The Cincinnati Reds and their season-ticket sales staff scored the highest mark among MLB clubs in this year’s mystery shopper survey conducted by research firm IntelliShop exclusively for SportsBusiness Journal.
The survey, now in its third year, features two dozen professional mystery shoppers calling each club multiple times over a six-week period during spring training to inquire about buying season tickets. The shoppers then evaluate how well the agents performed through the sales process, including touting the benefits of full- and/or partial-season-ticket ownership; assessing the needs of the prospective buyer; closing the sale; and overall ability to engage the prospect emotionally (see methodology, below).
The season-ticket sales staff at nearly every MLB club scored higher this year than team staffers did in the inaugural study two years ago. In Cincinnati, by nearly doubling its 2011 score, the Reds’ sales staff unseated the staff from the San Diego Padres for the top spot in the ranking. The Padres finished No. 2 this year after ranking first in 2011 and 2012. Mark Schueler, director of premium and season-ticket sales with the Reds, said Cincinnati’s gains are the result of an increased focus on personnel training and better use of technology.
“The first year this survey was done [in 2011] we were pretty much middle of the pack, so it was a real eye-opener to us,” said Schueler, who is in his sixth season with the club. “So we’ve just really changed the culture here. We brought in [ticket sales consultant] Charlie Chislaghi after each of the last two seasons to train and re-energize the staff, and our CRM software — and, really, our ability to use it — has come a long way in the past year.”
Schueler said both season-ticket sales retention and new sales were up slightly this spring over a year ago, though he declined to provide specific figures. The Reds have a 14-person sales staff and an eight-member client-services team.
|2||San Diego Padres||66.1%||68.2%||62.7%|
|6||New York Yankees||60.9%||53.8%||52.9%|
|8||New York Mets||58.3%||57.8%||46.9%|
|9||Los Angeles Dodgers||58.0%||60.2%||42.7%|
The Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics and Miami Marlins also saw big upward movement in the rankings from 2011, making things a little more crowded at the top. In 2011, only the Padres scored above a 59 percent overall score. This year, seven of the 27 clubs measured topped that rate.
The Reds, Marlins and Colorado Rockies saw their overall scores jump more than 26 percentage points in two years. For the Rockies, the increase brought the club from last place in the 2011 survey to No. 13 this year. The Marlins and Reds were ranked No. 19 and No. 20, respectively, in 2011.
In south Florida, industry sales veteran Andy Silverman was hired in 2010 to help shape the culture of the Marlins’ sales staff to prepare for the opening last spring of Marlins Park. Silverman in 2000 helped build the sales staff for the then-expansion NHL Columbus Blue Jackets, and in 2003, he began work retooling the MLB Texas Rangers’ sales staff as executive vice president of sales and marketing after a run of last-place finishes on the field for that club.
“Andy Silverman does a great job,” said Marlins President David Samson, acknowledging that the team does still have obstacles to overcome, with attendance lagging and public criticism high for the Marlins in year two at the ballpark. “Whether you are in a position where you have 5,000 or 25,000 season-ticket holders, those are still your most avid and long-term fans.”
Samson said the sales staff has doubled in size since Silverman began with the Marlins, growing from 11 to 22.
Chris Denove, IntelliShop senior vice president, said almost every MLB club has some amount of “low-hanging fruit” in terms of ways the teams can easily improve the overall phone-sales experience. Those improvements, in turn, can quickly bring in more revenue.
In other findings from the survey:
■ Callers to the Pittsburgh Pirates spent the least amount of time on the phone between making the call and when an agent came on for assistance: 9 seconds. The leaguewide average was 1 minute 16 seconds, a 40-second improvement over last year’s league average.
■ Callers to the St. Louis Cardinals clearly enjoyed their phone sales experience. A full 100 percent of the callers to the Cardinals deemed their sales experience “above average” or “one of the best” phone sales experiences they’ve ever had.
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.
IntelliShop educated its “shoppers” on the teams and on 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 each call was randomized; the goal was to speak to as many agents at each club as possible.
The survey consists 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 11 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 200,000 mystery shops and 230,000 customer surveys a year. The firm does have the Cubs as a client but has no other MLB team clients.
Assessment of call experience (top 10 teams)
|Agent mentioned at least one “selling point” as reason to buy season/partial-season tickets*||89%||78%||67%||89%||56%||78%||100%||67%||56%||56%||51%|
|Made an effort to engage in small talk outside the immediate discussion of the ticket sale||78%||78%||67%||67%||44%||56%||78%||44%||67%||22%||41%|
|Expressed a positive outlook for the team||56%||56%||33%||44%||22%||33%||44%||56%||44%||22%||29%|
|Strong effort to convince caller to come to the stadium and sit in the seats before buying||78%||78%||67%||44%||56%||100%||22%||22%||44%||11%||27%|
|Strong effort to convince caller of the benefits of alternative ticket options once determined he/she couldn’t afford the full-season plan in the seats desired||78%||78%||78%||78%||89%||56%||78%||89%||67%||89%||56%|
|Asked who will be going to the games with him/her (spouse, kids, clients, etc.)||11%||56%||22%||44%||44%||56%||22%||44%||22%||33%||24%|
|Personality of the agent was “truly exceptional”**||78%||67%||78%||44%||67%||33%||67%||56%||44%||33%||38%|
|Considered an “above-average” experience compared to other telephone sales calls or “one of the best” ever had||88%||89%||77%||67%||78%||56%||66%||67%||66%||67%||53%|
* Agents were given credit for mentioning any one of 11 specific selling points, 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.”
** Defined as being “unusually engaged and enthusiastic — someone who sounds like they really love their job and dealing with people.”