516 Business Solutions’ Debbie Knowlan on Putting CRM to Great Use

For sports organizations, the inescapable phrase “the customer’s always right” is as present as ever. Or at least it should be, says Knowlan, President of 516 Business Solutions, a company that puts Customer Relationship Management first. An avid sports fan — call her during March Madness and you’ll get the ice-cold shoulder — she is passionate about helping team owners retain and attract fans. She gave Direct Interface Founder Kevin Jordan the 411 on 516’s methods of accomplishing those missions in the today’s high-tech, data-driven age of business and in the years ahead.

You possess a great deal of CRM experience in your career, how do you advise your current clients to invest in a CRM SaaS (Software as a Service) product?

​It depends on which team I’m working with and where they are in their overall business structures and business objectives are. For example, if a team doesn’t have a CRM implemented and they don’t have an analytics department, I would suggest first building the CRM department. The focus would be on staffing, product training, and making sure processes are easy for the sales and service teams to properly input data. Data is critical, and the foundation to everything you will do going forward. You’ve heard it, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If the data isn’t good, then any long-term analytics or BI (Business Intelligence) tools will be challenged.

​If however, a team has well-structured service and analytics teams, and has been using CRM for a couple of years, bringing on other vendors that can give teams a wealth of knowledge on a personal, fan-to-fan relationship would be the direction. This will ultimately bring in a high level of business intelligence in terms of fan data to improve the overall customer experience, and achieve key business’s objectives.

​What are some of the challenges within the CRM space related to teams?

It’s a couple of things. Executive staff, and other managers and VPs, sometimes don’t understand what goes into making a CRM system work. They believe that once the initial investment made and integrations are completed, reports will miraculously become available and you’ll start to immediately see data, receive robust reporting etc. That’s not realistic. A well-thought-out strategy includes training, fundamental integration and making sure the integrations are working properly, especially with Ticketmaster because Ticketmaster is such a key data resource within the sports industry. And then I think it’s the manpower behind it to achieve business objectives. If there’s only one CRM person managing this process, it’s hard to continue to build a long-term strategy, because they’re stuck in the day-to-day tasks, most of the time with sales initiatives, which are very time consuming.

​What do you believe has changed the game and fan experience? And what’s driving that trajectory?

Technology and the focus now on analytics when it comes to the fans. I think the player operations side has always used analytics to look at players and performance, but with the growing need to sell tickets and create a better fan experience, one by one the teams are now jumping on board with using technology to better understand their fans. It depends on what league you’re in, and how far advanced a team is in the process. For some teams, selling tickets is not a priority, whereas for other teams it’s a big need, so that will be a priority over understanding the overall fan experience. However, data gathered on fans can only help create a better experience and provide them with personalized ticket packages and service initiatives. The more personalized you can become; the better fan experience you will create. Teams now must cultivate a relationship with ticket holders, for both the in-game experience and long after the sale is made, or teams will see the lower renewal rates. And you know the statistics on the cost of acquiring a new customer being more than the cost of retaining one.

​It’s been interesting for me to watch over the year the change in fans over the last 16 years and how it’s become more of a social gathering.

From your perspective, which major league gets it right?

I would say MLS. I think it’s the collaboration within MLS that was most surprising. They do a great job of cultivating data and sharing it with the teams. Also, MLB, based on their emails has a lot of collaboration there too. Among the ones I’ve worked with, I was most surprised with MLS’ approach. Charlie Chen is in the league office does an excellent job of looking at how to help all teams underneath the MLS brand.

​If you had to do one thing all over again, what would it be and why?

I think I’m happy with all that I’ve accomplished in my career. The one thing I wish I would’ve started earlier in my career was building my network, and focusing on development in terms of focusing on conferences and joining local organizations. I got too in the weeds of my daily job and needed to focus more on my personal long-term strategy.

What are some trends you are following and why?

Technology and analytics, and how they will impact business decisions and overall fan experience. I think the digital space is interesting, in terms of how fans consume live events and how this will impact live sports watching in the future, if at all. I truly believe you cannot ever replace watching a live sporting event, but with the high cost of everything and the expectations of people regarding live experiences — no matter what they pay — they want VIP parking, clubs, access, and events. Everybody wants to feel like a VIP. I wonder if this may drive fans to watch away from the stadiums as it will be very hard for teams to meet these demands.