The Olympic Games: Customer Experience Secrets

You may think that the only customers of the Olympic games are the families around the world staring intently at their TVs while cheering on their favorite athlete or country.

But according to John Coyle—NBC’s speed skating analyst, former silver medalist and my colleague at Maddock Douglas—the Olympics are steeped in unpublicized customer experience traditions that help athletic communities form bonds that last a lifetime.

In that way, even though you may not have thought about it, they are a lot like you and your company—or should be.

Think for a moment, how many customers do you really have?

Most companies now have:

  • End customers who use some part of their product or service;
  • Channel partners who sell or distribute it;
  • Expert influencers or agents who can prescribe or direct the use of it.

And with information at everyone’s fingertips, the list of customers is becoming longer and longer.

Much has been written to show businesses what it takes to consistently attract and keep customers. I like the model below in which you first connect and attract, then orient, then transact, then extend and retain, and finally you let your happy customer advocate on your behalf.

Experience Cycle

But going from bronze to gold requires first understanding the complex and differing relationships your customers have with your brand.

In the case of the Olympics—a big business if there ever was one; NBC paid $4.4 billion for the broadcast rights for the Sochi Olympics and the next three—it turns out there are four segments of declining size but increasing impact in Olympic sports: 1) fans—the largest, 2) competitors, 3) coaches, family and support, 4) medal winners.

How the International Olympic Committee (IOC) serves the first two segments is easy to understand and well known. The programming features “up close and personal” interviews to present a fuller picture of the athletes, and invariably NBC and other media explain how complicated it is to coordinate and put on the Olympics.

But how does the IOC forge a lasting relationship with the last two categories—coach/family/friends and the medal winners themselves?

That is less well known.

One way the IOC does it is through secret ceremonies.

Let’s take a look at what they are now doing for the athletes.

Behind The Five Rings

There’s a traditional notion of the ultimate moment at the Olympics: The athlete finishes the race or competition, chest heaving, brilliantly lit white breath coming from their lips, they march down the red carpet and bend their neck to receive the weight of Olympic metal.

The montages we see on TV suggests this one moment captures all the hopes and dreams and fears and joys in one scintillating moment of pride and joy. The victor raises his or her arms, and the journey is complete.

The reality is far different.

For one thing, it is nearly impossible for an athlete who for literally years has had tunnel vision and a relentless focus on an end goal to come to grips immediately with the sheer impact of the moment.

John’s reaction is probably typical.

For the longest time, he told people what they wanted to hear when they asked: “What was it like to receive your medal?” (John earned a silver in speed skating.)

He’d say: “It was amazing to finally reach my goal. I was so grateful.”

Here’s his painfully honest answer: “Actually, I wasn’t really present when they put the medal around my neck. My mind was so stuck in the future that it immediately wandered. Here are some of the thoughts I remember: ‘Should I keep skating? I’m 25 years old and have no income. But I didn’t achieve my goal. Silver isn’t gold. I wonder if I’ll get drug tested—I hope not, I don’t have to pee.’

I mostly missed the moment. In talking with other athletes—particularly first timers—this appears to be more the rule than the exception.”

It is also probably the reason athletes no longer receive their medals the same day they win them.

Yes, the athletes march down the red carpet immediately after the event, chests still heaving from the effort, but now they receive…flowers.


They receive their medals a full day after. They are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink in, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium.

Instead of an echoing half-filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans in a central location. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert—immediately on the heels of the awards presentation, big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours.


But not for the medalists though, athletes of most countries still have another ceremony to attend. This one is for them, but really it is for their families, coaches and supporters.

Hans Erik Tuijt is the Global Activation Director for Heineken and has been instrumental in evolving the post competition awards process for the Dutch athletes. For their many Dutch medalists, they have designed and created an experience for the winners, their families and fans that is truly magical. A few hours or up to a day after the event, Dutch medal winners and their families arrive to the Holland Heineken House—a dwelling constructed just for this event—where they have a private room to relax, have some food or something to drink, talk, watch the games and decompress.

Olympics_Holland Heineken House

Olympics_Holland Heineken House Room

Somewhere around 10 p.m., the magic begins. Out in the main space, hundreds of Dutch fans have assembled in their brilliant royal orange clothes, and after listening to a live band for a few hours, the lights change and go dark, the music changes and the energy begins to build. And the winners are introduced—and they promptly thank everyone who made their winning moment possible.

Olympics_Dutch Main Stage

A parallel, quieter yet perhaps even more emotional ceremony takes place each night at the USA house. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes—current and past—coaches and close family are allowed into the USA house to witness these ceremonies.

This is the athlete’s time to thank all those who made their journey possible, who sacrificed so they could compete. At this event, the athletes give medals. They present the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person who helped them the most.

Olympics_Ikkos Medal

As the athletes begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion, the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears—from the athlete, the Ikkos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.

Olympics_Ikkos Presentation

Outside the party goes on, new competitions are held, and the customer experiences for fans, athletes, families and medalists are complete.

And the IOC has created customers for life—especially among those who compete and support the competitors.

It is something for our companies to aspire to.


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