The more you give it away, the more you get back.

Donna Kirby, the Vice President of Operations at the Pensacola Blue Wahoo’s AA Baseball team, joins Janet Pilcher this week to talk about Donna’s journey to becoming a leader of best practices in minor league baseball. Donna and her team at the Blue Wahoo’s stadium are sought after as an example for creating the ultimate fan experience.

This episode addresses questions, such as:

  • What is the passion behind Donna Kirby’s work?
  • How can a focus on customer service improve life in your community?
  • What creates loyal fans of an organization?


We will continue the conversation with Donna Kirby in episode #41 by discussing the value of great service.

Episode Transcript


[Intro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Thank you for joining today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast, and thank you for having a desire to be your best at work in helping your organization achieve success. This podcast focuses on tactical actions to improve workplace culture, and these tactics align to our Nine Principles for Organizational Excellence.

I’m so excited to have a guest on our show today. As you’ve listened to the Accelerate Your Performance podcast, you’ve heard me talk about Donna Kirby time and again. You’ve heard those stories all along the way.

She’s a great leader who leads her team to provide excellent service. When I want to learn about being a better service provider, I ask, “what would Donna Kirby do?” [laughs] Donna is a vice president of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a Double-A baseball team affiliated with the Minnesota Twins. Donna will be my guest for the next three episodes. So you’re in for a treat. Let’s get started.


Janet Pilcher: Donna, I’m so pleased to have you on our show today. Thank you for being here.

Donna Kirby: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an absolute honor. You know, I’ve worked very closely with you in the past and with Studer Group and learned so much about all the good work you’re doing and just the fact that I see you at so many Blue Wahoos games that—

Janet Pilcher: You got it.

Donna Kirby: —we see you all the time. And I just feel like, you know, this is such a neat opportunity to be able to talk about, a little bit about what we do.

Janet Pilcher: I can’t wait because I, I just marvel at the way that you interact with your employees—

Donna Kirby: Thank you.

Janet Pilcher: —and the service that you provide. And, you know, I sit in the stands and hear so many good compliments about you.

Donna Kirby: Aw, thank you.

Janet Pilcher: So it’s just an honor for you to be here with us today. So I’m going to ask you a couple of questions today just to start with to help people know a little bit about you.

Donna Kirby: Mmmhmm.

Janet Pilcher: And then we’ll do a couple more episodes where we get into some of the tools and tactics for service excellence so that you can help our audience learn a few things.

Donna Kirby: Great, great.

Janet Pilcher: Sounds good. So let’s start off, Donna, with, you know, tell us a little bit about you, your past experiences, you know, what led you to become the vice president at the Wahoos, and what does your career path look like?

Donna Kirby: Right, right. So I accidentally came to Pensacola. I always, always laugh about that because back in 2009, we were going through that recession, right? I’m a California girl. ‘

Janet Pilcher: Oh gosh. Okay.

Donna Kirby: Yeah, back in California, I had been in the entertainment industry quite a bit with Warner Brothers Studios and with the Walt Disney Company and NBC Universal all in entertainment, but more on the merchandising side, right? Merchandise products. So you as a guest go to Disneyland, you walk into a store, you pick up a souvenir. I’ve actually probably helped develop that product and figured out the right inventory levels and tracked the sales of it and stuff. So quite a strong, you know, background in merchandise planning. Well, our huge recession came through, right?

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Donna Kirby: And they laid my office out in California off and I thought, “when am I going to get three weeks to go to Pensacola to visit my family that lives out there?” So I packed up my dog and the car—

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Donna Kirby: —and drove across country and surprised them, right? Didn’t even tell them we were coming. And the recession took hold.

So jobs weren’t coming, jobs weren’t coming. All of a sudden I get a call, “hey, you know about that baseball team that’s come to Pensacola, they’re looking for a merchandise manager.” And it just felt like my entire world just came all together. I’ve been a baseball fan since I was eight years old.

Merchandise had been my background for, you know, 10 plus years, 15 actually, if I think about it, if I’m being honest with the numbers. [laughs] And so it just felt right. So I interviewed for it. Uh, it just worked out. So just living this dream come true job and looking at how I actually ended up here is amazing.

Janet Pilcher: Ah, that’s great.

Donna Kirby: It’s just one of those situations where you are where you’re supposed to be at all times.

Janet Pilcher: That’s great. And then as you started as merchandise manager—

Donna Kirby: Mmmhmm.

Janet Pilcher: —and then you just started moving up in the organization into different leadership positions. Is that right?

Donna Kirby: That is. Yeah. So I’m very fortunate also because I started as the merchandise manager for our very first year and part of our second year. And then just any opportunities that came to me, I wanted to learn more about the inner workings of the club, right? So I took on the promotions position and community relations, social media. So kind of getting my fingers in all different areas of the business, which helped to round out how everything happens in a ballgame. So luckily, they liked what they saw, I guess, and have promoted me into the role that I’m in now. And it’s like I said, it’s a dream come true.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Donna Kirby: It truly is a job where I get out of bed and get to go to work. You know, it’s a pleasure.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and you know, I, so, as our viewers or just the people that we talk to each week on the -on the episodes, what they know about me is I love baseball, I love sports in general.

Donna Kirby: Yes.

Janet Pilcher: And so, you know, just the- just going to the baseball game, I love the game of baseball, but just the atmosphere that you all have provided, you know, as servicing fans and your employees is just so fantastic.

Donna Kirby: Thank you.

Janet Pilcher: So just wanted to extend my appreciation as a fan more than anything for the work that you do.

Donna Kirby: Thank you for saying that because we actually like to create that atmosphere where you don’t have to necessarily be a baseball fan to come to the stadium and have a great time. And in fact, there’s a good portion of our fans that come down to meet with family members or maybe they just want to network with people or they just want to see what’s going on. You know, we have the best view in baseball. We actually won that award.

Janet Pilcher: You got it.

Donna Kirby: So it doesn’t stink that our beautiful stadium—

Janet Pilcher: [laughs] Yeah.

Donna Kirby: —is right on the water there and that view is remarkable, you know, so—

Janet Pilcher: It’s gorgeous.

[Music fades in]

Janet Pilcher: This October, we are sharing success by the seaside at Destination High Performance Pensacola. We invite you to our home on sunny Pensacola Beach, Florida, where we look forward to sharing strategies that are the foundation of a continuously improving organization. Join us October 29th to network and learn from highly successful and motivated leaders from around the nation as they share their stories. Topics include engaging and retaining the best employees, building a culture around service, and reaching goals. For more information or to register, please visit studereducation.com.com/events.

[Music fades out]

Janet Pilcher: Tell us a little bit about, you know, what your job means to you. You often talk about how passionate you are about your work and you just did, Donna. So, you know, why is this?

Donna Kirby: It’s not just one answer, you know, but if I had to sum it up into one answer, it’s because I’m part of something that is much bigger than myself, right? We are, our mission statement is to improve the quality of life for people in Pensacola, right? Well, when we’re going through orientation or when I’m talking to my staff during pre-game meetings, I always try to connect that back for them, right? So, we are at the Blue Wahoos part of the bigger picture where we are improving the quality of life. And I explain that to my staff by we have a safe place for families to come, for example, right?

They’ll come down for a night, enjoy the baseball game, maybe have some food. We’re creating a product that people are seeking out, right? On the good side, we’re making money. But, do you know, every single penny that is made by the ownership of our baseball club goes right back into the community. So the better job that we do by having more fans come and have a product that is sought after, that improves the community, right? So it feels good to be able to be a bigger part of that, you know? Creating memories is another really cool thing to be able to do.

Janet Pilcher: That’s nice.

Donna Kirby: There aren’t a lot of jobs, right, that afford you the opportunity to be able to be out there and changing somebody’s life. And, you know, we’ve had it where sad moments and happy moments and reunions, all of that’s taken place at the ballpark. And oftentimes we’ve got a part in it. So it’s neat to be able to be in a position where you can impact people’s lives in a positive way and make a difference.

Janet Pilcher: You know, I saw an example the first night, one of the first, either first or second night of the season this year. You know, we sit right behind Rod and Kathy.

Donna Kirby: Mmmhmm.

Janet Pilcher: And they were such great Pensacola Pelican fans, you know?

Donna Kirby: Yes.

Janet Pilcher: And they’re unable to come to most of the games now. And I just recognized that night that you went down and spoke to them.

Donna Kirby: Right.

Janet Pilcher: And, you know, just, and I thought, you know what, this is a job for you, but it’s really much more about the people that you know and the way that you interact with them.

Donna Kirby: Well, and thank you for saying that. And it’s not, it’s a pleasure to be able to do that stuff, right?

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Donna Kirby: And so to be a part of people’s lives. And it’s not exclusive to me, my staff as well, right? I think it’s very telling that our staff goes to weddings of, you know, fans who come to the game or their kids’ graduations or unfortunately the funerals that come by, you know? And our staff becomes much more than just the usher of their section, you know? They become a member of the family—

Janet Pilcher: They do.

Donna Kirby: —and somebody who’s very involved. We have ushers where if that usher happens to take a night off, just for whatever reason they’ve got family visiting, they take a night off, they will have season ticket members text them and say, “is everything okay? Are you okay? Why aren’t you here tonight?” You know? And I think that that’s very telling as well.

Janet Pilcher: It is.

Donna Kirby: That people really, you know, gravitate towards our staff.

Janet Pilcher: It is. And I have, you know, one of the podcast episodes. I have a story where we didn’t have Bob that night, you know?

Donna Kirby: [laughs] Yup.

Janet Pilcher: And I said, we had some email exchanges. And my story is how you matured me through my bad email exchanges to get to a positive outcome. And I said, by the time that I finished, we finished corresponding with the emails, I wanted to coach the new person that was in our stands, right?

Donna Kirby: [laughs] Right, right, exactly. Exactly.

Janet Pilcher: Who was helping us with the usher. So, you know, just appreciate, just to, that says a lot about what you all do, you know, that we have those close connections with the employees and we’re pulling for them and care about them as well.

Donna Kirby: It shows. We love it. Yeah.

Janet Pilcher: So tell us, you know, what you find as, you know, just one of the best, you’ve talked a little bit about the Blue Wahoos organization and that, and the community impact, which I really love. It’s, I think you can see it in the stands too.

I was watching a game, or watching the news last night and I saw the stands of a baseball park. It was empty. And I thought, you know what, we’re not empty.

Donna Kirby: Right.

Janet Pilcher: I mean, even in a night where you don’t expect that many people, you’re always going to have fans there.

Donna Kirby: Right, right.

Janet Pilcher: You know, so what makes this organization, you know, just a great organization?

Donna Kirby: You know, we’re proud of the fact that we’re sought after from major league baseball teams and minor league baseball teams for our customer service experience, our fan experience. We put such a heavy emphasis on that, that it’s making the thought process for other teams change as well. We are hosting the Southern League meetings where all of the other nine teams in the, there are 10 teams in the Southern League. The other nine teams are coming to us in October and we did kind of a pre-survey and said, “we’re creating these two days of meetings for you guys. What would you like to learn during your time down here in Pensacola?”

And I thought it was very telling that they wanted to learn about how do you improve fan experience and talk about surveys, right? And surveys are such a large component of what we do. So the fact that, that we have this platform to be able to share what we’re doing is absolutely wonderful. You know, we feel like their reach is great here in Pensacola, but it’s actually beyond Pensacola and we’re changing minor league baseball, which is great. You know, we’ve, you just mentioned it, you know, I’ve been to ball parks where, I’m not joking, there were 13 people in the stands.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Donna Kirby: Like I’ve counted them and that’s including myself and the scouts, right?

Janet Pilcher: [laughs] Yeah.

Donna Kirby: And we don’t want that for the betterment of the sport, for the betterment of the business, you know. And anybody who calls from our baseball brethren and wants to talk about what we’re doing in Pensacola, I will talk to them until the cows come home.

Janet Pilcher: Oh, that’s great.

Donna Kirby: Share it, give it away, the more you give it away, the more you get back, you know. And it’s just, it’s very rewarding and very, you know, just, it tells us that we’re doing the right thing.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Donna Kirby: I forget exactly how the saying goes, but it’s something along the lines of “when you can teach what you’re doing, you’re actually, you know, you’ve got the grasp on it, right?” That’s what we feel like we’re at that part where the flywheel is spinning, you know—

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

Donna Kirby: —to put it in terms that we work with every day. So it’s really neat to have that platform throughout baseball to be able to—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Donna Kirby: — improve the sport.

Janet Pilcher: Well, that’s great. You’re, you know, a leader in in Double-A baseball and probably in baseball in general in terms of fan experience. And I know, you know, I know the way that you all work and the way this community works is we’re always willing to share to expand, you know, the goodness to people who want to enjoy the sport and want to enjoy each other as a family.

Donna Kirby: It is really wonderful.  Yeah. And you touched on it, too, the community. We have so many people that go out and talk to their family that doesn’t live in Pensacola or they’ve got people visiting and the first thing they want to do is bring them down to the ballpark, whether we have a game or not.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, ‘cause they wanna see it.

Donna Kirby: They want to come down and just show them the ballpark, right?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Donna Kirby:  And that’s really rewarding. That’s rewarding to see that.

Janet Pilcher: That’s great, Donna.

Donna Kirby: Thank you.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: So this is one of three episodes where we’ll spend time with Donna Kirby and learn more about the service excellence tactics that she works with her team and leads the Blue Wahoos and providing to get that great fan experience.

So thank you for tuning in to Accelerate Your Performance. This week, you think of one or two actions you can take to provide excellent service. And think about your journey. Think about the journey that Donna talked about as she is living out her passion and think about your journey and think about how that journey connects to providing excellent service. I look forward to our next session with Donna Kirby. So everyone, have a great week.

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