SBJ/May 14-20, 2012/Research and Ratings

MLB ticket sales staffs show gains in survey

The season-ticket sales staff at nearly every MLB club improved its performance from last year in the second annual mystery shopper survey conducted exclusively for SportsBusiness Journal by research firm IntelliShop.

The San Diego Padres staff maintained its No. 1 ranking, although big jumps by the second-ranked Cincinnati Reds and the No. 3 Oakland A’s made this year’s top scores closer than last year’s.

Last year’s survey (SportsBusiness Journal, May 23-29, 2011, issue) was the first of its kind to be conducted across an entire league. It graded team sales agents’ proficiency by having two dozen professional mystery shoppers telephone each club to inquire about buying season tickets. The shoppers evaluated how well the agents performed through the sales process, including touting the benefits of season-ticket ownership; assessing the needs of the prospective buyer; closing the sale; and overall ability to engage the prospect emotionally (see methodology).

The Padres scored at or near the top in nearly every category again this year and saw an overall increase of 5.2 percentage points over last year’s top score.

METHODOLOGY

IntelliShop, an Ohio-based market research company, provides customer-focused research services such as mystery shopping and customer satisfaction surveys. The company has an in-house staff of about 50 employees, and it retains and manages panels of nearly 400,000 “mystery shoppers” brought in as topic-specific independent contractors.

From March 12 to April 11, IntelliShop representatives contacted each MLB club, indicating that they wanted to buy season tickets. Boston, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs were excluded from the survey after indicating on the first call that such tickets were no longer available. A minimum of 10 calls were completed to each of the remaining 27 clubs, with each call marking a survey opportunity.

IntelliShop educated its shoppers on the teams and the physical layout of each team’s ballpark. It also trained the shoppers to sound disappointed that the season seats they wanted would cost as much as they did once they learned that the quoted price was more than their budget. This allowed IntelliShop to measure which alternatives the sales agents used to overcome the price objection. The time and day of the calls were randomized, with the goal of speaking to as many different agents as possible at each club.

The survey consisted of 27 mostly objective, multiple-choice questions. One question — “Which of the following ‘selling points’ did your agent mention as a reason for buying season tickets (or a partial-season-ticket plan)?” — had 15 answer options, all of which could have been checked off by the caller. More subjective topics included evaluating volume and clarity of the sales agent’s voice, the agent’s ability to retrieve and access information, and background noise.

IntelliShop conducts about 125,000 mystery shops and 200,000 customer surveys per year. The firm conducted mystery shopper services for the Cleveland Indians in the past but has not had a sports client since spring 2010.
“I think the most important thing continues to be who we’ve hired and promoted,” said Padres President Tom Garfinkel. “We’ve added Jeremy Walls from the NBA and Eric McKenzie, most recently from the Indians and before that the [San Antonio] Spurs. We also switched to two dedicated managers responsible for our 20 inside-sales call center reps, promoting two people from within.”

Garfinkel said the club increased the frequency of its training sessions as well.

Despite coming off a last-place finish and failing to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, the club had a 70 percent renewal rate and added 3,000 new season-ticket holders during the offseason. Before last season, the team increased its sales staff from 16 to 61. Total season-ticket sales are up 28 percent over 2009.

“The Padres would put any sales team in any industry to shame,” said Chris Denove, senior vice president of research and analytics at IntelliShop. He has operated national surveys in the automobile and banking industries, spent 12 years with J.D. Power and Associates, and was head of that company’s mystery shopping practice before joining IntelliShop in 2010.

In Cincinnati, the Reds’ numbers improved across almost the entire 27-question survey, and the Cincinnati staff saw the biggest improvement in the study, nearly doubling its overall score from last year. John Davis, Reds vice president of ticket sales, said that over the past 20 months, the club has created a client services division consisting of six new full-time hires, plus a part-time intern. Additionally, the club last fall brought in independent ticket sales consultant Charlie Chislaghi to train the staff.

The Reds’ on-field performance in recent years has made ticket sales challenging, said Davis, who is in his fifth season with the team. Cincinnati has had just one playoff appearance in the past 16 seasons, in 2010. What’s resulted, Davis said, is a heavy “outbound approach” to selling rather than attracting potential buyers to Great American Ball Park.

“Prior to last year’s survey, a lot of what we would do was go out and meet people at their office and spend time with them at their place of business rather than ours,” he said. He added that the sales staff would try to combine as many sales visits as possible in a given day in a specific part of town, but conversion rates are better when the clients come to the park and sit in the actual stadium seats.

In last year’s survey, the team’s sales agents invited callers to come to Great American Ball Park and check out the seats in only 5 percent of the calls. This year that number was 80 percent. Across MLB this year, the average was 44 percent, twice what it was last year.

Said Denove, “Leaguewide, for a product like season tickets that is fairly homogenous, there is clearly a wide variance in sales practices.”

In other findings:

The new Houston Astros ownership group, led by Jim Crane and sports veteran George Postolos, has implemented a dramatic change in sales culture since taking over in November. Management hosted 30 sales events between January and March for existing and prospective season-ticket buyers; sprinkled unannounced bonuses and rewards and “spontaneous celebrations” to staff to keep them energized; and gave food and beverage credits to buyers who had already paid for their 2012 tickets.

The Astros saw a nearly 20 percentage-point increase in the survey for their overall score, bumping the club up in the rankings from No. 15 to No. 5.

“It really came down to a back-to-basics approach: We wanted more people selling, more specialization and a better pay structure for the sales staff,” said Postolos, the team’s president and CEO.

Kansas City, which hosts this year’s All-Star Game, saw a drop in its overall score compared with last year, down 4.3 points.

“Hosting the All-Star Game made things a little different for us this year as we did have a heavy volume of inbound calls,” said Mike Bucek, Royals’ vice president of marketing and business development. “We’ve had to be pretty cautious with brokers this year because we didn’t want brokers buying a bunch of our less-expensive season tickets just so they could get All-Star rights.”

The Royals were one of a handful of teams that pointed out that cold-weather teams have a relative disadvantage in the survey when it comes to inviting prospective buyers down to the stadium, as winter is the prime season-ticket selling period for most clubs.

The Royals do incorporate 3-D imaging from Ballena Technologies to allow fans to go to the team website and see the view from each seat in the ballpark.

“It’s obviously not the same as coming to the park and sitting in the seats, but it gives fans an idea of the view, especially during those winter months,” Bucek said. “The last thing we want to do is invite a potential buyer down to the park and have them slip on the ice.”

Callers to the Los Angeles Dodgers spent the least amount of time on the phone between making the call and when an agent came on for assistance: 10 seconds. The leaguewide average was 1 minute 53 seconds.

Inside the survey
Overall rank Assessment of overall sales experience
RANK TEAM AVG. SCORE (change from 2011) One of the best telephone sales experiences I've ever had Above average but not one of the best About average
1 San Diego Padres 68.2% (+5.2 pct. points) 50% 30% 20%
2 Cincinnati Reds 67.0% (+32.0) 40% 60% 0%
3 Oakland Athletics 63.5% (+12.5) 20% 40% 40%
4 Cleveland Indians 61.9% (+2.9) 8% 54% 38%
5 Houston Astros 60.6% (+19.6) 20% 50% 30%
6 Los Angeles Dodgers 60.2% (+17.2) 40% 40% 20%
7 Tampa Bay Rays 59.8% (+6.8) 30% 50% 20%
8 San Francisco Giants 59.2% (+16.2) 30% 40% 30%
9 New York Mets 57.8% (+10.8) 20% 60% 20%
10 Pittsburgh Pirates 56.9% (+6.9) 30% 40% 20%
  MLB avg. 51.0% (+8.0) 15% 37% 40%
Note: Some totals do not equal 100 percent because responses for categories below "about average" are not listed here.     Source: IntelliShop
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