There are Five E’s to create an extraordinary experience: Eliminate friction. Entertain always. Experiment constantly. Engage deeply. Empower action.
Aspart of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Cole.
Jesse Cole is the founder of Fans First Entertainment, Owner of Savannah Bananas and author of Find Your Yellow Tux.
He has welcomed more than 1 million fans to his ballpark and the Bananas have grown to more than 1 million social media followers. He’s been featured on MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ESPN…. and once at his three-year-old son’s show and tell.
He is passionate about making baseball fun, standing out and creating fans. http://goleeward.com/jesse-cole/
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Ifell in love with baseball pretty early on. I started playing at Wofford College as a Freshman and was pitching every Friday night. I started getting letters from the Braves, from the Padres. I was getting Christmas cards from the New York Mets every year. I thought my dream was going to come true. Then, my senior year, they found three complete tears in my shoulder. My career was over. What do I do now? Ironically, I got an email a few days later for a job with a small summer college league baseball team. I got the job as the GM at 23 years old, because it was the worst team in the entire country. They were averaging fewer than 200 attendees a game. So, I started learning everything I could about Walt Disney and PT Barnum. I realized that we weren’t in the baseball business, we were in the entertainment business.
In 2015, with a lot of persistence we convinced the City of Savannah to give us a chance. My wife, Emily, and I sold our house, emptied our savings account and started the Savannah Bananas. By putting on a show, we’ve had a sold out stadium every single game.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was 23 years old and general manager of our first team in Gastonia, I brought a dance instructor to the first practice to teach the players how to dance. I said, “Guys before we practice baseball we gotta learn how to dance.” All the guys rolled their eyes. One guy said I’m not doing this and ran off to the bullpen. The guys who did try to learn how to dance were much better baseball players than dancers.
I remember that half the team was not interested in doing it, but I convinced four guys to dance the next few games. They danced and the crowd got into it. By the second game, the fans, they’re shouting more. By the third game, while I’m walking through the crowd, I overhear husband and wife talking and the wife goes “Shut up honey! They are about to dance!” and I knew we had something. By halfway through the season, the player who said he would never, ever dance, saw that those players who were the best dancers, were getting the most publicity. They were signing the most autographs. They’re the most popular players. So halfway through the season, that guy suddenly took off his belt and started swinging it and doing a full-fledged cowboy dance right on the field, and he became a celebrity by the end of the summer. I found out a few years later that he became a male model. He’s on a billboard in L.A.
The lesson or the mistake that I learned was you gotta first get buy-in. My bringing in a dance instructor fell pretty flat in the first practice. It took a while to get the buy-in from the players. So now, before every season, we actually do a whole Fans First Bananas orientation where we share stories, share examples, share videos, and share what we are about before just saying “Guys we’re gonna learn how to dance now.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My dad. As a 5-year-old kid, when I played T-ball, my dad would yell at me before I came out to the plate, “Jesse, swing hard in case you hit it.” Every time I’d come to the plate, my dad would say it, “Swing hard in case you hit it.”
And I swung and missed a ton, but when I hit it, I made pretty good contact. I remember I hit my first home run out of the park when I was 10 years old. I ended up leading the little league in home runs because I swung hard in case I hit it. My dad has taught me that mindset. Just to go up and go for it and do not be afraid of failing. Do not be afraid of swinging and missing. Keep coming up to the plate and swinging hard.
When you look at everything that I’ve been fortunate to be able to accomplish, it’s because I go all-in with everything. I hear my dad is always encouraging me saying, “Jesse, go for it.” He’s always kinda guided me and kept me swinging for the fences.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
The future of business, the future of marketing is based on your customers doing the marketing for you and turning your customers into fans. So, if you don’t create a great experience and create great customer service, you won’t have fans that you can take care of. I believe, love your customers more than you love your product. If you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of your business.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
Because of “That’s the way it’s always been” or stale policies. Policies hold companies back.
A big, great example of this is the widespread “no outside food” policy. At every single stadium, every ballpark, they have a policy that you can’t bring food and drink into the stadium. It’s a policy. What happens is that a family will get a drink or get food they wanna eat on the way there but on their way into the stadium they’re told “No”. We learn how to tell people “no” so often it becomes just the way that it’s done.
It is very hard to break traditions, break the way things have been done and put yourself into customers’ shoes. Most often, businesses put themselves in sales mode. The C-suite, the owners, the presidents, start thinking about “How do we make more money”, “How do we make more sales”, “How do we draw more revenue”, but not “How do we create more fans.”
Making sales and making fans are different conversations. Companies that put extra ticket fees, extra convenience fees, extra add-on fees, are not putting themselves into customer’s shoes. They’re putting themselves into the business owner’s shoes and how to make money. They don’t realize that if they create more fans and create a better experience, they will actually make more money in the end. It’s the opposite way of thinking. It’s very hard to start thinking about “Hey, we need to create long-term fans over short-term profits.” Everyone is focused on the next quarter’s profits. They’re not focused on creating fans for the next quarter-century.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
1000%. I don’t believe your competition is someone in your direct field or industry. Your competition is the best customer service and best customer experience in any industry all over the country and all over the world. Look at what Amazon’s doing, what Chick-fil-A’s doing, what Ritz-Carlton’s doing, what Disney’s doing. Fans are used to one-click buying on Amazon. Customers are used to being treated to the nines at the Ritz-Carlton. Customers are used to amazing, fast, efficient, and caring experience at Chick-fil-A. So, competition well may not be in your industry. It is what people are feeling every day, that pushes us to deliver more. Their expectations are rising.
I believe the biggest competition for customer experience should be yourself. Is your experience better tomorrow than it was today? If you continually do that, then you will be playing the game that you should be playing and not competing against others.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Every fan that buys a ticket gets a thank you call from the team. That’s part of our experience. 6 years ago, our first season, one fan bought a ticket, but couldn’t get in touch with her. The intern making the calls finally got in touch. A gentleman answered the phone and he said, “I’m so sorry, my wife bought these tickets for our seven kids and she just tragically died.” The intern, Barry, came to me and said “What do I do?” and I asked “What do you think? What is Fans First?” He said, “I’d love to try to get them out here and create a great experience for them.”
So he called the father back again and he said, “You’re right. It’ll probably be good to get the kids out of the house. We’ll come out.” When they got to the game, Barry brought them to the front row seats. As soon as they sat down, he brought over the whole team, all the players, and delivered the kids hats, balls. They team sat down with them and signed autographs and hung out with them for about 30 minutes before the game. Then, Barry presented the dad with a Banana’s jersey with his wife’s name on it, and the number on the back was the amount of years that they had been married. The family and the father stayed for the entire game. At the end of the game, the father told Barry, “Those tickets were the last gift their mother ever gave the kids. I couldn’t imagine a better gift.” That family became fans for life.
But that was a very simple example of what I call listening carefully and responding creatively. Barry listened and said “How could we create something special for them? Andy Stanley always said, ”Do for one what you wish you could do for many.” Barry, only a 22-year-old intern, felt empowered because of Fans First, the name of our company, to deliver that amazing experience.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Barry climbed our ranks and eventually became Vice President, leading our organization. The experience resonated as much with our staff as it did with the family. We put our staff ahead of everything. That story just fueled them to be creative and continue creating unbelievable experiences for our fans.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
There are Five E’s to create an extraordinary experience.
#1. Eliminate friction. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and examine every friction and frustration point and find a way to eliminate them. For example, at most sporting events you get nickeled and dimed. Burgers, parking, programs, everything, you name it is extra. It’s friction. So, we eliminated all that. We created a one-price ticket with no ticket fees, no convenience fees, which are the most inconvenient fee in the world, and we said we’re gonna package it all together. There’s free parking. You get all your burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn, dessert, everything, on your ticket, all for 20 dollars.
I think Walt Disney said it best, he said “Whenever I go on a ride, I’m always asking what’s wrong with this thing? How can it be improved?” The key to living a great experience is being willing to look at all those friction points and being obsessed in getting rid of them and making the experience better. Offering all-you-can-eat for our entire stadium was brutal for us at first. The lines were terrible. But we were able to get through that because we saw the vision of what a great experience could be.
#2 Entertain always. The definition of “entertain” is to provide enjoyment and amusement. I think every business needs to look at themselves as being in the entertainment business. How can you create an entertaining and remarkable experience at every touchpoint? For example, when people buy a ticket from The Bananas, instead of getting a regular payment confirmation, they get a video sent to them. And the video is outrageous. The video we did a couple years ago begins with “Congrats! You just made the best decision of your day! Right now as your ticket order came in, a high-priority siren went off in our stadium and our Bananiacs rushed to the ticket laboratory to produce your tickets. And then a Banana-nana slowly walked in and hand-selected your tickets and placed them on a silk pillow. We raised the silk pillow up to the air, we sing Nantsi ingonyama bakithi baba [Lion King reference] to celebrate the birth of a new fan. And then we walked your tickets down to our vault underneath the stadium where they are being watched by national security. They’re ready for you to go bananas.” People get this video, and they are like, “What is happening over there?” But it’s an opportunity to take an experience and turn it into something remarkable.
Look at the normal and go the exact opposite. Turn the normal to extraordinary. Take the required to remarkable. Look at all the little touchpoints. An ordinary thing like a confirmation email, can you make it extraordinary? Can you make it remarkable? Can you make it wow? When you do that, you’re creating an entertaining organization that people are so excited to hear from every step of the way.
#3 Experiment constantly. Jeff Bezos said, “Our success is a direct function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.” If you wanna create an extraordinary experience, you have to experiment on a daily basis. You have to ask questions. You have to say, “what can we invent to create a better experience?”
When we decided that we were gonna start streaming our games, we asked the question “What experiments can we do?” Normally in baseball, you have one camera behind home plate, one camera behind center field and you watch the game. We said, “What if we had a drone filming during the game? What if we mic’ed up players during the game? What if we had fans choose who should pitch and who should hit during the game?” We started experimenting. What happened is we ended up creating an experience that fans had never seen. Was it messy at first? Yes. The drone flew into the net the first time we flew it. You could barely hear the mic’ed up hitter. When he was running, he was like [imitates labored breathing] the whole time. The first time our fans chose who should pitch, that pitcher allowed six runs. Every experiment didn’t work out well at first. But now when fans watch a game, they can see a game like no one else can see a game. You have to be willing to fail, be willing to be misunderstood, and be willing to experiment and try new things if you wanna create a great experience.
#4 Engage deeply. As I mentioned before, Andy Stanley said, “Do for one what you wish you could do for many.” Listen carefully, respond creatively. We teach our team to listen to what our fans say.
For example, a young woman tagged the Savannah Bananas on Instagram that “I’m comin’ to the Bananas game to celebrate my engagement.” Our team saw that post only two hours before the game. They drove to the local florist and got flowers. They found where the woman and her fiance were sitting by comparing Instagram pictures to the faces in the crowd. Then, in the middle of the game they broadcasted, “Fans we got a big announcement, please welcome so and so who just got engaged today!” The woman looked blown away, we gave her flowers, and the whole crowd gave a celebration. She hadn’t contacted us. It was just that we listened carefully and responded creatively and everyone in the stadium got to share their experience. That’s how we create fans for life. That’s engaging deeply
#5 Empower action. Kind of like what my dad did for me with his advice to “Swing hard in case you hit it.” You’ve got to empower your team to be fans first. Your team has to be looking to create fans on an everyday basis. You have to empower your team by giving them opportunity and giving them permission to try things.
Every first day I try to meet with all the interns and I say “Hey, we’re excited to have you on board. What ideas do you have for the team?” Once, this 22 year old intern, Austin, said “I was a fan and I bought tickets, and I appreciate the thank you call but it’s kinda boring.” I go, “Boring, you say? Okay, Austin, what ideas do you have?” He goes, “Well, I think it should be a thank you rap, like a full-fledged musical rap.” So, I agree with him and tell him to do one by the end of the day.” He goes, “What? No no no no no no no. I’m like socially awkward, like I can’t rap. I cannot do that.” I go, “Perfect, you’d be Austin the Awkward Bananas Rapper.” For the rest of the day, he worked on this rap. just writing ideas. At four o’clock, I walked into the office and I say, “Austin, it’s time.” He grabs the phone, dials the number, and says, “Hi this is Austin the Awkward Bananas Rapper, I’m here to fill your day with fun, joy, and laughter. I hope you enjoy your merch, thank you so much for your purch.” And he gave this whole ridiculous rap. At the end, the guy was like “Haha, thanks man!” and I go “Perfect, you keep doing it!” And so, for the rest of that summer, he was Austin the Awkward Bananas Rapper making awkward raps to fans, voicemails and calls. It all started with encouraging his idea and empowering him to do it.
How do you empower people to do something that might make them a little uncomfortable, but does something that creates a fan or at least tries? Part of our culture is always giving people the opportunity to test things, try new things, and do anything that they think can be unique, fun, different, and that can create a fan.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
That’s the wrong question, and here’s why. You should never do anything or try to create a wow experience just to get other people to share it. To me, that’s not authentic. That’s not real. We don’t have our breakdancing first base coach holding up a sign saying “Take pictures of me.” “Take videos of me.” Fans love him, so they just do it. Or when our pep band goes through the crowd playing music, or our Banana-nanas are dancing on a field, or our dad-bod cheerleading squad is doing a cheer, it’s all about creating something that you haven’t seen before. They want to share it. We don’t ask them to. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and say, “What would that experience look like that you would want to share?” Encourage sharing by creating a remarkable experience.
My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
First, realize you’re not in the retail business. You’re not in the retail industry. Thinking about being in the experience industry, let’s you redefine what you do. If you’re competing on price, you will lose. That’s a race to the bottom. But if you compete on experience, then people will pay a higher premium and they will choose you. Amazon is amazing. They are fast, they are efficient, they are quick. but, they don’t have a human component. You can’t actually really connect with Amazon. In other businesses, you can.
There’s no reason why Toys R US should be out of business. If Toys R Us didn’t think they were in the toy business, and they thought they were in the entertainment, theme park, game playing experience business, they’d have a different model. For instance, if you had been able to go to Toys R Us and play for an hour, and you just happened to be able to buy a toy, they might be in business now. But they competed on buying the same toys that are on Amazon. They didn’t compete in thinking Toys R Us could be an experience and not just a place to buy toys. Look at trampoline parks and all these other things that kids are playing in right now. Why isn’t that Toys R Us? Why isn’t Toys R Us the place that people are playing in? Because they were in the toy business, they weren’t in the experience, the entertainment business. So, I would challenge you, anyone in retail, or any type of industry, to stop thinking you’re in one exact industry because then you’re competing on price and you’re not competing on experience where anybody could win no matter where you’re from.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Fun. The Go Bananas Movement. The movement where people can just go bananas, get a little crazy, and just escape and have fun. The Fun Movement where people don’t take themselves too seriously. A Movement where people will dance, sing, have fun together, and not care about what people think or what they look like, and just have fun. That’s what I believe our ballpark has created. It’s a place where the world goes bananas. It doesn’t matter if you’re two years old or 82 years old. You’ll sing, you’ll dance, you’ll have fun, and you won’t take yourself too seriously. That’s a movement that I would subscribe to.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/yellowtuxjesse/
Or follow the fun on TikTok @thesavbananas along with over 891 thousand fans. With over 19 Million likes, you know we are packing in the fun!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!