Five Things Fast Food Taught Me About Sports Business

When I talk about my various non-sports experience, people tend to laugh when I tell them that my time working at McDonald’s as a teenager was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had. I learned so much from that position that applies to any business, so it seems only fitting to share some of those key lessons here in the context of sports business.

1.  No one knows the customer better than your front-line staff.

This is rule number one because I don’t think enough organizations realize the power that their customer-facing staff truly has. Our McDonald’s was a particularly busy location, so our cashiers and floor staff engaged with thousands of customers every week. Through these interactions, we knew what items people wanted, how long they were willing to wait, how much prices mattered, and the general sentiment of our store’s patrons. This information was used each day by managers and staff alike to make sure we were running efficiently and reacting to the needs and preferences of our particular customers.

In sports, the front-line staff includes a wide range of roles, such as sales reps, service reps, box office, concessionaires, ushers, receptionists, gameday interns, guest relations, security, merchandise sales, custodians and more. These are the employees that interact directly with your fans and customers every single day. They know what the fans are saying and feeling. As such, these staff members have very well-educated opinions that can be used to help shape important decisions. Senior management has to set ticket prices, decide on gameday entertainment, select food and merchandise options and build communication strategies. While market research can be used to help influence these decisions, I feel strongly that asking your front-line staff about what the fans want is an important resource that can be just as, if not more valuable that survey results.

2.  Discounts help in the short-term, but value wins in the long-term.

I remember when McDonald’s first came out with the “Dollar Menu” and it was huge!  How can you beat a $1 cheeseburger or $1 french fries? But then Burger King released a “Value Menu”, and then Wendy’s, then Taco Bell. It didn’t take long for everyone to try this approach. This strategy was easily duplicated and in turn, it moved the focus from the product to the price. The same problem exists with coupons and other discount programs. These tactics focus on a quick, immediate transaction – get them in the door and then hope they decide to stay. The problem is that the quality of the product and the product’s value relative to the price have much more of an impact on long-term success.

This concept is very important when it comes to all prices, from tickets to hot dogs. Offering discounts, whether its direct from the team or via a site like Groupon can definitely generate a quick spike in sales, but that revenue is not sustainable. A better approach would be to take a more sophisticated look at your prices to make sure the value proposition is there for the customers, perhaps through variable or dynamic pricing. In addition, we know that customers are very sensitive to food prices in the stadium, but most of the time, it’s actually the combination of price AND quality that they are upset about. Dropping the price of a hot dog won’t help if the hot dog isn’t hot or tasty. Just like the actual tickets, concession items need to have value for the consumer, and that comes from quality as much as, if not more than price.

3.  Don’t underestimate the value of a clean bathroom.

Hopefully you just laughed a little, but when you stop to think about it, this statement is very true. Cleanliness in general is a very important factor when it comes to feeling comfortable and welcome in any venue, and the location where people tend to notice this most is the bathroom. At our McDonald’s, we cleaned the bathroom at least once an hour, and usually even more often than that. Even if we were in the middle of dinner rush, we never skipped this task because we wanted the entire dining experience (which often involves a trip to the restroom) to be a positive one.

No one likes a dirty bathroom, whether it’s at a restaurant or at a stadium. That feeling of being disgusted by something can be a surprisingly “sticky” memory, even if the rest of the game experience is quite positive. Meanwhile, fans have come to expect dirty bathrooms and port-a-johns at sporting event, that when you enter one that’s clean, it can create a surprisingly positive reaction (or at least avoids creating a negative one). Keeping stadium bathrooms clean on a gameday is quite challenging, but even if it means a few extra workers on gameday, I would argue it’s well worth it.

4.  Failures can be your best opportunities.

Who hasn’t had a negative experience at a fast food restaurant at some point, whether it’s receiving the wrong order, sitting at a dirty table or finding a hair in your food? The most important thing to do at this point is to listen first, apologize, fix the issue as quickly as possible and try to replace the bad feeling with a good experience. A single service recovery opportunity can have even more impact on long-term customer satisfaction than hundreds of regular, uneventful visits. As a McDonald’s employee, I was taught to go out of my way to make a situation right whenever a customer has a problem, and 99% of the time, I was able to turn that negative situation into a positive touchpoint with our restaurant.

As much as we try to prepare for every situation, we are faced with failures and mistakes all the time in sports – it is the nature of any service-based industry. The tickets get lost in the mail, the hot chocolate isn’t hot, the shirt is the wrong size, a fan slips on a spilled drink – there are thousand of things that can go wrong. In fact, many times the “failure” isn’t even our fault, such as when a customer loses their tickets or mistakenly purchases counterfeit tickets. Heck, we also get blamed for bad weather or poor team performance! Whenever these situations arise, rather than get frustrated, we need to remember that we are being presented with opportunities to build a better relationship with the fans. We must listen to what they’re saying, even if they just want to vent about the team. We should make sure problems are resolved, maybe even with a refund or complimentary tickets. You might be interacting with the most passionate fan who only comes to one game a year, and if that fan walks away unhappy, it could be the last game they ever come to.

5.  Reward loyalty.

I still remember several of the “regulars” that came to my McDonald’s, and I haven’t worked there in almost 15 years. These customers were regulars because of how we made them feel when they came to our store. We knew their names, how often they came in, and what they always ordered. In fact, when we saw them come in the front door, we started making their meal before they placed their order. If they decided to treat themselves to an additional dessert, we just gave it to them without thinking about the extra $1-2 we could have made. Around the holidays, we gave them a thank you card. and above all, we talked to them and listened to them. As this happened, we started realizing that other customers saw how we treated them, and sure enough, these customers often became regulars themselves. We loved our loyal customers, and did everything we could to make them happy.

In sports, we have an amazing luxury in that our customers are fans of our brand and product, something that many industries don’t experience. But unfortunately, this fact is often taken for granted, when it clearly shouldn’t be. The most time, effort and money should be dedicated to those fans and customers that have shown their loyalty over the years as season ticket holders, suite buyers and corporate partners. These are the audiences that you want to reward with the best value, the best experiences and the best level of service. Some teams try to do this with loyalty or rewards programs, and while those programs can succeed, they aren’t necessary to truly reward loyalty. Visit your best customer in the stands and bring them a small gift or upgrade their tickets. Send out thank you card or birthday emails. Call them to ask how the game was, even if you don’t have anything to sell them. These are all simple ways to reward loyal fans that will have a lasting impact on their relationship with the team.

One thought on “Five Things Fast Food Taught Me About Sports Business

  • March 21, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Just read this one too, but thanks for sharing these lessons!

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