Download PDF

This year we went to opening night for the Durham Bulls.  I usually buy one of their mini plans and we go to at least nine games—plus whatever other games we attend with folks from the School.  Many years ago our first house was within easy walking distance of historic Durham Athletic Park.  We sat in the bleachers for lots of games—and we even went late at night to be a part of the crowd scenes for the movie Bull Durham.  You can see me for about a nanosecond if you freeze the movie and know exactly where to look—or at least a blurry person that I’m pretty sure is me.  In other words, we are long-time, loyal fans of the Bulls.

During this past off-season the Bulls invested $20 million in ballpark improvements.  The lights were upgraded and the grass was replaced—and all of the seats are new.  There is a large video board on the Blue Monster wall in left field, and several smaller video boards throughout the park.  The sound system and lighting have been upgraded, and there are 20 new concession stands.  According to the General Manager, Mike Birling, “The focal point has been the whole experience for our fans,” he said. “New concession stands, new equipment, new kitchen, that kind of stuff. That’s the mode we’re in, making sure we can take care of 10,000 (nightly) beginning next week.”

Scene from Bull Durham

Given all of the advance publicity about the improvements, it was doubly frustrating when they were not ready to handle the crowds.  The lines at the concession stands were long, but the real problem was how slowly they moved.  I probably missed at least three innings of the game while standing in various lines for food and beer.  One woman asked for a pretzel and was told that all of them were still frozen.  Another worker at a different stand blurted out that they just “were not ready for all of these people.”  The reflections from the new electronic “ribbon board” that runs along the outfield wall from center field to right made it difficult to read the manually operated scoreboard.  We had been before on opening night and had a great time.  This year we talked about how bad things seemed, and so did the people around us.

I left hoping that they would get their act together before our next game.  The following day I got this email from the General Manager for the Bulls.

Bulls Apology

Now I’m an even more committed fan of the Bulls.  Great customer service is one of my pet peeves.  You need to do three things if your service falls short of expectations—admit it, apologize, and fix it.

Customers deserve great service, and poor service should never be compounded with excuses.  I love that the General Manager refuses to list the reasons for the things that went wrong because “in my opinion those would come off as excuses and I am not making any.”  As a customer, I don’t care why things went wrong.  After a disappointing fan experience, I shouldn’t also have to be burdened with his management problems.  The General Manager also avoids the increasingly common conditional apology—“I’m sorry, but . . . .”  The key is to accept responsibility by apologizing—end of story, period.  You deny responsibility the minute you start offering excuses.

The School is in the business of serving North Carolina public officials.  There are countless examples of staff and faculty going out of their way to meet the special needs of individual officials who are attending our courses.  The culture of the School encourages responsiveness and the consistent feedback from officials is that we do a great job.  When something goes wrong, however, the Durham Bulls have provided us with a great example of how to respond.  Admit it, apologize, and fix it.  No excuses.  If we need to refund someone’s money to make it right, I have no problem doing it—even in tough financial times.  It is the right thing to do and it will create even stronger loyalty from our clients.  I’m more committed to the Bulls than ever and I can’t wait for the next game.

4 thoughts on “A Lesson in Customer Service

  1. Two comments-years ago we would take all the kids to a game. They offered small hot dogs for $1 and a free small playground. They loved it and we, the parents loved the games, fresh air, and weekend tradition. Then the small dogs went away and the the playground was removed, replaced by a pay per use $5 per child per 15 minute one. I went to the main office to express my distress and was told there were at least still $1 dogs. I had to walk the manager to the consession stand to prove to him, and we found out they were available, just not listed. We haven’t been to games since. The family tradition with four kids became just too expensive. The moral? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with who you identify as customers, and what is your core service? What do your customers value, and how do you enhance service without moving away from that?
    Second, I appreciate the ‘recognize the problem and fix it’ but hesitate a bit at the line of ‘no excuses.’ How does that jive culturally with an earlier post on promoting risk taking and celebrating failures? Not disagreeing — maybe there isiddle ground, or maybe one is internally focused and one externally…

    1. Thanks, Maureen. I do think the Bulls have gone more upscale in recent years, which probably is less family friendly. There were a lot more free things for them when our kids were younger. The key to “no excuses” is your point about internal versus external. I just don’t think customers should be burdened with our internal issues. They pay to have a great experience and that is the bottom line. If someone takes a calculated risk and it just doesn’t work out, they shouldn’t be punished and they should be given credit for trying. A failed attempt at innovation may be the explanation offered internally for a bad customer experience. It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to the customer, however, and even an external explanation about attempted innovation will come off sounding like an excuse and a denial of responsibility.

  2. Awesome customer service principles at play here, Mike, both for the Durham Bulls and for the School. I appreciate you endorsing the “refund to make things right” solution. There is no price too high for maintaining our customer service integrity.

  3. I went to three games over the weekend and the customer service experience hasn’t improved from your blog post. They can’t take the monster tix, they’re constantly out of food, the lines were soooo long. I am really unhappy with how they’ve changed the fan experience, it’s much, much worse.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.