Provide better and more welcoming experiences

The (only?) way forward for sport and leisure
Many sports and leisure providers are reporting stagnant, or even declining, gates and membership. In most cases they blame somebody or something else – like the recession, TV or the internal enemies: the mobile and the computer. Of course, external factors do play a role but you simply have to accept that you are competing with many activities for people’s time and money – you just have to provide a better experience.

We believe and increasingly research proves it that you simply have to, consistently, provide consumer experiences that people will want to join – and pay for as customers. Because that’s what they are: Customers. Regardless of whether you are coaching in a leisure centre, trying to attract 50 more people to a rugby match at your local club, running a leisure centre or CEO of a major professional club, you can grow by focusing on your customers. Listen to them and provide them with a better experience. And the good news is that it does not have to cost a penny.

We are all becoming ‘demanding’ customers and fan loyalty cannot be taken for granted; it has to be earned. Considering that almost 30% of the UK population has posted a message on a consumer website, you can only wonder what people would say about the customer experiences at their local club or centre.

So what is the situation right now?

British Gymnastics have just released a Dropout Survey which looks into why gymnasts leave the sport and the key reason is that gymnasts found the sessions ‘boring/repetitive’.

“They just did the same thing every week and the classes were very big so it was on a sort of a circuit. So I could see they were getting bored when it was the same thing each week”
(Mother of 7-year-old recreational level girl)

Parents and former gymnasts were asked what could have been done to retain their participation? The main things were:

1. more feedback between coaches, gymnasts and parents;
2. sessions to be more fun/less serious
3. an equal focus on all children
4. more targets/rewards for participation
5. coaches to be more encouraging
6. provision of more opportunities for boys.

The Effective Practice case study findings indicate that recreational gymnasts in particular, are more likely to continue to stay in gymnastics when they have fun and enjoy themselves, have opportunities to demonstrate their skills and are listened to.

In addition, the case studies confirmed that the quality of coaching is a hugely influential factor in retaining young people within gymnastics.

The most important reasons for leaving gymnastics according to parents were ‘didn’t like the coaches’, ‘boring/repetitive’ and ‘no longer enjoyed it’.

Congratulations to BG for producing this ground-breaking research. I have to say I am convinced that the issue of coaches not listening or even thinking of how they can make their sessions more inspiring and welcoming is the same across all sport. Sorry coaches, but it had to be said.

And there is also plenty of scope for improvement at our professional clubs. Premiership Rugby has just released the findings from a survey of 12,000 existing rugby union fans (not the lapsed ones).

The survey revealed that the average attendance in the Premiership had fallen by four% on last season to 12,478 while during the same period crowds at the French Top 14 championship have risen by 2.5% to 12,150. As far as I know the French consumer is also suffering, so we can’t blame ‘the recession’.

43% of fans feel that the clubs do not listen to them and feel they are being taken for granted (remember these do not include any lapsed fans).

One interesting fact is that the sport has failed to attract women in significant numbers since 2004. Six years ago 19% expressed affection for rugby. Last year the figure was much the same at 18%.

The lack of progress is all the more galling because broadening the supporter base has been a key goal of Premier Rugby, with the Big Game concept, pioneered by Harlequins and Saracens and soon to be repeated by Sale at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, engineered specifically to encourage greater family participation. “Given that 50% of the population is female, the more you attract the more you grow,” Mark McCafferty CEO of Premiership Rugby said. “If we attract more women, we might open ourselves up to new sponsors who want to get involved and who want more balanced demographics. And, obviously, children are the next generation of rugby supporters.”

But it’s not just women who are proving difficult to entice.Young men are similarly diffident. One of the more startling trends coming out of the questionnaire is a five% fall in men aged 34 or under who consider themselves rugby fans. The fact that 34 is seen in rugby supporter terms as ‘young’, is worrying enough, but not as alarming as the decrease in that category from 24% in 2006 and 23% in 2008 to 18% last year.

I would like to suggest that many newcomers to rugby union find the rules confusing (what’s the difference between a ruck and maul?). But the same thing applies to most sports: A rugby league mother was dragged to a basketball match for the first time by her other son. After two quarters she went for the exit, believing the game was over – embarrassment all round. No-one had explained to her that there were four quarters. She is now a committee member at the club.

Another key aspect which deters in particular females from attending sports facilities is the state of the toilets. I know of far too many horror stories and here’s what Tony Rowe, Chief Executive of newly promoted Exeter says: “Some of the toilet facilities at some of the Premiership grounds leave a lot to be desired”.

This problem is widespread

“I have brought my wife and some friends down here and they won’t come back. They complain about the smelly toilets, the lousy food and they don’t understand what is happening on the track.
I just love the sport. I would pay for them to join me”
Wealthy, die-hard member of £ 500.00 per season Premium Club at top speedway club

Phil Hogg, avid rugby union supporter in letter to The Guardian: “The BBC only gets interested in rugby nationally when internationals come around, November and the Six Nations. The latter starts next month on a Friday night in Cardiff where England face Wales, kick-off 7.45pm. Those travelling from a distance on public transport will have to spend the night in the Welsh capital because they will be lucky to get a train back.

Those opting to drive will have to arrive in plenty of time or park outside the city centre. The council luminaries have decided to dig up Castle Street again after inconveniencing traders and motorists in the autumn. A pre-rush hour wait in the jam on Tuesday was 40 minutes. Welcome to Wales.”

Welcoming clubs have more members and make more money.

Yes, there is a clear financial case for providing an excellent experience at your club or centre. Happy customers spend more money, attend more matches or sessions, bring more friends etc. We are not suggesting that performance on the pitch or technical coaching skills are not important – but many people attend sports not just for the sport, but also to enjoy the camaraderie and atmosphere of live sport in their community.

It is almost frightening to consider that if you retain 90% of your fans/members year after year, after four years you will have lost 34.4% of your original fan base. In our experience very few clubs do indeed have a retention rate that high, so the financial incentive to provide great customer experiences is certainly a strong one.

How to move forward

All our experience tells us that in order for customer-facing staff or volunteers to be able to provide excellent customer servic, senior management must create, nourish and support a customer focused culture. Excellent customer service does not sit in isolation from the rest of the organisation and the “customer comes first” should not just be an empty statement, but a way of life for everybody at your club or centre.

It is all about producing great moments of truth. It is a moment of truth when an interaction that can leave a lasting positive or negative impression on a customer occurs between a customer and a staff-member or club volunteer.

Understanding the moments of truth that are important to an organisation’s customers – by different groups – is the key to understanding what is great customer service.

Now look around your club or facility and ask yourself:

1. Do the people who come here have a really great experience they tell their friends about?
2. When was the last time we had a thorough look at how we treat our customers?
3. Do we engage with members constantly and listen to them and not just when they cancel their membership or season ticket? (at that point it is normally too late)

Then go to other sports providers and see how they perform and, if you want see how it should be done go to a Disney resort and be amazed!

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