Kevin Swill has been watching the New Jersey Nets since the team played at Commack Arena in Long Island, NY, in the early 1970s. So when Swill, president of Kushner Properties in Florham Park, NJ, had the chance to host a party at his house last summer for other Nets fans and Nets executives, announcers, and player Marcus Williams, he jumped at the chance.
But Swill wasn't the only one throwing parties for the Nets last year. He was among 50 season ticket holders who hosted the signature events as part of the team's Influencer program, launched last summer. CEO Brett Yormark created the program when he came on board in January 2005 and set out to reinvent the team.
At 40, Yormark is the youngest CEO in the NBA, but quite possibly the most progressive. He came to the New Jersey Nets from NASCAR, where he ran sales for eight years, and was determined to bring some of that celebrated fan experience to the Nets organization with the hope of boosting a sagging fan base. "My goal was 'how do I NASCARize the Nets?'"
One way is the Influencer program, a grassroots, word-of-mouth approach to marketing. "It's truly become a differentiator for us," he says.
The Influencer parties are marketed to season ticket holders as a chance to meet their favorite players. They're actually sales events to bring new fans into the Nets "family." Most of these catered cocktail parties occur at season ticket holders' homes. The fans bring their friends, and the Nets bring players, announcers like Marv Albert, and the owners. From the last playoff game to the next season opener, the Nets throw 50 Influencer parties. Last year's parties, as well as other small sales events, brought in $1.7 million in new season ticket sales, a 20 percent increase over 2005.
Of Swill's 40 guests (who Swill says were invited for their enthusiasm as well as their economic means), 10 purchased season tickets for the 2006/2007 season and all 10 renewed for the upcoming season. "[The parties] are boosting fan morale and giving the public the access to the Nets," Swill says. "It shows it's not only an organization inside an arena, but it's bringing it home to you."
Strong on defense, aggressive on offense
Yormark wants Nets fans to return year after year, but his underlying hope is to turn the team into a world-class brand like the Yankees or the Lakers-a challenging proposition for any team, but especially for the Nets. For years the team didn't market itself and ranked at the bottom of polls like USA Today's fan-friendly survey in terms of fan friendliness. A high payroll and an unfavorable lease contributed to a negative cash flow. "[The Nets] were strong on the court, but never able to leverage that from a business perspective," Yormark says.
Adding to the pressure of retaining fans, the Nets are Brooklyn-bound come November 2009 when they move into the Barclay Center, a next-generation shopping, residential, and sports complex designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Yormark matter-of-factly says he doesn't expect all the season ticket holders to follow the team to Brooklyn.
The Influencer program is just one of the new customer-centric strategies that Yormark and his team have brought to fans over the past two years to help overcome these challenges. By putting a personal touch on just about everything from executives visiting fans at their seats to offering personalized service for private parties, the organization strives to create a model that focuses on customer service and retention by delivering best-in-class service. "It's a lot easier to retain customers than to find new ones," Yormark explains.
Nets Senior Vice President and CMO Tom Glick says season ticket holder retention is an integral part of the organization's business strategy. Whereas most sports teams treat season ticket holders like single ticket holders, the Nets give season ticket holders personalized treatment during the games and throughout the post-season-creating a revenue opportunity that other teams often miss. "What we've learned is that every season ticket holder is not like every single ticket holder," Glick says. "They're the lifeblood of the organization. They're our most important customer. We invest heavily in those relationships to make sure they have a wonderful experience."
The VIP treatment
The organization delivers that personalized service through its VIP All Access program. A significant part of getting the program off the ground included the hiring of Dashawnda Brown in May 2006 from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts to direct the new VIP Access and Experience department. As Glick explains, "We want to think like a hospitality business, not a sports team."
The seven years Brown spent at Four Seasons, well-known for its acclaimed customer service, gives her an eye for how to treat fans and how to move the organization to that world-class status. The number one thing she learned there, she says, is how to deal with customers. "[Customers] are truly the best asset that an organization has," she says. In addition, she learned to be proactive, instead of reactive, to guests' needs. She aims to go above and beyond simply anticipating their needs by anticipating what they will need.
Brown immediately applied that mentality to the Nets' approach to find ways to improve season ticket holders' customer experience. She began by using a basic service-returning phone calls-to track and monitor the level of satisfaction of the season ticket holders.
Service reps ask specific questions about fans' visits and then log the information into a centralized CRM system. Also, making sure people get a live person on the line when they call, making sure follow-up calls are returned within 24 hours, and responding to emails within the same day were first orders of business.
The team also increased the ratio of service representatives to ticket holders, so each fan can form a bond with his rep and the team could add another avenue from which to collect information from fans. The service reps goe into every game with a targeted list of season ticket holders with whom they plan to interact. They visit with those fans at their seats, ask them how they normally use their seats, and inquire about the experience they're having. The CRM system allows the reps to catalog and store information on each season ticket holder so the organization can better personalize each fan's VIP All Access experience, from sending birthday cards to anticipating their needs during the game.
The executive team also started making visits to the seats this past season to meet season ticket holders, ask about their satisfaction with the games, and to show that the organization is accessible to fans. For instance, one fan was upset that one of the parking shuttles stopped running after the game. The vice president of operations visited him and the fan was totally wowed. Brown says it makes a "huge" impact. "It makes people feel special," she says.
In fact, Yormark considers himself the host of the game, greeting fans at the gates and making seat visits. He even gives out his business cards to the season ticket holders he meets. "It's like the maitre d' where he makes your experience that much better," he says. "It's not just the waiter and wait staff, but the executive staff too."
Getting in front of the customer is an important aspect of carrying out Yormark's customer strategy. "It's about providing access," he says. "If we can provide it in a unique and different way, that's half the battle." Glick adds that the strategy is also about giving fans access to parts of the organization they normally wouldn't expect to get, such as coaches, owners, and broadcasters.
So along with the Influencer program, Yormark instituted town hall meetings where executives, players, and the coach address questions from customers who haven't yet renewed their season passes. The organization also brings season ticket holders to post-game press conferences and even gives them access to the trucks where the broadcasts are produced. The Nets also started Fan Forums, where about 60 season ticket holders are invited for beer and hot dogs at the arena and the executives update them on the state of the team. The organization hosted six last season. And to coincide with the Influencer events, Yormark launched Pancakes and Hoops, a breakfast where 10 prospective season ticket holders dine with a Nets player, coach, or team executive to ask questions about the team.
In addition to giving customers access to the organization, Yormark and his team implemented fun activities to wow the fans. Brown helped to implement Courtside Visits, pre-game visits where season ticket holders can come to the game an hour and a half before tip-off to watch practice and get autographs; the team also honors a fanatic season ticket holder at each game, features him on the Web site, makes him an honorary captain, gives him seat upgrades, and presents him with the game ball. The organization honors season ticket holders with perfect attendance with plaques and a reception that includes a visit from a player. The Nets even held a red carpet night during the playoffs where the season ticket holders entered the game on a roped off red carpet while cameras snapped their photographs; on opening night the courtside ticket holders received a box of chocolates with the Nets logo and a card that read "Welcome back."
Brown also started using existing programs within the NBA, like locker room visits, and introduced "meet your rep" type events, such as reps hosting player autograph signings. She also created basketball cards with the reps' photos and stats on them, and started a birthday program where the team sends birthday cards to season ticket holders. A special touch is when people experience significant life changes like a new baby or a death in the family and Brown's team sends a greeting card. "When I talk to my friends at Four Seasons, they say, 'Wow, you do that?'" she says. "People don't expect to get an upgraded service at a sports team."
Building fan relations during the off season with the Nets is just as important as working on it throughout the season. Such events as Nets Movie Night in the summer where the organization takes four season ticket holders out to the movies, and draft parties where 400 season ticket holders and the executives participate in a casino night while the draft plays on the JumboTron, help the organization maintain its bond with season ticket holders. "It's something we do to put Nets basketball top of mind," Brown says.
"We try to set the bar high and think outside the box," Yormark adds. "I don't know if we had any other choice, but what we were doing before wasn't working. Fans weren't coming. If we can consistently provide things our customers are looking forthen we're being successful, and it shows."
The Nets rebound and score
The New Jersey Nets so far have been winning with its new customer strategy. Glick says business has never been better. Last year brought the Nets' highest attendance in the team's history with 3,000 new season ticket holders compared to 2,500 new season ticket holders two years ago. Yormark adds that as of June, new season ticket sales for next season had already jumped 30 percent ahead of the same period last year.
"It's about being a metropolitan team, offering specialized service, having enough talent, and having the right systems to allow us to consistently deliver," Glick says. "At the end of the day it's about day-in, day-out execution."
Brown adds that the success is due to the team's culture, which
cultivates and rewards new ideas. "I don't think there's a point where someone says, 'That's a stupid idea,'" Brown explains. "They say, 'Let's try it and see what happens.'" That comes from our CEO saying 'Let's push the bar' and 'How will we be great this year?'"
Yormark believes that this approach has pushed the team to become one of the most fan-friendly franchises in the league, with one of the best off-court seasons. "We kind of launched a new tag line: 'That's basketball and so much more.' The core of our business is basketball, but when you come out to a game, it's so much more than the game," Yormark says. "We have a lot more to do, and we can do better, but we are certainly on the right path."