The unthinkable has happened: River Plate, the proud Club Atlético River Plate from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been relegated to the second division “Nacional B” after losing a two-leg playoff to Belgrano de Córdoba. It’s the first relegation in the 110 year long history of the club, a history during which they won a record 33 national league titles, two Copas Libertadores and one Intercontinental Cup (1986).
For River Plate, one of the two giant clubs in Argentina (70% of all soccer fans in Argentina either support River Plate or rivals Boca Juniors), this is a disaster. For those of you not too familiar with soccer in Argentina: Just imagine Real Madrid going down to the Segunda División in Spain as a comparison.
The club, nicknamed “Millionarios”- millionaires – since being the first team to spend big money for players in the 1930s, has rasied some of the greatest Argentinian players ever: Alfredo di Stéfano, Mario Kempes or Gabriel Batistuta to name but a few of the endless list. However, for one of them the glory days seem further away than for all others: Daniel Passarella.
Passarella, captain of the Argentinian team that won the World Cup in 1978, is currently president of River Plate. He took over in December 2009, when the team’s performance was already weak both on the pitch and financially, and didn’t manage to turn things around. For many River Plate fans, the former hero is now public enemy no. 1, as they blame him for the relegation.
River Plate fans are generally not quite known for being unemotional, and in the past week they have put up a showcase for catastrophic fan behavior:
On June 22, River Plate lost the first leg at Belgrano 2-0. Just a few minutes into the second half, the match had to be suspended for ca. 20 minutes, after River Plate fans had invaded the pitch, pushing and taunting their team’s players.
One day later, police had to stop a few hundred fans that wanted to “discuss things” with president Passarella.
Two days later, fans tried to occupy the (empty) stadium, but police was able to stop them again.
One more day later, the tension came to a climax. The “El Monumental” stadium was filled to the last seat for the second leg – well actually it was filled even more than that. Estimates are that 12.000 – 20.000 more people than the allowed 40.000 spectators were inside Argentina’s national stadium. But all their shouting wasn’t enough; their team didn’t get the job done. One minute prior to the end of the match, first hooligans came onto the pitch. Seconds later, the referee stopped the match and River Plate were relegated.
What followed were some of the most intense riots ever after a soccer match. The teams were kept in the middle of a huge group of security personnel before being guided out through a tunnel. Fans started to tear down fences and police began to shoot with water cannons into the stands. When leaving the stadium, River hooligans (the main groups calls themselves “Los Borrachos del Tablon” – the drunkards from the stands), demolished everything they could find, like concession stands inside the stadium, and set cars in the stadium parking on fire.
Minutes after the match, smoke was ascending from the stadium and the air was filled with sirens from police cars and ambulances. Fans of visiting team Belgrano were held in their block for more than three hours until the situation had cooled off a little bit. Later on the riots continued downtown where stores on the main road were demolished. Nearly 90 people were injured and the stadium is damaged so severely that it is doubtful if the final of the upcoming Copa América, which was scheduled to take place at the Monumental on July 24, can be played there or will have to be moved to another stadium.
Your customers won’t set your office building on fire in case they will be disappointed with your product or service. They won’t destroy your city. Yet the story of die-hard River Plate fans – probably the most brand loyal customers you can imagine –made me think about the relationship between customer loyalty and disappointment.
I did a quick and dirty research on the topic and found that it seems like this topic is not considered very much in scientific literature yet, where customer loyalty is mainly linked to factors like satisfaction with the product or service, social bond between seller and buyer (most notably in business-to-business settings), trust or information. Only some approaches like “Customer Life Cycle Management” consider the dynamic of customer relationships over time and its significance on situations when disappointment occurs (if you know about more detailed studies into this direction, please leave a comment and let me know).
As I feel there’s something missing, let’s look at this topic with the (admittedly extreme) River Plate example at the back of our head:
First, the history of the relationship plays an important role. If customers have always been satisfied, a disappointment will have a different impact than for customers that have been disappointed a couple of times before. While the latter will probably either stay with you as they are already used to bad performance (no, that’s not due to good marketing, in most cases it’s due to poor performance of your competition, a situation that usually won’t last forever) or silently walk away, disappointing customers that are not used to it may create a much bigger dynamic.
River Plate fans are used to being successful, with their club being the most successful in Argentina ever. For them, the height of drop is bigger than for others. Or did you hear about major riots by fans of Club Atlético Huracán or Quilmes Atlético Club – the two other two clubs that were relegated?
If you satisfied your customers all of the time before, you feel like you’re in a strong position – and obviously they are still your customers, so things could be worse. The issue is that you a) don’t know how forgiving customer would be when disappointed as you lack the experience and b) you have no idea about the drop height.
Expectations are growing with good performance, and many great companies feel the implicitly rising pressure not to fail, as the advent of philosophies trying to avoiding mistakes like e.g. Six Sigma demonstrates.
So will customers that are happy today be forgiving in case you make a mistake? Maybe. River Plate fans were forgiving when single matches were lost, but they weren’t after their team played three bad years in a row (the teams to be relegated are determined by the average points gained by a team during the last three years in Argentina – a rule that usually supports huge teams like River Plate). Maybe not.
The severity of the result for the customer plays an important factor (relegation is a very severe result for River Plate fans) and so does your behavior in situations in which you fail. River Plate fans were disappointed by the crisis management of Daniel Passarella, who e.g. took over the training sessions from the coach during the last week, making things appear even more chaotic).
Which brings us back to the height of drop. Marketing textbooks tell us that a high level of product/brand/service involvement on customer side is great as it creates strong bonds. Social media evangelists tell you the same. And they’re both right. But: River Plate fans are as involved as customers get – and their reaction to failure was as strong as it can get.
While your customers won’t start a physical riot, they have the means to start a “soft riot”: When formerly loyal customers spread their bad experience through social media channels, they are credible and know all the details, so potential damage will be huge.
After the relegation and the riots taking off, president Daniel Passarella stated that he had no plans to resign as his feet were “firmly planted”. When he took over the club, they already had played the worst season ever in team history and debt was already huge. He managed to improve the performance, but not to a sufficient extend. Which brings me to the last learning of the River Plate disaster: When you receive negative emotions from your customers due to a bad performance, don’t wait for fairness. It won’t be fair, but you can’t blame anyone but you. Instead, take action: get into the conversation, take over responsibility, try to reduce the negative effects, reduce the drop height – put simply: Avoid relegation!