What football can teach us about CX

Episode # 09


Elite football coaches have to go amazing lengths to get their team working together optimally to become number 1. So when you compare that to the business world, where teams often work in silos competing against each other, it made us realise there is a lot business leaders need to learn from professional football coaches. In this episode Justin draws on his experience working inside a high performance sports culture to provide some really valuable insights for business and CX leaders.



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Having spent a few years in my career as Head of Brand and Digital at The West Coast Eagles in the AFL or Australian Football League for my overseas friends, I was lucky enough to be there during a year where they went on to become the number one team, winning the premiership (championship) in a stadium packed with 100,000 people. It was one of the great days in my life and gave me invaluable insights into high-performance culture and operating at an elite level.  

So, lets start by comparing professional football and a large business to see what we can learn:

Football coaches and CEO’s have a similar challenge 
Interestingly, when you line up the core of a company and a football team they actually have a similar challenge. In a company you have a CEO and employees and in a football team you have a Coach and players. Both trying to get the best out of people to beat competitors and become number 1. Either, No 1 football team or No 1 brand in their category. Basically, the same goal, when you strip it right back. 

So, how does a football team become no.1 ?
My context is from an AFL perspective, but the concept applies to other team sports like soccer and basketball. In most of these sports, you have defence/backline – players to stop goals, midfield/centre line– players to link the movement of the ball from defence to the forward line, then you have the forward line/offence to score goals. But don’t worry, Im not going to get too technical for non-football fans.

Now we have that established, here’s the pathway to become the number 1 team:  

1) New coach designs a new game style and system
The coach starts by developing a vision and a plan on how they become the number 1 team with the players they have. Much like a new CEO would do. The most important part of their plan is designing a game style and system that defines how the players will work together to move the ball and beat competitors.   The most famous example of this actually comes from basketball, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson could have designed a game system around the best player of all time Michael Jordan. Instead, he designed a system to get the best from every player. Jackson guided Jordan’s focus away from being the best player to being part of the best team.  Which was the secret recipe to them winning 6 championships in 9 years.  

2) Getting player buy-in to the system requires clear communication  
Great coaches are great communicators, the same can be said for great CEO’s and executives. If the players can’t understand the game system and how to action it, then it’s not going to work. Sometimes you see a team of superstar players but aren’t winning all their games it’s because the team is lacking a system.

3) Test and practice the game system
Coaches meticulously design training programs for players to adopt the new system. This involves breaking down the system into manageable components and relentlessly practicing them. The goal is to optimise the movement of the ball and synergy between players.

4) Implementing the system on game day

Once the season comes along, it’s time to play the game system. Like with anything new, sometimes it works straight away, but more often than not it takes a little while for the players to get it working properly.  

5) Assessing Success – through the teams ability to play the system
During 2017-2020 – Richmond Football club in the AFL won 3 premierships in 4 years. Their coach, Damien Hardwick, attributed victories and defeats to the adherence or deviation from their system. The players had great clarity of the “Richmond way” which was pivotal to their success.

I hope that hasn’t overwhelmed you with football analogies, but the core takeaway is that to become number one 1 you need a game system that helps players understand how they work together to beat competitors. In AFL, they say systems based teams win premierships. 

So when we compare that focus and effort on designing a system to get people working together to the optimal effect in elite sport, it becomes really clear to me that most organisations are really lacking in this area.  

What systems are most organisations working to?
From what I see there are 2 core ways organisations are operating. A product centric system and a customer centric system. A product centric system, is the default traditional way of structuring a business by product type or business unit and operating in silos. It’s like having a football team that’s full of players competing against each other to get the ball as individuals, not focussed about winning as a team. It’s an outdated system that’s holding many organisations back from operating far more efficiently. Here’s some of the common problems that surface: 

  • Product teams competing against each other for customers attention
  • Sales and digital competing for customers
  • Marketing and sales pointing the finger at each other for lack of success. Marketing complaining about sales for not being able to convert and sales pointing the finger at marketing for driving poor quality leads
  • Customer service getting overwhelmed and frustrated with re-occurring customer issues that are not getting addressed. Whilst marketing continues to spend money to attract new customers and make false promises the business can’t live up to.

It becomes pretty clear that this is a losing system especially when you compare it to elite sport. In the podcast I commentated a quick business scenario like a football game, to show the contrast in synergy, it's quite alarming. You can watch or listen above and it might be worth sharing to product centric leaders in your organisations who are struggling to understand your point of view as a CX leader.  

The winning system that progressive companies are working to – customer centric system
The winning system that the most progressive companies are working to is a customer centric culture and system. In fact customer centric companies are 60% more profitable according to Deloitte. Some organisations have recognised this and have been on a transformation journey for numerous years, but there are only a handful of those. So, what is a customer centric system? Firstly, it’s a commitment to put the customer first, structuring the organisation around your core customer segments or goals and then operating accordingly. No more competing in silos, instead, working together on shared customer goals to deliver the best customer experiences possible more efficiently and collaboratively. Just think about Apple, they are the best example of being customer obsessed and their impact speaks for itself. 
Interestingly, many companies claim to be customer centric but are a long way off systemising it or operating in a customer centric way.  

4 key ways to embed a customer centric culture and system? 

1) Embedding a customer centric culture - Starts at the top
As a CX leader you need to help the CEO and executive team understand that a customer centric culture and system is how you become number 1 over the long term and get them to commit to the approach. Helping them understand the monetary cost of bad customer experience and churning customers over the long term, is the best place to start to get their attention.  Developing shared customer centric KPIs is also really important. If you want employees to work together then you need to give them shared goals much like football players. In the most successful football teams the focus of the players is on the shared goal of winning the game not how many goals they kick themselves. If teams are measured in silos they’ll operate in silos. 

2) Centralise Customer Intelligence  - Customer Segments, journeys and data
As I explained with coaches it’s critical to get every player on the same page. Centralised customer intelligence is how organisations can start to achieve this. Customer segmentation structure is the most important aspect to get right as it is a way to connect teams with shared goals as I just mentioned. It has to be behavioural based and I often find structuring by customer goal a great way to approach it eg “buy first home”, or “upgrade to family home” etc. It also, has to be a structure that the entire organisation can use. I talked about this in detail in episodes 2 & 3 if you want to dive into that more.  

3) Customer centred transformation strategy
As I mentioned, designing a system is crucial in team sports, the same applies to CX. I suggest co-designing the new customer centred system and how it should work, collaborating with all the key teams at all levels. It should be built from the core customer segments and journeys and define how all the different departments need to work together to create an optimal customer experience for each customer type. There is more on this in episode 3.

4) Embed the system – changing how you operate
It’s best to start by testing the new operating model with one customer segment before rolling it out across the board. This way you can test, learn, optimise repeat until it’s showing good results. It’s important to communicate those results to the organisation to build belief that this new way of working is a better way forward. Then look at scaling up to other segments. As I explained in the football domain, a tremendous amount of focus is placed on embedding the system. Businesses need to think in the same way. 


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