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It's a Homerun: Customer Service Greatness in the Minor Leagues

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In the rapidly declining area of customer service in the sports world, minor league baseball is forging ahead as a perfect example of the ideals that should be practiced with relating to customers. By establishing a solid groundwork of customer service, your business will be more likely to accomplish its goals.
This chapter is from the book

The Point: Businesses and organizations of all sizes often overlook the importance of delivering great customer service. In today's business world, being able to truly serve those on the other side of the counter is often the major differentiator. However, poor customer service remains as prevalent an issue in big-time sports as it does in any other industry and has been exacerbated by the recent trend of the white-collarization of sports.

Certain sports leagues, especially Minor League Baseball, serve to remind us of the positive impact great customer service can have on an organization's bottom line. The minor leagues remind us that businesses are built one customer at a time and that catering to your customer's wants and needs—however large or small—is more important than ever. Minor League Baseball officials also realize that loyal customers are worth every penny it takes to keep them and that providing customer service is everyone's responsibility, regardless of where they are on the corporate ladder.

Customer Service

Beyond paying lip service, far too many businesses pay scant attention to their customers, causing severe and unnecessary long-term damage to these delicate relationships that finance their enterprises.

In sports, customer service begins from the time you pile your family into the minivan or cram your face-painting, beer-guzzling cronies into the ramshackle Jeep and head off to the stadium. Either way, from the time you leave for the game (and listen to the pregame show on the radio) until the time you finally make it out of the stadium parking lot (listening to the postgame show), the issue of customer service should prevail.

It seldom does, however. Gridlock, the $8 beer, and unappreciative team management seem to lurk around every corner. Parking lot attendants, ticket takers, ushers, concessionaires, and even an athlete or two make fans feel as though they are inconveniencing them. It is not unusual for customers—the fans—to feel marginalized by the big business that sports has become.

However, Minor League Baseball, due in large part to its folksy feel and community orientation, has juxtaposed itself favorably against the major sports leagues by providing affordable, customer-service-focused, family entertainment in the process.

Unlike most Minor League Baseball fans, many fans of big-time sports have become disenfranchised due to the way they are treated once they arrive at the game. Still fewer can afford the freight to even check out their favorite teams in person. For more than a decade Team Marketing Report has published its Fan Cost Index (FCI). 1 This index tracks the cost of attending a game for a family of four and includes four average-price tickets, four small soft drinks, two small beers, four hot dogs, two game programs, parking, and two adult-size caps. The FCI suggests that a trip to the ballpark requires quite a financial commitment, as indicated in Table 3-1.

Table 3-1. Fan Cost Index for Four Professional Sports Leagues

Season

League

FCI ($)

2002

NFL

290

2002–03

NBA

255

2002–03

NHL

240

2002

MLB

145

Another way to look at these FCI totals would be to compare them to the other demands for a family's time and resources. A family can attend a NFL game or buy a couple of weeks' worth of groceries. It can take in a NBA game, or make that minivan payment. The same family can cheer on its favorite NHL team in person or take their son's entire Boy Scout troop to the latest Harry Potter movie. Although MLB remains relatively affordable, its FCI has increased 36 percent over the last five seasons.

The mythical family of four that Team Marketing Report likes to reference has become a rarity at many professional sporting events. The corporatization, or white-collarization, of sports as it has been called, began in earnest in the 1990s as teams and leagues realized they could make more money by catering to corporate America, which gobbled up luxury boxes and club seats in an effort to use sports as a backdrop for business development. Along the way, convenient parking, affordable concessions, and decent seats became scarce for Joe Average and his family.

As if this wasn't bad enough, professional sports has had more than its fair share of labor problems. Whether it's the players going on strike or owners locking their employees out, professional sports manages to constantly damage its relationship with fans. Billionaire owners suggesting that their multimillionaire employees are bleeding them dry sit on one side of the table. Spoiled athletes who seem to forget their privileged lifestyle—but not the trappings that come with it—sit on the other side of the table bemoaning their slave wages. Yet working families, who cannot relate to either side's position, are expected to finance each.

It's important to note that not all of pro sports, has succeeded in bundling an expensive product with abysmal customer service. Bill Veeck, owner of the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago White Sox from the 1950s through the 1970s, broke attendance records, in part, because he was the best at customer service. The father of the modern-day promotion understood that he was constantly competing for the entertainment dollar and, to win that battle, he had to give his customers the feeling that there was no better place to spend their money.

Veeck wrote in his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, that a baseball team is a commercial venture operating for profit, and therefore, the idea that they didn't have to package their product as attractively as General Motors packaged its product, and hustle baseball the way General Motors hustled its product, was baseball's most pernicious enemy.

Veeck is best known for hiring little man Eddie Gaedel, who measured 3-foot-7, to step up to the plate as a stunt for a game in 1951. Gaedel naturally walked on four straight pitches, then sat on the bench and never played in another baseball game.

Veeck was known for doing anything that made his product stand out, always positioning his team to garner great newspaper coverage. That meant giving away dozens of live lobsters, a 200-pound cake of ice, and having zany promotions such as allowing everyone with the last name of either Smith or Jones free admission.

What Veeck should be remembered for are the little things he did that proved that he went out of his way for his customers and valued their time and hard-earned money. For example, Veeck figured out that baseball had neglected women as customers, saying that baseball treated women as men in dresses.

Veeck went out of his way to make the ballpark a better experience for women. As they entered the stadium they had a pretty good chance of receiving nylons or orchids, and sometimes even a Hawaiian lei. Every time he took over a team, he made sure the ladies rooms in his stadiums were perfect—something other male managers never considered. In Cleveland, he spent $40,000 to convert a stadium tower into a nursery school and had a dozen registered nurses on staff to watch children during games. Then he worked on making the kids in the nursery happy, making sure they received their milk and cookies.

Veeck did this because it was good for business. He quantified the returns and determined that when the customers were satisfied they spent more, as indicated by their spending on concessions. 2

As shown in Table 3-2, Veeck calculated that x was the minimum amount of money that he would make on a given night, and, after reviewing his books, he figured out that a winning game would yield twice as much in postgame sales than a losing game. However, Veeck could increase sales regardless of the game's outcome provided he kept his focus on the customers by providing them with a postgame fireworks display.

Table 3-2. Postgame Revenue

Outcome

Promotion

Impact

Lose game

None

x

Lose game

Fireworks

1.4x

Win game

None

2x

Win game

Fireworks

3x

Within the last couple of decades, Minor League Baseball teams have featured their version of Veeck's fireworks as much as they can to make fans happy and to keep in touch with their fan base. Teams have gone out of their way to ensure that customers enjoy a safe, affordable, family-friendly trip to the ballpark. The Minors offer a sporting experience reminiscent of the old days, when ushers greeted you by name and ballplayers signed autographs for free.

Accordingly, Minor League Baseball has seen its total attendance increase by 50 percent over the last decade and has a total annual attendance approaching 40 million fans, enabling many teams to become quite profitable, simultaneously increasing franchise values in the process.

It was 100 years ago that a group of baseball men got together in a hotel room in Chicago. They were the presidents of seven minor leagues who met to discuss the damage being done to the sport as a result of team owners fighting over players and territories. Following a series of meetings in which solutions to the sport's early problems were recommended, the seven emerged having created the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, Inc. (NAPBL), or its more widely known name, Minor League Baseball.

The presidents clearly had more than just organization on their minds, although they understood the importance of devising a workable structure for the sport. They showed amazing foresight by helping devise systems to honor each other's contracts (as well as penalties for violators), establish territorial rights in their cities, and put in place a salary structure, a player draft, a classification system for the different levels of leagues, and a reserve list of a specified number of players for each team.

These remain integral parts of Minor League Baseball. They are prime reasons the organization has been able to carry on for 100 years, going through boom times and depression, wars and natural disasters, while steadily moving forward to the thriving industry of today.

In the beginning, Minor League Baseball was an isolated organization, fighting for the preservation of its own rights. A hundred years later, it has grown into a formidable partner of MLB, serving not only as a feeder system to the Major Leagues, but ironically, as an exemplar of how to treat the customer to both its professional counterpart and other businesses alike.

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