Thursday, January 24, 2013

Can the customer service philosophy of Sir Richard Branson help my favorite sports team?

The Mets' mascot "Mr. Met".
I’m a long time fan of the baseball team the New York Mets. I’m also a long-time admirer of Richard Branson. So as I was reading an interview with Sir Richard the other day, it got me thinking: could his advice on delivering a superior customer experience help turn around my struggling Mets.

Branson: The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then not to just meet them, but to exceed them—preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.

As a baseball fan, the last thing you want to hear is that your team is rebuilding. After all, no one wants to wait four or five years to be a playoff or World Series contender, even if the reality is your team is comprised mostly of middling and unproven ballplayers.
But if you’re in top management for the Mets, why set realistic customer expectations when you can promise to exceed them? Witness Mets COO Jeff Wilpon who recently said: “I think we’ll be competitive this year. There’s a lot of ways to get to the postseason now, with the extra playoffs and everything.”
Sounds to me like he’s talking about a postseason appearance and as a fan, that’s just what I want to hear. Realistic? Absolutely not. But if the Mets’ do make the playoffs, it will more than cover Branson’s advice of exceeding my expectations in unexpected ways.

Branson: One way to exceed expectations is through your front-line employees—everyone who works with customers.

For the Mets, the front office is more or less invisible to the customers—so the front-line employees are really the ballplayers themselves. And now that we’re in the off-season, I’m glad to say they are exceeding expectations—or were.
The Mets held their annual holiday party at Citi Field last month and bussed in 100 kids from Far Rockaway, Queens, an area especially hard hit by Hurricane Sandi. In attendance: Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey and the always photogenic Mr. Met. And recently pitcher Jon Neise toured the storm-ravaged area of Long Beach with his beautiful fiancĂ© in tow.
Then, there’s Met all-star David Wright who has also been pitching it to Sandy relief efforts and has been making public appearances for his own foundation which “provides aid and assistance toward the health, emotional development, and education for children in need”.
Great stuff. But then, true to form, within a three-day period the Mets’ traded away fan favorite Dickey while announcing they were raising ticket prices for the 2013 season. So now fans can pay even more to see a less competitive team.

Branson: Consistently over-deliver on your promises—you will leave your competitors struggling to catch up.

Like Branson’s airline biz, Major League Baseball is a hyper-competitive vertical. Especially if, like the Mets, you reside in the National League East division. Washington made the playoffs last year and keeps adding players, Philly is a recent world champ with an imposing pitching rotation, and the Atlanta Braves are always tough.
Yet, the GM of the Mets, Sandy Alderson, recently said the Mets 2013 roster “will look similar to the way it did at the end of last year”. This would be the same team that had one of the worst records in the National League during the second half of 2012, and finished a full 24 games out of first place. Which makes Wilpon’s playoff promise look even more like a pipe dream.
But, as they say in baseball, hope springs eternal and every MLB team starts with the same 0-0 record. But by trading Dickey and with no movement toward signing any veteran ballplayers, I fear the only ones “struggling to catch up” will be the Mets.
Here’s a thought: I’m sure Branson is flush with cash after his recent sale of 49% of Virgin Atlantic to Delta Airlines. I’m not sure if the Wilpons are selling, but they appear to be under some severe financial constraints. So what do you say Richard, why not consider buying a baseball team? I have a feeling you’d do a whole lot better in exceeding customer expectations that the current Mets’ owners.