Don’t chase customers, create fans, says Leadership Conference keynote


ORLANDO, Fla. — Don’t chase customers, create fans.

That was the challenge Jesse Cole, the yellow-tuxed owner of the incredibly popular Savannah Bananas baseball team, set for attendees at Furniture Today’s recent Leadership Conference.

The sub-minor-league baseball phenomenon has become an Internet sensation with more than 5 million social media followers and a ticket wait list in excess of 225,000 fans. However, according to Cole, it didn’t start out that way. After buying the team seven years ago, the entrepreneur found himself $2 million in debt and, after three months, with a grand total of two tickets sold.

“We knew we had to do something to get people’s attention,” Cole told Leadership attendees, explaining that they had to get the eyes and ears of potential fans before they could get their hearts.

The result was a redefinition of the baseball experience, one that includes dancing infielders, a pep squad of senior citizens called the Banana Nannas and a host of other changes all focused on the fan experience.

“We went all in on not chasing customers but creating fans,” Cole explained. “Whatever is normal, we did the exact opposite.”

In the process, he developed a formula he described as, “The 5 E’s.” These were a series of guidelines that serve as principles around which the teams activities center.

Eliminate friction

“Put yourselves in your customer’s shoes,” said Cole. “Often we look at competitors and not at our customers. Look at the entire experience, every touch point and look at what friction points there are for your customers.”

He noted that for the Bananas the biggest friction point initially was the length of the game. To address it the team instituted things like a two-hour time limit and a no-stepping-out of the batter’s box rule that served to speed up the action.

Eliminating friction goes as far as cutting out what he called “micro friction points,” like the type of voicemail messages customers get when they call your company or even the language and tone of invoices.

Entertain always

To illustrate, he posed this challenging question to attending retailers, “What if you charged admission? How would that change the experience?”

As a hypothetical, he cited now defunct retailer Toys R Us and posited that if instead of trying to sell customers it created highly engaging play experiences in its stores and then provided the potential to purchase those experiences for home use, then the retailer’s outcome may have been different.

Cole also noted that every touch point with the consumer is an opportunity for entertainment, from the website to the parking lot from the store entrance to delivery; every stage offers an opportunity to create entertainment and build fans.

“People are making big expenditures,” he said. “How do you celebrate them?”

Experiment constantly

He stressed that by their nature, experiments fail. However, the key is to keep trying in order to build what he calls “an idea culture;” one in which constantly trying new things and experimenting is intrinsic to the organization.

The benefits he noted are many. First, people come back just to see what you’re going to try next. Additionally, Cole said, “People don’t remember the failures, they remember the hits.”

For those who tend to be risk averse he suggested starting small by asking this question, “What experiment are you willing to try that you’re not afraid to fail at.?”

Engaged deeply

This, he explained, is doing for one what you wish you could do for many. To do this well requires listening carefully and responding creatively. “We have our people ask a lot of questions,” Cole said. “We don’t incentivize sales, we incentivize stories.”

And this applies to your employees as well as your customers. Cole noted that delivering great customer experiences start with delivering great experiences for employees. To illustrate the point, he gave the example of a young man named Reggie, who called every day to get a job. The eternally positive and upbeat young man soon worked his way into the organization, where his enthusiasm and positivity began inspiring those around him, ultimately leading to a role on the coaching staff.

Empower action

Cole described this as the effort to “stop standing still and start standing out.”

He recounted his father’s early Tee Ball advice to him: “Swing hard in case you hit it.” This advice has become a metaphor for always aiming high and working toward the best possible outcome, not necessarily the most easily achieved one.

“How do you come to bat and create the chance to get more hits?” he queried.

His answer focused on celebrating employees in the way that most resonates with them, whether that’s sending a thank you note, offering a pat on the back or words of affirmation. He demonstrated this by recording a thank you video for the aforementioned Reggie right from the stage of the conference, complete with the audience cheering “Reggie, Reggie” in the background as Cole expressed his gratitude to this exceptional employee.

His final admonition to attendees was as relevant as it was succinct: “Swing hard in case you hit it.”

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