By T.D. Thornton
-- Buried beneath trendy marketing buzzwords, horse racing harbors an embarrassing little customer service secret. Talk all you want about the information age, fan interactivity, and corporate branding. Just don't bother to e-mail a North American racetrack, because even the most basic online queries to the folks who are supposed to be fostering new patrons are likely to go ignored.
Recently, a racing buddy and I were debating how responsive the industry is to general customer inquiries. His argument was that e-mail had to be one of the most effective tools for any type of business, because the inherent traits of the service (free, on-demand, easy to use) allow consumers to ask targeted questions that can be automatically directed to the proper person within a company, with a response generated in a reasonable amount of time.
My friend further argued that the use of e-mail was especially important in a sport such as horse racing, where the complex nature of the game can be intimidating to newcomers afraid to ask foolish questions. As proof, he said, just look at how many racetracks take advantage of online correspondence by providing prominent "contact us" links on their Internet home pages.
That's where I begged to differ. You can have the greatest communications technology on the planet, but if no one bothers to check the "in" box, your corporate ignorance has just insulted a potential customer who has taken the time to write. At the end of the day, it's still the human element that counts.
So here's what I did: I visited 75 racetracks via 61 Web sites (certain associations use one umbrella site) and fired off an e-mail using the most obvious means of contact I could find on each home page. Only three tracks (one a major player in winter racing) had no visible address or means of accepting electronic feedback from customers.
The remaining 58 all received the following one-line inquiry: Can you please tell me when live racing is conducted?
Not too tough a question, right? Thirty-nine tracks didn't think so, with 23 of them responding the same day. But apparently, 19 racetracks either didn't know or couldn't be bothered. That number equals one-third of the entire poll.
On the up side, many venues were both courteous and prompt. A number of smaller tracks, aware that they must work harder to capture customers, went out of their way to provide additional information about live racing or upcoming promotions. Blue Ribbon Downs and Turf Paradise offered to send free passes, a nice touch.
Several weeks later, I followed up with an e-mail to the 61 Web sites that would require a more detailed response. This time, the inquiry was: Can you please tell me how I can learn about horse racing?
Intentionally vague for sure, but just ask any marketing or PR person who has the thankless chore of responding to racetrack e-mails how many general questions like this come in over the course of a season. The number will make your head spin.
If you guessed 28 as the over/under for replies received, head to the windows to collect.
Unbelievably, an embarrassing 52% of tracks failed to intelligently respond to an e-mail from a fan who went out of his way to visit their Web site, click on the "general questions" icon, and express an interest in finding out more about the sport.
The individual replies were a mixed bag, but again, the little guys seemed to emerge on top: Portland Meadows invited me to stop by the front office for a personal tour. Sam Houston was the only track where my inquiry was specifically answered by a fan education coordinator. Los Alamitos responded in four minutes, complete with useful online links.
Others were disheartening, if not downright disturbing: One PR department attempted to pass this type of rank beginner's query on to the racing secretary. Another said the person who answered such questions was off on medical leave and that no one else at their track could help me.
No fewer than seven respondents seemed to treat my inquiry about learning as an annoyance. Each replied with some curt form of "Why don't you just come out to the track?"
My point, exactly.T. D. Thornton is a freelance writer based in Boston.