systematically about the customer and infuse their needs and wants into the systems and processes that drive action.

How customer-centric is your organization?

Photo Credit: Rooted Media House

David Millay

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