Time for Vale to be more customer-focused?

Time for Vale to be more customer-focused?

Rob Fielding says that while Norman Smurthwaite has done some great things, he has some constructive criticism about the club’s relationship with its customers.

I’m grateful he has put a considerable amount of money into the club and I think he will get it right. But as a chairman of a football club, you should also expect the odd piece of constructive criticism alongside the praise…

Rob Fielding writes…

I read the Sentinel’s story about the Port Vale ex-player’s association’s “snub” with dismay. For those of you who haven’t read it, the ex-players association have abandoned their association with the club after a number of requests for a meeting with the club fell upon deaf ears.

A few weeks ago I was praising Chairman Norman Smurthwaite for his work in establishing a new club shop, launching online ticketing and getting the stands sponsored. Let’s be clear – I’m still very grateful we have Norman Smurthwaite, I’m grateful he has put a considerable amount of money into the club and I think he will get it right. But as a chairman of a football club, you should also expect the odd piece of constructive criticism alongside the praise.

And in a nutshell, I think running a football club is NOT a one-man show.

If comments on the OVF forum and elsewhere are to be believed the club is struggling to handle comments, questions and requests from fans. If the club is struggling then they do need to address the situation, quickly.

With all due respect to Stoke Audi, they don’t have several thousand people turning up to their premises every fortnight…

Yes, I am aware that this is a business with “less turnover than Stoke Audi”, but it is also a business with far more customer correspondence, input and dialogue than Stoke Audi and the club needs to be customer-focused and able to respond to requests quickly and efficiently. With all due respect to Stoke Audi, they don’t have several thousand people turning up to their premises every fortnight expecting the next two hours to be a smooth and and enjoyable experience.

And while I’m on the subject of answering questions – no, I am not aware of what it takes to run a football club and I certainly don’t think I could do a better job. However,  I AM acutely aware of how customer service works. In fact, I have qualifications and awards for my  work in that field, so this is something I do know about.

The crucial thing about building good customer relations is to treat customers with respect, to respond rapidly (or at least inform them when to expect a response) and to address the issues raised (even if you have to turn something down, you should explain why). In respect of the ex-players’ association it seems the club didn’t manage to acheive any of those three aims – the club were perceived as “snubbing” them, they didn’t respond quickly and they haven’t addressed the question of having a meeting. Is it any wonder that the ex-players are confused, upset and somewhat annoyed?

So what needs to be done?

1. Better communication

In a nutshell, this is not a call for a CEO – I’ve already heard the response from Norman Smurthwaite on that matter. Anyhow, the level of correspondence we are talking about is not something that a CEO needs to concern themselves with – we’re talking fans’ feedback, requests, questions and so on. This is the sort of thing that can be handled at a more junior level.

I would suggest the club need to engage a good PA to the Chairman. They could handle online and offline correspondence and the Chairman’s diary…

I would suggest the club need to engage a good PA to the Chairman. They could handle online and offline correspondence and the Chairman’s diary. This will enable the club to arrange meetings more efficiently, to sift out important correspondence from the more trivial but at the same time it means the Chairman doesn’t have to deal with everything personally. In addition, a good PA should not cost the same salary as a CEO so that “which player should we sell” argument wouldn’t wash.

However, even if it did mean potentially cutting back on a squad player to do this, I would still argue it is worth it as customer satisfaction is vital for future club success. It would even be spending to accumulate – yes, you may miss a player’s contribution initially, but should this move keep the fans happy and potentially boost the crowd as a result, you could use the additional revenue to afford even more players in the future.

That doesn’t mean the chairman not answering fans but it means answering fans when it is convenient to do so and not at the expense of other club duties…

2. Don’t micromanage

To me, there needs to be a buffer between chairman and supporters. That doesn’t mean the chairman not answering fans but it means answering fans when it is convenient to do so and not at the expense of other club duties.

How is this acheived? Well, I think there are a number of things:

Don’t use Twitter as a means of answering questions. Continue to use it to pass on comments, promote club initiatives and so on (as it shows Norman’s personality) but I would suggest simply telling fans that Twitter is not the right medium to engage in a two-way conversation with the Chairman. Why? Firstly, Twitter has a 140 character limit so it’s not easy to convey a detailed answer. Secondly, there are people who don’t use it and you don’t want to restrict your fans’ ability to approach you. Thirdly, messages can be viewed by the public – some issues raised may need to be private after all.

My feeling is that Norman Smurthwaite works best in person where he can address an audience. His appearances at the Supporters Club Q&A’s and on the Signal Two radio phone-ins were well received…

My feeling is that Norman Smurthwaite works best in person where he can address an audience. His appearances at the Supporters Club Q&A’s and on the Signal Two radio phone-ins were well received. These could be booked on a regular basis (say, every month or perhaps every six weeks) and ask fans to ask their questions at these events.

If questions are encouraged via letter, via email and on the night then that means all fans – both living in Stoke and exiled, online and offline have a chance to ask a question. If every Q&A session is minuted (and preferably videoed) then again it gives those not in attendance a chance to find out what was discussed, These regular sessions will remove some of the micro management currently required and free up time for other duties.

3. Clear methods of communication

Another simple way to manage the fans’ questions, comments and concerns is to ensure everyone knows how to communicate with the club and that the communication is acknowledged.

I would set up a dedicated email address for questions and suggestions. For those not online, there should also be a postal address.

You can set up automated replies on email accounts so it would be simple to reply to every email saying when they should expect an answer (even if this is “an answer within three weeks”). Similarly, with letters, it would be good to send a standard reply telling the sender when to expect a response. It could even be that many emails and letters are told that their point will be addressed at the next Q&A – which takes away the need to respond in depth to each one.

An automated reply is better than no acknowledgement at all. If you don’t acknowledge correspondence then all that will happen is you get more correspondence as fans “chase it up.”

Opening up a dedicated channel of communication doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything or indeed explain it. A polite “thank you for your suggestion but unfortunately this is not something we intend to do” is a better reply than no reply at all.

And that takes us neatly back to the ex-players’ association. The club may not have agreed with the requests made but they should still have met up and told them that, rather than just ignoring them and making them even more unhappy than they were before!

But even great people have to listen sometimes, especially when there is a problem…

There is a lot going on that’s good at the club right now. Norman Smurthwaite has already done a great deal and has the potential to be a great Chairman for this club.

But as author Calvin Coolidge put it –  “it takes a great man to be a good listener” and even even great people have to listen, especially when there’s a problem.

Up the Vale!

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