A young boy attending an Arizona State University football game last fall slipped and skinned his knee. Nothing unusual about that, except for what happened next. An usher at Sun Devil Stadium flagged down Sparky, the ASU mascot, and introduced him to the child at a first-aid station. The costumed character promptly cleaned the wound, applied a bandage and escorted the boy to field level for a photo.

Soon after, a copy of that snapshot arrived in the email inbox of Rocky Harris, ASU's first-year senior associate athletic director for external relations. "The parent sent it to us and said it was a life-changing experience, because the kid wanted to leave the game and never come back," Harris says. "It was his first game, and instead he was now saying, 'I want to go to every game.' And it was something as small as using our mascot to put the Band-Aid on."

Band-Aid? A year ago, Arizona State athletics officials were in need of a tourniquet. ASU had hemorrhaged nearly 50 percent of its football season-ticket holders over the previous five seasons, according to Harris. "It wasn't as much about the product on the field as it was about how they felt they were treated as customers," he says. "So we saw a huge need to improve our customer service levels - not just on game day, but our internal customer service with our employees was terrible, too. We didn't treat each other the way we should have. We didn't work as a team."

Last April, a number of ASU officials flew to Orlando, Fla., for three days of meetings with customer service experts at Disney Institute, the professional development arm of The Walt Disney Company. The trip, which was joined by ASU's security and concessions partners, kicked off a three-month culture re-evaluation that involved Disney visiting Tempe for days of interviews and training with ASU's entire senior staff on down to its frontline game-day personnel.

Tangible results began to emerge. One hundred new employees replaced more than 60 who left to - in Disney-speak - "find their happiness elsewhere," says Harris, adding that only a few employees were let go. "We set different expectations and standards, and that doesn't always sit well with people," Harris says. "We bring in people now with a service-first mentality. We hire people that we know can fit in with the new culture at ASU and the way we're moving forward."

That momentum is driven by the empowerment of employees to make on-the-fly decisions - even if it means they comp admission to a couple of fans whose ticket order isn't showing up in the computer system. "Everyone was afraid to solve problems, because they were afraid that there might be some retribution," Harris says. "We said, 'The customer comes first. Make the decision and then talk to us later, and we'll deal with whatever you do to fix their problem, because we want to be a solutions organization from here on out.' "

Says Bruce Jones, programming director at Disney Institute, which has also worked with the athletic departments at Michigan State, Auburn and Tennessee, "That's what we're trying to help people understand, that no one really owns the customer, if you will, but someone always owns the moment with the customer. That empowers everybody at every level - which is why we want to talk to them all - to do what they can when the opportunity to make a difference presents itself, and then, of course, know what to do when the fan is in front of them. The difference is often very small, like providing directions or a welcome and a thank you. We're not saying make instant dramatic leaps in service. We're saying there are relatively straightforward things we can do that will change the fan experience."

Many fan frustrations at ASU festered due to a lack of internal communication. For years, frontline staff had denied stadium entry to people carrying mini footballs, even though the keepsakes had been purchased through an ASU-partner vendor right outside the gates. Buyers were forced to either throw them out or walk them back to their cars. "We went to our operations department and added mini footballs to our list of items allowed in the stadium," Harris says. "They said it could be a projectile, but we were also handing out things - flashlights and all sorts of weird stuff - that could be used as projectiles, so it made no sense. We said, 'If it makes sense for the customer, it makes their experience better and it doesn't cause any issues operationally, we need to just go ahead and fix it.' "

The public perception of ASU as fan-unfriendly, a reputation that had survived through two generations of Harris family alums, began to change almost overnight. During the 2012 football season, thousands of emails and calls poured into the athletic department from fans "just blown away by what we've accomplished in a short amount of time," says Harris, who spent 12 years in professional sports after graduation. "They saw changes. 'I've been dealing with the same line for years, and you made two lines to make it easier on me.' Well, those little things go a long way for fans who have been frustrated for 20 or 30 years."

If the fan lasted that long. Early indications, though, point to an ebbing of ASU's turnstile attrition rate. Six weeks into the football season-ticket renewal period, Harris reported that renewals were 10 percent ahead of last year's benchmark. He'll know for sure if the bleeding has fully stopped by mid-June, when the renewal period ends. And while he admits that a winning team in 2012 and a resulting bowl appearance are factors, Harris insists they're not the only ones. "I think the best thing that we did was train the third-party vendors, because they're the ones who touch the customers," he says. "Nine out of 10 of the emails or phone calls that I got were about a positive experience they had with one of them."

The Disney experience differed a bit for Auburn, which welcomed institute representatives on campus for a one-day face-to-face with 40 athletic department staff members in May 2011, before a dozen or so AU staffers traveled to Orlando in March 2012. In between, a Disney rep attended an Auburn basketball game unbeknownst to frontline staff to assess the game-day experience. "He had a very positive experience," according to senior associate AD for external affairs Scott Carr. "We felt good about that, but at the same time you don't ever want to just sit back and think that you're doing it as well as you can."

There was no internal or external customer-service crisis at Auburn, just a desire to dodge complacency. "We're constantly focused on providing a positive game-day experience, because it's one of our overall athletic department goals," along with winning, graduating student-athletes and complying with NCAA rules, Carr says. "We're always looking at what we can do to improve."

To that end, Disney returned last August to address a group twice the size as it had on its initial visit, including third-party concessions, custodial and transit personnel.

Disney's "backstage/onstage" approach left a firsthand impression on Carr, who was in the AU entourage that visited Orlando. "Their employees know that when they're in the underground area at the Magic Kingdom where they do a lot of the foodservice, that's backstage, and they're able to operate a certain way when they're down there. But as soon as they come through those doors to walk out on Main Street, they're onstage, and the way that they look and how they interact with people has to change," Carr says. "A lot of times when you go to a sporting event, you may see a security person getting ready to check your ticket and he's finishing up a bite of sandwich or something, you know?"

Jones likens the 47-square-mile property that is Walt Disney World to a major city, or - in terms of food, entertainment, transportation and sheer volume of visitors - to the staging of three Super Bowls simultaneously each and every day. Consequently, Disney gets plenty of unsolicited feedback, too. "We have some of the best attractions and facilities in the world, but the letters from people are predominantly about how somebody, one of our cast members, treated them and the experience that he or she created for them. The letters are about the people and how they went out of their way," he says. "We want the guest to walk away thinking, 'That was memorable. It was magical. It was the experience of a lifetime.' Those sorts of words are the results we're looking for. But when we talk to our own internal business managers and our clients, we tell them, 'It's not magic that makes it magical. It's method.' "

Does an athletic department with eight home football games a year have to obsess (Jones's word) over details to the same degree as a year-round theme park holding daily customer service meetings? "You can't just put on an act and create an external service culture unless you've created an internal service culture that's the same. So that makes it a 365-days-a-year proposition," Jones says. "If athletic departments make a day-in, day-out habit of providing greater service to each other and to fans, alumni and other community members, then it flows. It just becomes a natural extension to do so on game day."

When told of how an usher and a mascot went out of their way for one little ASU fan last fall, Jones relishes the methodology for its simplicity and impact. "The one way that businesspeople all over the world would react to that is it didn't cost a dime," he says. "It probably minimized any reaction to the skinned knee that could have happened from the child or the parent, and it probably maximized the opportunity to create a fan for life."

Photos courtesy of Arizona State University

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.
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Ruby Newell-Legner Thursday, 24 January 2013
Great article Paul. You have such a great writing style.
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Some great customer service tips. I've already passed them along to senior management.
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I find this article very useful. Customer service is a necessity externally and well as internally, and I'm glad this has been realized and published!
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Terrific stuff, Paul.
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What a way to make the customer feel loved. Good article