SBJ/July 14-20, 2014/Opinion

So you want to be in sales? Get the Glengarry leads …

A young man recently left his part-time role at SportsBusiness Daily to chase his dream: selling tickets for a professional sports team. He is in his early 20s, and it was all he was focused on. I made some introductions to help him get insight on what he would face along his path. It got me thinking of the many people in the business who started in the boiler room or the bullpen, making call after call, hearing rejection after rejection, before closing big business and moving up and moving on. That list of successful executives who started dialing for dollars is long and includes names like Howard Nuchow and Paul Danforth of CAA Sports, Chad Estis of Legends and IMG’s David Abrutyn. Those were just a handful of examples I shared with my former colleague. I cautioned him that the young men and women who make up a team’s ticket-sales department are the ones grinding it out day in and day out. It’s a tough gig. 

So the subject was on my mind when I sat in on a discussion recently led by my friend, Bill Sutton, with top team sales leaders who discussed how they prepare today’s young reps. Afterward, I followed up with them individually about what they look for in new talent and how they temper expectations and manage for the future.  

> PASSIONATE FAN OR SELLER?: First, hiring. One question was whether managers would rather bring on a sports fanatic who knew everything about the team, players and league but had little knowledge of or passion for sales — or, would they rather target someone who had a sales DNA and less passion for sports? Remember, these reps are on the front lines with fans; their conversations with customers are some of the best sports talk radio in the country that never gets heard. So how much does that sports knowledge and fandom matter? 

Opinion was mixed. “I’d rather have a fanatic who knows little about sales,” said Cleveland Cavaliers Chief Revenue Officer Brad Sims. “We invest significantly in sales training, and our managers spend a ton of one-on-one time with our new reps on development. We would rather teach and groom reps to sell our way from day one. If that fanatic has a strong work ethic, a dedication to succeed and a positive attitude, we can teach them the rest.” 

Others seek some sales background. “I really look for someone who is passionate about a career in sales,” said Ben Milsom, chief ticketing officer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The team knowledge is very important because we do speak to passionate fans and they expect us to be the experts, but passion for sales and the career is vital.” Jake Reynolds, vice president of ticket sales and service for the Philadelphia 76ers, agreed. “Entry-level sales positions are high intensity, and we often find people burning out after a few months,” he said. “It’s vital to find someone who has a passion for sales. If someone is entering the job solely based on their love of sports, the grind will often wear on them quickly.”  

Brian Basloe, senior vice president of suite and ticket sales for the Brooklyn Nets, focuses more on work ethic. “Our preference would be someone without extensive sales training but with a track record of very hard work and competitiveness,” he said. “We like to train new sellers in our own style and with what we deem as good sales habits. Being a sports fanatic is nice to have but less of a priority.”

> UP TO THE CHALLENGE: Like most jobs, the first days are the hardest days so managing expectations and preparing these young sales reps for the ups and downs and challenges that they will face is vital. Basloe didn’t sugarcoat it. “We tell them their first year will be the most challenging and frustrating of their careers, and because of that, their eventual success will be that much more fulfilling,” he said. The team focuses much of its interview and orientation process on assessing “mental toughness” and “resiliency” for the amount of rejection, he said. “Top sellers connect with five to 10 out of 100 people a day, and only sell one or two of them,” he added. 

Both Sims and Mike Ondrejko, COO of Legends Global Sales, stressed the high rate of failure. “A major challenge is overcoming objections and dealing with rejection,” Sims said. “They are going to hear ‘No’ an awful lot.” Ondrejko called the entry-level position the “toughest job” of one’s career and said he focuses on “creating that environment where they can recognize their day-to-day development, which is not always reflected in sales numbers.” The key, he said, is to “focus on the process, allowing them to remain confident, which will lead to some early success.” 

Reynolds said his management team focuses on educating new staffers “how to ride the highs and manage the lows while still continuing to grow and develop. Every salesperson goes through a sales slump, but it’s how you bounce back and learn from your experience that will separate you,” he said. Milsom agreed that it’s a process, adding that “we train the reps to not worry so much about what they cannot control.” Instead, his group focuses on time management. “It really takes focus and determination to make the calls and go on the appointments required for success,” he said. “If we can map that out for them early and focus on constant reinforcement of the process, we can usually win. At the end of the day, the highest point is that first big sale. Once a rep gains that confidence, they can really be unstoppable.” 

> ‘NOT JUST PHONE CALLS’: Once in, first-year reps must understand that the sales approach has changed from the traditional 100 phone calls a day. “The question is, What’s the new 100 calls?” said Drew Cloud, Pittsburgh Pirates executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer. “Now there are so many more platforms, so sales reps can do some great presentations from LinkedIn, and have a presence on Twitter and Facebook, and so that’s a new role. It is not just phone calls.” 

But the idea of seeing a sales rep on Twitter all day surely would give any manager pause, and Reynolds admitted as much. “With social selling, they may be on Twitter during the day at work,” he said. “And you’re asking yourself, ‘Are they really prospecting?’ There has to be a level of trust.”

> RESULTS THAT MATTER: Finally, it’s about results. First-year reps will make, on average, $35,000 to $40,000 a year, all in. A first-year sales rep will sell on average $150,000 in ticket inventory, while a second-year rep will average roughly $277,000.  That’s one of the keys in keeping a sales staff intact. “There is a huge platform to keep those reps on for a second year,” said Reynolds, who added that for strong second-year sales reps, the team will give “a title bump, raise and added responsibility. It’s vital to retain them for a second year.” Sims agreed, saying, “Simply put, the second-year sales reps will generate significantly more revenue in year two than they did in year one. In many cases, we see it being twice as much.” He believes there is a three-year learning curve when taking a new job, he said. For a top sales person, a revenue growth curve “could be 100 percent increase from year one to year two, and an additional 50 percent increase from year two to year three. ”

Milsom called the difference between a sales rep in year one to year two “dramatic.” “The credibility they gain in the community and the network that they build is key,” he said. “If a sales rep can build their book of business and start to gain referrals, then they really take off. There is a big, big difference between a standard cold call and being able to call someone who was referred to you. The year two to year three gains can be more than double.”

The David Mamet classic “Glengarry Glen Ross” scared me away from sales — “The leads are weak? You’re weak!”  I suggested my young friend watch the movie when I checked in with him last week. He had relocated and was still chasing his dream.  I told him to keep his head up, ticket sales is  a challenging path, but successful reps learn how to sell, how to close, how to build a long-term customer, and how to win back lost customers. There’s potential for high reward; all you have to do is look at the career paths of the leaders in the sports industry.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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