Customer Service Revival - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the September 14, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell The group’s goal is simple, according to Keeneland president Bill Thomason, a founding member: to provide excellent experiences at the racetrack for owners and fans.

“We want growth of our fans, growth of our owners, and more people attaching themselves to our horses,” Thomason said. “We are not talking about maintaining our business; we are talking about growing our business.”

Improving customer service at racetracks is certainly not a new concept, but it got a kick-start earlier in the year from John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock adviser, who stressed with industry leaders that the sport cannot grow without a genuine commitment to improving customers’ experiences.

“It really isn’t that hard to see—all you have to do is go racing,” said Ferguson. “I’m glad to see Bill and the group taking a hold of it.”

The initiative began with a larger group that included representatives from major farms, sales companies, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, as well as major racetracks. A poll and one-on-one interviews with many of the country’s most prominent owners were conducted about three months ago, and the results were not surprising.

“We know we have deficiencies; all of us running racetracks know of things we need to improve for our owners’ experience at the racetrack,” Thomason said. “But what we heard are common themes all across the country.”

The next step was to put the initiative in the hands of like-minded, committed racetrack executives and get them rowing in the same direction. They started by sending executives and customer service representatives with the New York Racing Association, Keeneland, Del Mar, and The Stronach Group to a Ritz Carlton training program. Thomason said the experience was “eye-opening.”

“No excuses” was one of the many lessons they all took away.

“There are a lot of reasons you can’t do things, but if it is important to the experience and important to our end objectives, then we have to quit making excuses and find the way to deliver what our customers expect,” Thomason said. “We developed good communication between the tracks and broke down some barriers about what we are doing and trying to do. It is important for the industry to realize the racetracks really do care; they are interested in doing those things that are important for the growth of the business.”

Presidents and other executives from NYRA, Del Mar, Keeneland, and The Stronach Group plan to meet at Keeneland in October to begin discussing ways to formalize their program in order to provide a more consistently good experience for both owners and fans across all their properties.

“We know there are things we cannot do cooperatively, but we know there are plenty of areas in which we can,” Thomason said. “It is critical to the overall health of the industry that racing is strong in New York, California, Florida, and Kentucky. We are interested in raising the level across the country.”

Similar cooperative initiatives have been implemented successfully by other professional sports. The NBA created a Team Marketing & Business Operations division that promoted best practices in ticket sales, sponsor development, suite sales, customer retention, digital sales, and marketing. One successful promotion to season-ticket holders even gave away reversible jerseys with the names and team logos for opposing teams on each side.

The NFL is going into its sixth season with a ticket exchange program that allows fans to sell their tickets to one another. The NFL Ticket Exchange program has been enhanced this year by allowing fans to see what tickets the teams have available alongside the ones being resold.

Racetracks face a myriad of customer service challenges with older facilities and capital expenditure constraints, and the meeting in October is unlikely to unleash a sweeping customer service plan. And that’s OK, but let’s hope it leads to some improvement. Any gains will be appreciated and hopefully lead to a stronger business model.

“I understand the complications and the barriers to being able to take on, sometimes, huge problems,” Thomason said. “There is one mentality that says, ‘Well, if I can’t do this whole big thing, then I can’t do anything.’ I just don’t think like that. There are things you can do within existing constraints to help you move forward toward your objective.”

No excuses.

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Jim Wheat

I have been a fan of Horse racing all of my life beginning as a child parking cars at my home near Churchill Downs for the Derby. As my professional career developed I have been in position to support horse racing through sponsorship relationships. I have signed on to numerous track sponsorships and race sponsorships including Breeder's Cup. I have also spent more than 40 years in the retail customer service industry and understand the importance of providing an exceptional customer experience in order to attract and retain customer loyalty.

From the customer perspective, for major tracks and industry leaders to acknowledge that they are now going to "RECOMMIT THEMSELVES TO CUSTOMER SERVICE", in itself validates the fact that customer service has not been and is not the top priority in horse racing! But at least there is finally an acknowledgement that horse racing has a problem. Every aspect of the customer interaction and experience at the tracks should be reviewed and addressed in a manner that heightens the awareness of every employee at the track that, "THE CUSTOMER IS KING!" Customer service is nothing more than common courtesy and a sincere respect for those who ultimately pay the bills! Customers, whether the hard core gambler, part time fan or avid horse racing enthusiast, has to feel appreciated and somehow be rewarded for their level of loyalty to the sport!

Times have changed dramatically, particularly in the last 10 years as it relates to the absolute of providing EXCELLENT customer service.  In the past, the bar was much lower; if a business or industry could achieve a 90-95% customer satisfaction rating, it was considered acceptable.  But in today's world with social media and the ability for a single disgruntled or unsatisfied customer to reach literally thousands of potential customers or fans, customer service must be taken EXTREMELY serious to merely survive.  In regards to the customer experience, there are simply too many competing options for the consumer's dollars; Casinos are everywhere and completely understand how to reward their customers and keep their interest. The  NFL, NBA and MLB have all repositioned themselves to be a family event with exciting fan interactions and not just another game. Horse racing has to become fun for the masses or it will die! It is about the entertainment value to the fan that will begin putting people in the seats and not necessarily the bloodlines of the horses. The majority of the people attending the Kentucky Derby are going for the fun, the event and the excitement. Most of them have no understanding or knowledge of the horses themselves and most of the attendees could not even tell you who is running in the Derby until they head to the track and see the program.  While there is only one Kentucky Derby, there is certainly a need for each track to begin creating their own exciting venues on a consistent basis if they're going to create customer excitement, put people in the seats, and therefore bring loyalty to the sport!

People in the seats will get the attention of business leaders and lead to sponsorship growth, which is the other important customer segment that also needs attention in this sport! Local and national businesses have significant dollars to invest in the sport but they demand being recognized as VIP CUSTOMERS!  The horse racing industry needs to begin acknowledging all of the different customer segments. Horse racing customers are not only the owners, breeders, and trainers or those sponsors who's relationship with horse racing is driven through a procurement agreement. In fact, these particular groups are actually partners and constituents of the tracks and industry at large. They obviously have a vested interest in the sport itself. Exactly the same in NASCAR, the team owners, engine builders, car manufactures, concession vendors, etc., derive direct income from the sport.  NASCAR realized early on the distinct difference in addressing the fans, sponsors, and constituents and they foster the proper relationship with each segment. That's why you see the significant sponsorship dollars pouring into that sport, fans in the seats, and vendors and manufacturers banging at the door to get in. Horse racing could learn from this example of how to attract and treat their fans, sponsors, and constituents in order to maintain long term relationships. From my experience as both a fan and sponsor, horse racing does a pretty good job in their relationship with their constituents but have a tremendous opportunity in the areas of fan and sponsorship development.

Hopefully, horse racing leaders will get serious about customers and sponsors by developing plans to create an exciting experience worthy of their participation in the sport.

05 Oct 2013 1:35 PM

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