There are many areas of supporter engagement which can lead to a rewarding and enjoyable career in football. Most people are familiar with the role of Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) - the designated point of contact for supporters, who is responsible for engaging with the supporter base and ensuring that their voice is heard by the relevant persons at their club.
However, many clubs also have a Supporter Services team, or Fan Engagement team and some have opened up more senior roles in this area - an opportunity to be a 'Head' or 'Director' of Supporter/Stakeholder Engagement. I have been a Supporter Liaison Officer at Premier League level and the Head of Supporter Engagement at Championship level. Both roles have given me career growth and I would like to share a few thoughts on my experiences to hopefully help some of you who have interest in this area.
Firstly, being confident and having a high level of communication skills, is really important. A huge part of the role is interacting with supporters, so being able to communicate effectively via email, phone and face-to-face is essential. A lot of that confidence will come through practice but there are a number of courses concerning writing styles and grammar that can help if you feel you would like that extra support. I completed a workshop on 'Responding to Complaints'. For me, being able to respond appropriately to a negative situation, was something I wanted to ensure I could do. If you can manage the sensitive matters well, then that can help in building a relationship with the supporter base.
Having strong communication skills and building good relationships are important with your colleagues too, as supporters will have queries regarding all departments. You also need to be clear on what your role is, what you hope to achieve in that role and then be able to communicate that to your colleagues. Supporters are customers, not just fans and they invest a lot both financially and emotionally. It is everybody's responsibility to practice good customer service and if you are acting as the point of contact for those customers, it is vital to build relationships with all of your colleagues. This will not only 'promote' what you hope to achieve but will also assist in finding out what ideas your colleagues have regarding improving supporter engagement. Perhaps the Retail Team needs your assistance with marketing research for new products, or the Catering Team needs feedback from supporters on matchday food and drink. Inviting your colleagues to participate in forums and supporter meetings is also useful because they can directly answer queries relating to their departments.
Listening is another important part of supporter engagement. We all have the capacity to be creative and then run away with ideas that we would personally like to see at the club but that doesn't mean it is what the supporters want and need. With that said, social media is a huge resource that can help. We live in a time whereby social media feeds the way we communicate our opinions - the good, the bad and the ugly! Monitoring the club's social media channels and responding to questions and suggestions can be a helpful tool for finding out what your supporters want and need, as well as being another way of communicating with fans.
Matchdays are a big part of any supporter engagement role, so if you would like a role in football that requires you to attend home fixtures, then this is one for you. In fact, some clubs require their SLO to attend all away fixtures too, so you may have a lot of travelling and very few weekends free! For a lot of people, that travel and weekend working won't be a problem - a lot of the time it is expected and a key part of the experience but if you have family commitments or additional responsibilities, then it may not be possible to commit to six days a week, for ten months of the year. It is something to consider before you commit to such a position...
Matchdays, however, are one of the best things about working in supporter engagement because it is where you get to see a lot of your ideas and initiatives come to life. Often, planning for matchday is what you have spent your whole week working on, so to see the end-product of all the planning can be extremely rewarding. Most importantly though, matchdays are a great opportunity to speak to supporters to find out their thoughts about their matchday experience and other club-related matters. You can even pre-arrange matchday meetings so that you are able to put aside a more significant amount of time to obtain feedback.
Celebrating Luton Town FC's promotion, with club legend Mick Harford
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is, quite rightly, at the forefront of supporter engagement, so it is key to have a deep understanding of this area. Working with the club's Community Trust Team will be important and contacting associated groups such as Kick it Out, Level Playing Field and Women in Football (there are many, many others to refer to, so research is key) will provide you with knowledge and resources on best practice. Work closely with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, as well as your Club Secretary or Football Operations Manager too - they will have access to resources and contacts that will be helpful.
Also, do your research on International Awareness Days, Religious Festivals and designated fixture days (as assigned by the Premier League/English Football League) and work with the club's Disabled Supporters' Association (DSA) and affiliated supporter groups and charities. Finally, broaden your skill set or utilise any skills you may have in this area. Disability Awareness Training, knowledge of sign language, additional languages, completion of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion courses etc. will all be really helpful.
There will unfortunately be tough times too - there are a lot of people to please and you rarely find that every single supporter is in agreement on the same topic. You also have a real balancing act between assisting with what supporters want to see and being realistic with what the club can deliver. There is not always a huge budget to work with and essentially, not all initiatives work for every club. So if you are interested in working in supporter engagement, it is important to know that you are not always going to be able to say 'yes' to every supporter suggestion, or be able to make promises on expensive projects.
In saying that, it is equally important to remember to ensure that supporters should understand that a 'no' to a suggestion is not because the club doesn't care about them. There will be a valid reason behind that decision, such as a lack of space or funding at that time. Most suggestions can be revisited at a later date too, so keeping a record can be helpful for all concerned.
When I first started in the football industry, supporter engagement was not where I thought I would work but like many, that was probably because I didn't have an understanding of what it meant to work in that area. Having now had the opportunity to fulfil a couple of different roles and being successful with a number of projects, I can personally say it has been an interesting and rewarding experience. It is hard work and unfortunately, can sometimes be undervalued in the wider sense of the football business but it is also one of the most enjoyable areas to work in and perhaps surprisingly, offers the chance for career growth.
I am excited to see how supporter engagement develops in the future. My personal feeling is that with technology being an ever-present feature in our day-to-day lives and with this, a new technology-focused generation of fans to consider, I think innovation and creativity are going to be key.
Although, I think it will be important for clubs to find a way of balancing the nostalgia that many supporters want from football, with implementing those initiatives and processes that are needed to ensure the club remains relevant. Just look at the way the demand for matchday programmes has changed. Some supporters will forever want a hard copy programme to pick-up on matchday (nostalgia), while many others like a digital version to download (technology). Then you have the last group who feel a programme is no longer required because club news is regularly updated via a number of media channels. So if anybody has the answer of how to solve that conundrum, then please let me know!