15-Yard Penalty for Roughing the Fans! Sales Lessons for the NFL’s Roger Goodell

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This week, Indianapolis Colts owner Robert Irsay said “Let’s be clear, when our NFL fans talk, we listen. If you’re unhappy, we’re unhappy . . . we’re here to serve you. Everything we do is to please you!”

Feel the love! That’s Customer Centricity! Gosh. When was the last time you saw a CEO unabashedly throw himself at your feet? Maybe after he had just contributed to a series of stupid tactical blunders.

At the risk of being called for a late hit, I’ll pile on to the abundant criticism leveled at the central figure in the NFL referee debacle, commissioner Roger Goodell. There are four sales lessons he should have learned now that the referee strike has been settled:

1) If you don’t understand what your customers are buying from you, you will look stupid. “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game,” Ray Anderson, NFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations said last month. Wrong-a-mundo, Ray! A football game has no meaning without people to ensure that teams compete fairly.

2) Sanitized vocabulary and bad decisions are tightly connected. As E. J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post (Throw the Flag on NFL Owners, Thursday, September 27th) ” . . . The owners regularly refer to the game loved by tens of millions of Americans—myself included—with a term no doubt invented by some over-paid management consultant: the ‘product.’ What a wonderful way of taking the game out of the game, robbing it of all human feeling and human responsibility.”

3) Corporate hubris will squash sales faster than a voracious competitor. The next time you’re in a planning meeting and an executive says “We’re sending a message here! They’ll just have to suck it up,” sell your stock in the company.

4) Know the value that every employee contributes to supporting customer expectations, and pay accordingly. As everyone now knows, the $3.2 million investment in settling the referee strike proved worth it, given the $9 billion of revenue at risk.

For now, the referee strike has been settled. That’s the easy part. Changing a myopic NFL culture that ignores its own vulnerabilities will prove much harder.

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