As Taylor Swift sings, “We are never, ever, getting back together!”…and we say, until the puck drops.

Netflix, a streaming and DVD service, made a slight change to its business model as a solution for a change in the US Postal Service (among other reasons), had a slight fee hike and customers left in droves to the tune of a 1-million-customer swing over a few months. Netflix issued an apology and incentives to return but customers aren’t returning so fast. They can’t (nay they won’t) be fooled so fast.

Meanwhile, the NHL Owners locked out the Players for several months and spit in the eyes of the fans – never once really acknowledging the fan IS the actual customer here. They came back in droves.

During the lockout, angry fans took to Facebook and Twitter and swore they would boycott the NHL when it finally did return. “How could they treat us this way?” Yet, when the puck finally dropped in January it dropped to record breaking attendance in many cities.

  • Contrary to popular belief, we have seen increases in attendance figures after the previous two NHL lockouts. In 1994-95, average attendance rose from 14,748 to 14,797 and in 2005-06, average attendance rose from 16,534 to a record 16,955. And it grew yet again in 2013.
  • In Philadelphia, for example, a city that hasn’t seen a Stanley Cup since 1975, a record 19,994 fans showed up for the season opener against Pittsburgh in January 2013. That came on the heels of more than 2,000 fans at their practice facility and standing room only for the first day of training camp and another 15,000 showed up for a free, open practice at the Wells Fargo Center.
  • In the first week after the lockout was lifted the Buffalo Sabres sold more merchandise and jerseys than they did the entire 2010/2011 season.
  • Even media benefited from the return as eight TV station markets set local ratings records or milestones for regular-season coverage – not counting Winter Classics – that aired either on NBC or NBC Sports Network from Saturday to Tuesday.

Yes, the NHL offered up some promotions during the first game (maybe even two games) to show their “understanding” and “appreciation” for their fans. The fans who went months feeling neglected and cast aside while the “greedy owners and players” fought over the pie that was paid for by fans (customers). But was it really the promotions that had the fans returning in droves?

Because over at Netflix, they felt the pain of losing their customers and they (like any good business would do) offered up promotions and apology letters to their customers and former customers but to no real avail. Maybe they should have hired Bettman.

Customer or Battered Spouse?

So why is it that when we act as customers, we have the control…the power? We can put a business under. But when we act as fans (diehard fans that is), we act more like battered spouses? Willing to take the beating, yet return into the arms of the aggressor when he/she throws us a bone?

In both situations we’re talking about where we’re going to spend our hard earned money. So what is the difference?

Apparently we don’t see ourselves as customers when it comes to our sports teams. We see ourselves as part of a community. Part of the team. Psychologists say one theory traces the roots of fan psychology to a primitive time when human beings lived in small tribes, and warriors fighting to protect tribes were true genetic representatives of their people. In modern society, our professional and college athletes play a similar role.

Or as Robert Cialdini said, a professor of psychology at Arizona State, ”Our sports heroes are our warriors. This is not some light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent grace and harmony. The self is centrally involved in the outcome of the event. Whoever you root for represents you.”

It’s Healthy to be a Fan

Dr. Daniel Wann of Murray State University in the US has been studying the sports fan for years and although our behavior during the lockout may not have been healthy, when the season is on, being a fan is actually good for our mental health. According to Wann, being a fan provides us with a sense of belonging to the point where it can lower rates of depression and actually result in higher self-esteem than non-fans. His research showed that it is through our “tribal” nature that we gain this sense of belonging from our teams. Fans are part of a social network, and any network offers the support that helps to keep people mentally sound.

In light of this, it makes sense that fans returned in droves to hockey when the lockout was lifted and the world suddenly became a happier place again. A Fan is always a Customer. But a Customer isn’t always a Fan. Something Netflix and many other businesses have had to learn.

Turn Employees (not Customers) into Fans

Having said that, if what we crave as human beings is a sense of belonging and being part of something bigger than ourselves, we as leaders need to remember that as we build our organizations. We may not be able to turn customers into fans, but we can turn our employees into fans if we provide the right environment and culture. And in turn, our employees will create more loyal customers.

Compare that to the NHL. The players are the employees. We, the fans, are cheering them on. We came back for them. We, the fans (the customers) are loyal to the players. Not the owners. Now over to our organizations.

We as leaders need to create that same love affair between the players (our employees) and our customers…and turn them into fans. And we do that by focusing on our employees and helping our employees love their work and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Not an easy task but one that will “pay back in droves!”