The Sports Inside Sales Team Is Likely Hurting Your Business And You Don’t Even Realize It!

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…and I doubt you even realize it.

I’ve been working through a really great text book on sales in sports called Selling in the Sport Industry and I have found myself cribbing notes, jotting down ideas, and really thinking through a lot of the sales and marketing practices that are just considered “best” or “normal” throughout sports.

One of the most pervasive, or, maybe I should say invasive, “best” practices in sports is the concept of the inside sales bullpen.

One the surface, nothing at all wrong with an inside sales team. I’ve worked the phones for years, I have no problem with inside sales and definitely no problem with the phone, at all.

What I do have a problem with is the way that inside sales is being used in sports business today, to “drive revenue” or “make sales.”

Why is that?

Because it is really nothing but a concept that falls into the hated, “we’ve always done things this way category.” And, one that when you dig down, you realize is nothing but a fast way for teams to destroy their brands.

Here are the biggest ways that I think the inside sales team, as it currently exists, works to destroy far too many brands all across sports.

Makes Management Lazy:

Here’s the deal, for several decades now, the inside sales model has enabled teams and executives to hire cheap and to act dumb.

Cheap because of the laws of supply and demand. Only so many jobs, but way too many people that want to work in sports.

Dumb because they haven’t needed to really focus on training, marketing, customer service, and retention.

This has led to an environment where instead of focusing on the outcomes that the organization needs to achieve to be successful, we have management by activity…which in too many organizations boils down to “make more calls.”

And, when some new college graduate who has never had to sell anything before in her life isn’t successful, it isn’t the management that has failed, but the inside sales person that was given a call sheet, a phone, a script, and told to “crush the phones.”

So instead of focusing on the core competencies that any and all businesses need to have: like marketing, sales, and customer service…the teams will keep one or two “top” performers and 98% of the kids will be cut loose, told they weren’t made for sales, and moved along their way.

Which really just means because they are often not accountable for results, they never have to revisit the outdated or unsuccessful sales model to improve it.

Too much focus on transactions and not enough on relationships:

This morning I gave a workshop to the DC chapter of the United Way about storytelling and how nonprofits can use story telling to have a greater impact in the community.

At the end of the seminar, a lady asked me about whether people give money to organizations or people.

My answer is “people more than organizations.”

This holds true for every organization.

People don’t do business with organizations, they do business with people.

And, by focusing on high churn business model with high turnover, organizations are missing out on the impact of having their salespeople develop relationships in their community over time.

You see, many leagues and teams have gotten lazy with several ideas:

“Winning cures everything.”

“We need a new building.”

“Our fans are lucky to be here.”

This has taken over to the point that churning and burning our sales staff instead of investing in relationships feels like a good idea.

But the thing is, you need to begin focusing on the long term relationships because they will help soothe the times between up and down years. Because there is tremendous untapped value from having salespeople in their roles for numerous years, building relationships and connections in your communities.

Take a page from the minor leagues, where surveys tell us that fans are more likely to attend a game for the experience than they are because of winning and losing.

Does this mean that fans of the minor leagues are rubes?

Or, does it point to something we need to look at in our own businesses?


What’s the flip side?

The thing is that as TV ratings decline, attendance issues rise, and revenues begin to falter or stagnate, this provides the opportunity to revisit some of the assumptions that have been made over the last several years.

Where are those opportunities?

Reimagine the inside sales team:

I think that there isn’t often a lot of reward for the people that are really good at building relationships.

That’s a challenge that the entire industry needs to overcome because relationships matter, people matter.

And, the fact is that just by throwing a phone book or a call sheet on someone’s desk and telling them that they need to phone crush, isn’t going to do a great deal of good.

The new inside sales teams really need to focus on a holistic approach to selling the product that combines the best tools of sales and marketing…

The hybrid inside sales role is going to involve some of the aspects of what Allen Schlesinger does with the Austin Spurs using social selling, networking, and old fashioned community awareness to drive sales to his team.

The new wave of inside sales professionals might manage their own email list like my friend Nicole Sorce did when she worked with the Carolina Hurricanes, Binghamton Senators, and other hockey clubs. Nicole used her list to always have a reason to reach out and was able to successfully drive last minute sales by reminding her connections that their was a game that evening and to let her know if they were going to be in the building.

Or, the new wave of sales professionals is going to look like some of the work Mike Guiffre did in his time with the American Airlines Center, the Penguins and other organizations around the sports world. Mike’s approach was to use the data and databases he had available to him to enable him to retarget his approach based on marketing to people that might fall through the cracks of the standard inside sales team. Mike would look for outliers and indicators that helped point him towards people that might like family entertainment, so that he had a relevant direct marketing outreach around family shows, or concerts, or sports.

And, what these 3 examples show is that the inside sales force of the future can’t and won’t have a one size fits all approach.

Which is great because that’s how you are going to capture modern buyers, by adapting.

Refocus on long term relationships: 

This is killing us each and every day.

The high turnover in our sales departments means that fans have very little continuity between the business side and the customer from year to year.

The fact is that this lack of continuity comes at a cost because there are a number of studies that show that businesses usually benefit from having a more seasoned sales staff.

I’m not advocating that people that aren’t cut out for sales should continue to be kept around under the idea of “building” them up.

Far from it, what I am advocating is building a more solid and stable career path for your sales staff, but your business staff in general.

I can’t count the number of times I get calls and emails from young professionals in sports that ask me what they should do next because they know they have to move to advance, but they don’t want to drop the relationships they have built and leave a community that they are established in.

You know what?

They are right.

The key to overcoming this issue is to build that career path, showing what success looks like, laying out what skills need to be developed, and helping someone just starting out what the work is really going to look like.

Then, they can make a wise decision whether or not this is for them. Also, enabling them to know what success or failure looks like, but more importantly, it allows the teams and organizations the ability to invest in developing their staff in a thoughtful manner so that they can develop talent for a number of years and reap the benefit of this relationship on their side and help their staff nurture relationships with the community.

Reestablish the basics of business 101:

Rule 1: you have a job, to create and keep customers.

Full stop!

In too many places, the organizations give the fans the impression that they are lucky to be there.

And, the fans feel it and we are starting to feel the ramifications of this in declining ratings, lots of empty seats, and revenues that are starting to show signs of stagnation or decline.

Why is this happening?

Because we’ve gotten complacent. We’ve taken our customers for granted.

The thing is that the era of mass attention is over, even in sports and entertainment, which we kept hearing was bulletproof.

This has to be a wakeup call.

Because the object that has been in motion now appears like it may be stopping. And, to get it rolling again, would be extremely difficult.

It is a much wiser decision to snap from complacency and revisit the basics of business 101.

For many organizations and leagues that boils down to 3 simple concepts:

  • Marketing
  • Customer Service
  • Community

Marketing is really important because people don’t pay attention to anything in the same way that they used to.

So the idea that someone is just going to follow our games, sports, or teams as a legacy is false.

In fact, with declining sports participation across the country, we actually have a heavier lift than ever before.

The thing is, we have to give people a reason to care a reason to pay attention.

Because what we have right now isn’t a love or hate relationship between what we offer and our audience, it is a battle between caring and apathy. And, in too many cases, apathy is winning.

Customer Service is key because we have more and more found ourselves lumped in with other forms of entertainment and not just our own special place.

That means that service is more and more a key factor in where we fit with our customers.

Gone are the days when we could have surly staffs, long lines for crappy beer, and other signs of tolerance from our staff.

Because the thing is, when we are competing against the big screen at home or a big screen at our local bar…our service needs to be as good or better and we have to give them a reason to want to come to the stadium and not just stay closer to home. Or, heaven forbid, do something else entirely.

Community really is something that is in the wheelhouse of what we do.

Around the globe, there are over 200 authorized Manchester United fans clubs, meaning that you can a lot of places as a Man U fan and find someone else to share in your love of the team.

The same really should be said for all of our teams.

I am reminded by the story of the South Korean man that came to Kansas City for the first time during the 2015 season and he was met with a hero’s welcome by the fans and the team as he had been following the team from around the globe.

Frankly, this shouldn’t be a one off story, but the norm. Because with the internet, we have so much ability to connect and build communities that it is a real failure that we haven’t done a better job of doing just that.

Recently I was in the United Kingdom to give a keynote at the Ticketing Professionals Conference in Birmingham where I talked about the future of live entertainment and the concepts I came back to over and over in my preparation was that the future of live entertainment came down to stories, community, and experience.

It is those 3 concepts that I think sums up what needs to happen in the world of sports business. It isn’t about the concept of more: more phone calls, more ads, or more new stadiums. It is actually about something much more simple: more humanity.

Because the reasons that we have found ourselves struggling is because we have lost our connection and our humanity in the wild search and desperation to manage according to outdated business models, simple measures of activity, and a loss of focus on the basics.

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