Supporters attending our first home game of the new league season won't just see some noticeable changes in the dugout and on the pitch; they'll also see plenty of changes off it.
These changes all form part of a series of improvements being made by the club's Customer Experience Department.
Set up at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the department is solely responsible for improving your off-the-pitch experience of Liverpool Football Club and whether you're a season ticket holder from Anfield, someone who can only make it to a few games a year or even a fan from a far flung place whose only interaction with the club is through the official website, it's your opinions that the Customer Experience Department want to hear.
"The department was set up to look at ways we could improve the experience supporters have when interacting with Liverpool Football Club be that when buying tickets, shopping in one of our stores or enjoying our hospitality, museum, stadium tours and the all-important match day experience," claims Jean Crisp, LFC's Head of Customer Experience.
"Last season we spent a lot of time finding out what fans thought we did well and what they thought we could do better. The first stage is about asking the right questions and then acting upon the answers that come back. So, an example may be, we were told that the food offering needed improving - that's fine but what do we need to do about it? You tell us why you don't like the offering and what would you like to see instead? If you don't want burgers, do you want pies? What is it we need to do to put it right? We need to build this communication with the fans to meet their specific needs. So building on the initial survey we drill down and get more detail, through further surveys, forums and face to face. When we know the problem and how we need to address it, we can do it."
Have football clubs in this country been guilty of taking fans for granted in the past and if so, why do you think this has been the case?
I can't talk for any other clubs but I do think that in the past this club probably did take fans for granted, to some degree. I think that was the case because clubs don't have to compete - as other businesses have to - to attract and keep fans. Once you are a Liverpool fan, you're a Liverpool fan - just because Arsenal offers better seating, you don't switch to support Arsenal; that just doesn't happen.
If we were complacent, we're certainly not now and we totally understand that fans will no longer tolerate poor service. In all other walks of life, these same supporters are very demanding people, so why should it be any different when they interact with their favourite football club?
As somebody who is using a service, or going to a show, or something they've paid good money for, they won't tolerate poor service; they won't tolerate queuing; they don't tolerate poor quality of the facilities. Clubs absolutely understand that we need to be much more customer focused. Even calling supporters 'customers' is contentious to some degree but I think that it actually changes the psyche. Once you start referring to fans as customers, you change your mindset to thinking, 'We have to do better'.
Essentially, a customer has a different view from a supporter and I think that has been one of the reasons why there may have been complacency in the past. When you take your seat and the whistle blows, you're 100 per cent the supporter and you want a great football experience, but buying a programme, beer or food is a customer experience and we need to make that great as well.
We can't control what happens on the pitch, obviously, but I do think we can do everything possible to make sure that the off-the-pitch experience is a great one. The days of clubs taking fans for granted are over.
In the recent Barclays Premier League Supporter Surveys, how did Liverpool fans' views compare to those of other sets of supporters?
There were areas in which our supporters said we treat them well and there were, of course, areas in which we need to improve. For example, 82 per cent of those who responded with the Barclays Premier League survey said that they are comfortable to bring their children to Liverpool; 90 per cent said that they feel safe in the stadium; 86 per cent said that the overall experience was good or very good. As a comparison with other clubs' results, these are definitely areas where we have done well.
There are areas that we do need to work on - our responses on ticketing, for instance, scored lower compared to other clubs. However, that is always going to be a challenge for a club the size of Liverpool where demand for tickets massively outstrips supply.
That will, inevitably, cause dissatisfaction. We are limited to what we can do and we're aware of that, but we have done a lot in the latter part of the season in trying to create a better service to handle that demand and the experience of trying to get tickets.
How will you go about gauging fan opinion on different issues that affect supporters?
This season we are going to progress much more with face-to-face forums, online surveys and the use of social media to receive feedback. Essentially, we want quick responses on whether we have dealt with things well or not and how might we do it better next time.
What areas of the off-the-pitch experience do the fans feel is most in need of being addressed?
Ticketing was a big one and being able to get through quickly. Fans wanted us to basically remove the things that made their lives unnecessarily difficult. So, for example, up until last season, if you wanted to change your address details, you had to write in. You might have been a supporter who travelled up from Portsmouth had photo ID and all the relevant details on hand and come to the Ticket Office to tell us you had moved - but you would have been turned away and told you still needed to write in. Obviously, that doesn't make any sense and now that has changed. So, in terms of the things that we have tackled first, it really is those things that we can make quicker, better and faster for the fans.
How do you know you are listening to the right fans?
Well, we ensure that we have representatives from differing groups; for example, fans that live a long way away, fans that live close; fans that have a Season Ticket and use it, fans that don't; fans that have a Membership, fans that don't. We know the responses we had are representative of our fan base, not just weighted to one particular group.
What did the results of your first Match Day Survey show?
The October survey wasn't a full survey - it was only three questions as we really wanted that anecdotal feedback of fans' views and comments. The purpose of that survey was to actually help us shape the main online survey.
What were the three questions?
What do you like most? What do you like least? What is the one thing that you would change?
With a free format for comments - these were really useful; there have been some excellent comments, constructive feedback and the occasional heartfelt plea, pretty much what I would expect from our supporters!
Was there a unanimous answer for each question?
I won't hide the fact that ownership was raised, clearly this is something that just about every supporter has an opinion on, and other things that affect ticketing consistently came up. The allocation of tickets, the availability of tickets and the lack of churn on the Season Ticket lists are regularly up there. Unfortunately, within ticketing these are areas that we can make the least progression with. Obviously, we can tweak things and maybe refine some of the policy procedures but fundamentally, we don't have enough to go around. Those three questions constituted the first survey but that then led into the online survey.
The full survey showed us that we have made some progress from the beginning of the season, through October, and then into March, with fans starting to recognise the improvements being made. Catering, for example, have done an awful lot around the match day experience.
Areas of strengths were our staff - they were seen as warm, helpful and friendly. Our retail offering came out very well in terms of the quality and ranges etc. However, areas we didn't do so well were associated with travel and parking as we do not have a main car park available. The range of refreshments and the lack of facilities to meet up with friends and family post-match could be and is being improved.
Can you tell us about some more changes that are being made as a result of the survey?
One of the issues that came up through the anecdotal section was the need to bring with you your paper receipt for your ticket if you are a member. This causes no end of problems for different supporters as they don't always arrive; they don't always arrive on time; they get lost in the post; and people do forget them.
This season, we will be completely removing the need to bring those paper receipts and will be moving to full Fancard entry. The reason for paper receipts was that, unlike Season Ticket holders, you don't have a seat number on your card.
However, we've now introduced staff who are on hand to help and who have hand-held terminals that swipe your card and will tell you where your seat is whilst printing off a seat number for you. This is much, much quicker and faster.
We have also been training more staff to sell tickets so that the first few hours of a sale are better dealt with. We have massive peaks on the first day of a sale until about 11am when the calls die down. To answer the phone in three rings, we would have to have 450 staff which isn't going to happen due to the cost being enormous but, as I said, we have trained a lot more staff as well as adapting the telephone system to make it a lot clearer and easier to get through.
In other areas of the business, we have extended the tour and museum so we can take you to more places the fans want to see. We have created a food village off Anfield Road, due to our catering feedback coming back very, very poorly. As a result, those people who have used that area have given us back subsequent feedback which has been very positive. That was good to hear and we will be promoting that much more this year.
Stewards have been much more proactive in managing queues, especially at the ticket office. It is fair to say that the first few games that I was here, people did miss the start of the match due to queuing for example because of the paper receipt issue and had to queue up for a ticket. The proactive approach which we got the stewards to take was to ask the fans as they were queuing up, 'Have you got your credit card details ready? Have you got your membership details?' We have actually defined this 'queue busting' and we feel that it has worked really well. For example, by the end of the season, the queues had been completely cleared 15 minutes before the games had started.
There are lots of other improvements that have been focused on improving the supporter experience by most areas of the club - introduction of televisions in the concourses so fans have something to watch while chatting to friends before the game kicks off; draft and chilled beers are available; our Digital Media Department have fully redesigned the website based on feedback from fans. In terms of retail, there were a number of suggestions that came out of the surveys - things such as product, what we can stock and identifying opportunities for more high-end products that supporters are going out and getting made that we don't already stock. Certainly, for the ladies, they feel they are overwhelmed with pink in the shop so that is being looked at as well.
What changes have been best received so far?
I guess it is the things that are most apparent to the supporters - the TVs and beer on tap are definitely noted. However, it is little things that have been appreciated such as the introduction of wireless headsets in the ticket office to prevent the staff and the supporters having to yell at each other through the glass - a very obvious thing that makes it that much more pleasant an experience. Things like the Kop Cafe and improved signage have all gone down well too.
Are there any new changes that the fans will see when they visit Anfield this season?
Absolutely. There is a lot going on at the stadium to improve the experience for the fans. Some of those are service orientated, such as better signage, improvement of staff and facilities, some more physical improvements such as the revamping of the museum. We are also working to implement 'Park and Ride' schemes. Fans will see some very apparent changes.
Is the feedback that the supporters give to the Customer Experience staff mostly positive or negative?
It is mixed and where it is good, it is very good. A big area of strength is our staff and that is a great place to be. We need to continue the engagement with our fans as we do have areas that do come under most criticism. We have to be mindful, however, that those areas that we do change - like ticketing as I said before - we will still not satisfy everybody. The key to the programme is that we will continue to try and satisfy as many fans as possible and be fair and transparent to the views of the supporters and make the best decisions on balance.
Would you say that there is no such thing as negative feedback in that it at least lets you know what we're doing wrong?
Absolutely. In some ways negative feedback is in fact better to use than the positive stuff because it can make you sit down and evaluate an issue to a far greater extent. Challenging what has been before has really become a cultural change in the club and lots of things that have been done for a very long time are done for a good reason but some of them make no sense at all - like the change of address issue. Challenging and looking at things from a customer and supporter point of view is a cultural change that is happening within the club. This can only be better for supporters as we engage what fans want, think and what they feel. If you stand in their shoes and look at your job, then you can see that certain things don't work.
We get lots of great, positive feedback thoughand thatis not a big surprise to see because Liverpool supporters are different, they are hugely vocal because they care so much and are a knowledgeable bunch of people. Call it Scouse nous or whatever, but they will always be colourful debate and largely constructive feedback. There are things that have come back and we have decided that we really do have to take it on board.
What is the next priority for the Customer Experience Department?
Last season was deliberately quite low-key in terms of what we wanted to do. We started off slowly and built it up from there. This season we aim to make a lot more of the changes and improvements that have identified and continue to gather more feedback to make the experience of dealing with the club even better than it already is.
What would you say to some supporters who say that the club doesn't care about fans?
From my personal perspective, it's sad some fans think that. There will obviously be some fans who may always think that regardless of what we do but it's absolutely not the case that the club doesn't care about fans. That's so far wide of the mark it's untrue. We absolutely consider the fans and the impact that a difficult decision can have upon them. We don't expect fans to agree with every decision we have to make but through better communication, we hope fans can at least understand why we are making the decisions we do.
What was encouraging from the results of the surveys was the fact that fans realised that the club had to be commercial to compete and had to make money from the products and services we offer. You may get a few fans who think that the only money the club should generate should be through ticket sales but by and large, the majority of our supporters realise that this is the biggest brand in football, we are LFC and getting it right off the pitch can hopefully work to our advantage on it.
To go back to the original question though, treating fans badly just doesn't make any sense at all. Fans now have differing ways in which they can support the team; they no longer have to go to the match to enjoy the football with so much live coverage on television, whether that's in the confines of their own home with family or in a pub with friends.
What that means is that if the fans that are lucky enough to get a ticket, come to the ground and are not happy with the club and the experience, then they will look at different ways of supporting the team. The atmosphere and support the team get from our fans, particularly at Anfield, is the beating heart of Liverpool Football Club and we are absolutely not complacent.
We have a partnership with the fans and as a member of the off-the-pitch team at the club, we can't influence the scoreline, but what we can influence is your enjoyment of attending a game. The manager and the players are responsible for making us the best on the pitch; we're responsible for making us the best off it.