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Volume 20 No. 42
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Padres rank highest in mystery shopper survey

The San Diego Padres’ season-ticket sales staff, a group that has seen growth in numbers and training over the past two seasons, scored the highest performance rating among a field of MLB clubs in a recent mystery shopper survey conducted exclusively for SportsBusiness Journal by research firm IntelliShop.

Padres account executives Logan Washburn (left) and Jason Green demonstrate the use of the sales gong, which is struck whenever a group sale or full-season-equivalent sale is made.

The study is thought to be 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 various steps of 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 below.)

IntelliShop conducts about 125,000 mystery shops and 200,000 customer surveys per year. The firm has worked for the Cleveland Indians in the past, providing mystery shopper services. It has not had a sports client since spring 2010, but it has approached MLB clubs regarding results of this survey.

The Cleveland Indians ranked second to San Diego in the survey, followed by the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay and Oakland. Colorado and Detroit scored at the bottom among the 25 teams surveyed.

“The differences between the top and bottom clubs were astounding,” said Chris Denove, senior vice president of research and analytics at IntelliShop. He spent 12 years with J.D. Power and Associates and was head of that company’s mystery shopping practice before joining IntelliShop in 2010.

The survey’s results were set to be formally announced — to the clubs and to the public — today.

In San Diego, the Padres’ staff consistently outscored their MLB brethren in the survey categories. The club’s agents made a concerted effort to have callers visit the stadium to sit in available seats during 96 percent of the calls; the overall MLB average was 22 percent. The Padres’ staff built rapport by engaging callers in conversation not directly related to the sale during 69 percent of the calls (MLB average: 32 percent).

Inside the survey

Following are two questions, and the team-leading results, from the 27-question survey. To read the results below: 87 percent of the calls made during the survey to the Padres included the agent inviting the caller to visit the stadium to personally see the targeted seats; that compares to an 18 percent average across all the calls made to all the MLB clubs in the survey

Did your agent invite you to come to the stadium to sit in the actual seats before you buy?
  Tried to convince me to come to the stadium and sit in the seats Briefly mentioned that I could sit in the seats before I buy Did not mention coming to the stadium
San Diego Padres  87% 9% 4%
Tampa Bay Rays  73% 5% 23%
Arizona Diamondbacks  62% 14% 24%
Pittsburgh Pirates  35% 13% 52%
Cleveland Indians  40% 0% 60%
MLB avg.  18% 4% 78%
Which of the following best describes your agent's effort, if any, to engage you in small talk outside the immediate discussion of the ticket sale?
  Significant effort to personalize the conversation Briefly inquired or commented Did not attempt to initiate small talk
San Diego Padres  39% 30% 30%
Arizona Diamondbacks  19% 29% 52%
Cleveland Indians  16% 28% 56%
New York Yankees  14% 23% 64%
Tampa Bay Rays  14% 23% 64%
Pittsburgh Pirates  9% 26% 65%
MLB avg.  7% 25% 69%

Note: Percentages have been rounded.
Source: IntelliShop

Tom Garfinkel, Padres president and COO, said the study’s results validate the massive internal redesign the club has experienced since Jeff Moorad bought the franchise in 2009.

Garfinkel said team executives have adopted best practices from other best-in-service consumer companies, such as Zappos’ employee-empowerment model and Four Seasons’ customer-service techniques. Since 2009, the team also has stocked its administrative roster with executives from several other big league clubs and increased its full ticket-sales staff from 16 people to 61 today. In addition, the team has invested in training, this year hiring independent ticket sales consultant Charlie Chislaghi as well as Legends Premium Services’ new ticket consulting division.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished No. 6 among the clubs overall, scored particularly well for highlighting the intangible benefits of being a season-ticket holder.

“We spend a lot of time asking open-ended questions,” said Chris Zaber, senior director of ticket sales and service for the Pirates. “I tell our folks there is a reason you have two ears and only one mouth: You have to listen.”

Across MLB, 10 clubs had at least half of their calls rated as “above average” or “one of the best telephone sales experiences I’ve ever had.” The Tigers and Rockies were the only two clubs that received grades of “one of the worst” or “below average” for more than one-quarter of their calls.

The Rockies, in fact, finished last in nearly every category in the survey. The club’s agents asked for the caller’s first name only 5 percent of the time (compared with an average of 77 percent for other clubs), and they were the only team where no agent ever mentioned that season tickets were discounted off face value in an effort to overcome a pricing objection (others: 72 percent).

Greg Feasel, Rockies executive vice president and COO, said the team hit its season-ticket sales goal at the end of April and that all of their sales numbers were up over 2010. He noted that staff training is a continuing effort.

“Any time we can use information to get better, we would take that opportunity,” he said. “We all know how important customer service is, and when you find out information that can help you get better, you just need to apply it.”

Steve Fox, director of ticket sales for the Tigers, said he was surprised at the numbers, considering the success the team’s sales staff has had since the end of last season.

“Our season-ticket base is up to over 15,000 this season, which is the fourth-highest base in franchise history,” he said. “We also had our fourth-best year ever in terms of new FSEs sold.”

MLB spokesman Matt Bourne, when asked about the survey results, issued this response: “While I haven’t seen all of the data, I think anyone would question the results of a survey where the research company aggressively solicited more than two-thirds of the league to forge a business relationship. They are incentivized to demonstrate a need to teams, one that they can fill. It is a clear conflict of interest.”

About the survey

IntelliShop, a Perrysburg, 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 “mystery shoppers” that are brought in as independent contractors for the company.

From March 15 through April 8, IntelliShop representatives contacted each MLB club, posing as potential season-ticket buyers. The Phillies, Twins, Cubs and Red Sox stated, during three separate mystery calls, that they had no season tickets available. As a result, they were excluded from the survey. The Cardinals, similarly, capped their season-ticket sales shortly after the project began (after 10 mystery calls were completed), so they also were excluded.

For the remaining 25 clubs, between 20 and 24 calls were made to each club, with each call marking a survey opportunity.

Shoppers were educated on the teams and the physical layouts of the teams’ stadiums, and they were trained to sound disappointed that the season seats they wanted would cost as much as they did once they learned the quoted price for those desired seats was more than their budget. This allowed IntelliShop to measure which alternatives the sales agents used to overcome the price objection.

The survey consisted of 27 mostly multiple-choice questions. One critical 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. Among those options were “Get exclusive access to special areas in the stadium,” “Able to sit in the same seats for playoffs and/or World Series,” and “Have access to preferred parking.”

While it was possible for a team to score a perfect 100, it was improbable that every option for every question would be covered to get that 100 result.