​San Jose Sharks: Fan experience, community, and technology (but don't call it digital transformation)

Go behind the scenes with the president of an NHL hockey to learn about customer experience and why building community is crucial. He also explains what's wrong with the term "digital transformation" and how to create genuine fan relationships. Watch the video and listen to the podcast!
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Sharks Sports & Entertainment is the company that owns the San Jose Sharks sports team (National Hockey League), San Jose Barracuda (American Hockey League), plus four ice facilities, an event management business that hosts around 175 events per year, a nonprofit foundation, and the SAP Center located in downtown San Jose.

While the NHL team dominates the organization's external face, the company is a matrix of interconnected audiences, facilities, and community engagements.

As a sports and event business that relies on technology, San Jose Sharks and Entertainment operates at the intersection of fan expectations and digital transformation. Given the importance of customer experience for every business today, the Sharks organization offers an instructive example on building a community to engage customers. The Sharks also brings a sense of local purpose and responsibility while operating on a national stage.

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Given all this, I decided to invite the Sharks president Jonathan Becher as my guest on episode #305 of the CXOTalk video show and podcast. CXOTalk presents in-depth conversations with the world's top innovators.

I've known Becher for many years during his tenure as an executive at software company, SAP, where he had several roles, including chief marketing officer and chief digital officer. Given the Shark's travel and game schedule, it took a long time to schedule Becher on the show, but persistence pays off and we got it done.

This CXOTalk conversation offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a major sports organization and how it builds community to cultivate fan relationships.

Watch the video embedded above, listen to the podcast, and read edited excerpts below. You can also explore more by reading a complete transcript of the entire conversation.

What is customer experience?

Jonathan Becher: Thinking outside-in from the customer's point of view and how that changes the way you run your business. I don't like the phrase, "Put the customer in the center," because it suggests that you're surrounding them almost in an antagonistic way.

It's flipping your mindset from internal, business process functionality -- operation-oriented -- to what customers need. If we go back to business books written 20, 30 years ago, it's the modern version of walking a mile in their shoes.

In sports, like in any other line of business, we spend a lot of time listening to what fans -- and there's a distinction between fans and customers -- what fans want and what customers want.

Some of that is simple customer service. Their digital ticket doesn't work. Can we interact with them? They want a particular jersey, but they can't find it online or in the store. Or, they don't like something that's happening on the ice, that we can do from a service. We use it sometimes to design new products as well but, most of anything, it [lets] authentic engagement and brand personas of who you are shine through. Not just corporate brand personas.

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You know how retailers used to argue and talk about share of wallet? We're trying to play with the idea of what's share of mind. Although, it sounds a bit creepy, so maybe that's the wrong phrase to use.

If we're engaged in the conversation, that's great.

How can we build engaged mindshare with customers?

Jonathan Becher: Do not start with the transaction. Customer experience implies a transactional relationship, and then immediately you think about lifetime value and start creating commercial parameters around that.

Maybe the answer is fan engagement or fan experience. It's not semantics. Sharks Sports and Entertainment may never have a commercial relationship from those who are the most passionate about us. A large fraction of our fans don't live in Silicon Valley and probably aren't going to come to my building very often. Maybe they don't ever come.

They are still passionate about our product offering. How do they show their passion? They engage in social media. Perhaps they buy merchandise. If they buy merchandise, they're probably not buying it from me because they're physically not coming into the store, so they could buy it online or maybe in their local retailer. That's not money I'm involved in. Yet, their experience there is important to me as well.

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Part of what we try to do is create stories around the brand that show who we actually are and who the players are and, better yet, allow others to amplify and tell their own stories as well.

Sometimes what [fans] need isn't a commercial transaction. Sometimes what they need is better education. Sometimes what they need is a connection to somebody else that has a similar problem that's willing to hear them out. Sometimes what they need is just a repeating of something you've done before. That listening, you know the old proverb "two ears, one mouth" kind of stuff.

A lot of people have started down this direction with customer journeys, et cetera. My worry when I did this in the past with my colleagues, is the customer journey always had the outcome of, "How do we sell them something?" And so, if I give you very tactical advice, it's building customer journeys that don't always have the outcome of having them buy something.

Is this digital transformation?

Jonathan Becher: For sure, sports and entertainment is going through a disruption. Part of that disruption is digital, and so, yes, sports and entertainment are fundamentally transforming, but it's not just digital. There is a cultural transformation, et cetera. It's going from putting on games too, as I said, engaging with fans on an hourly, minute basis.

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Last year, we ran an experiment, which was cool. We created the first augmented reality bobblehead. On the bobblehead itself, there was a QR code. You could use our digital app to get background information. Essentially, a day in the life of Logan Couture, one of the best forwards in hockey on our team. Therefore, you could self-identify a little bit more with a professional athlete. Augmented reality is now something that we want to use on lots of different situations.

I mentioned digital ticketing. In Silicon Valley, we see the phenomenon of late-arriving fans. I think some other teams are seeing it as well. It's getting harder and harder to get to the venue because of traffic. Where it used to be that 70% or even 80% of fans would be here by puck drop, on some nights it's as little as 60 percent. They show up, but they show up during the first period.

Well, we want to give them incentives to come in earlier, maybe eat in the building rather than go home to eat or go to restaurants downtown. Again, we put beacons into the building. We tried out, using our digital app, an incentive that we push to them. If you're in the building, let's say, 30 minutes early before puck drop, you might get $10 off or 10 percent off food in a particular stand or maybe merchandise anywhere in the building.

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All these things are digital and, therefore, might make you want to say, "Yes, the digital transformation of sports is happening," but it's not just digital. It is the cultural transformation to program around fan needs as opposed to programming around the operational needs. I guess, if you really, really wanted to say it was going to be digital, then I should be talking about robot servers and maybe even robot athletes one day, but that seems to be a little bit too farfetched.

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