The consequences wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing sports organizations to think differently, and sales teams are no exception. In addition to COVID-related changes to seating capacities and frictionless fan experience, changes in consumer attitudes, buying preferences, and accessibility of sales technology are creating pressure to reimagine the inside sales model that served the industry in the first two decades of the 21st century. The field of sport sales is at an inflection point, making it the perfect context in which students can grapple with important challenges facing the industry.
Embracing Human-Centered Design
This project was completed in the senior capstone class in the sport management major at IUPUI. The class embraces human-centered design, also called design thinking, to get students to understand the user, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and make bold recommendations to industry. Design thinking is a fresh lens for understanding users and can lead to innovation in sport contexts rooted in its focus on understanding user needs, motivations, behaviors, and feelings. Students completed 25 micro-learning lessons on how to apply the fundamental mindsets of methods of design thinking on the FieldXperience.
Prior to entering the class, students completed a sport sales course called Selling in the Sport Industry that provided them with a grasp of the sales process, the nature of sales jobs, and experience making outbound sales calls for professional sports teams. Upon entering the capstone class, students heard from a panel of industry experts on a zoom call, analyzed over 500 open-ended responses from a survey sent to those current and former entry-level salespeople, and conducted 35 zoom interviews with sport sales managers and current or former salespeople. Based on this information gathering phase, the class spent 6 weeks empathizing with managers and salespeople and synthesized all of the information into key insights that helped them frame an important problem that needs to be solved in sport sales.
Figure 1. Human-Centered Design Teaching Framework
Reimagining Talent Identification and Recruitment
For recent college graduates in their early 20s, sales is often positioned by professors and industry as a great way for students to “get their foot in the door” of the sports industry. In 2019, 35% of all job postings on Teamwork Online were for a sales position, and 20% of all jobs on the site were for entry-level inside sales positions. While opportunities for recent graduates are abundant in ticket sales, a recent study of over 1,000 entry-level salespeople by Dr. Pierce and his colleagues found that 1 in 2 leave the sport sales profession within 26 months, and only 8% move from sales to another job in sports. There is inefficiency in the recruitment and retention of salespeople that leads to a high turnover rate. This high turnover rate leads to increased costs to constantly identify, interview, and hire new talent. Additionally, sales teams are less productive. A recent study by Major League Soccer found that salespeople with three years of sales experience outsell entry-level salespeople 4 to 1. Constant focus on recruitment leads to less time focused on development of current sales staff, resulting in missed opportunities and lack of overall growth.
1. Partner with universities and professors to create engaging hands-on experiences that allow students to test drive sales.
Students need a realistic picture of the sales profession during their college experience to see if they are a fit for a sales career. But currently, the vast majority of these programs do not offer ways for students to gain a clear understanding of sport sales. College graduates are applying for sales jobs without knowing if they are a fit for a career in sales, leading to high turnover.
One group set out to solve this problem by asking: How might we reimagine the way that sport management programs and sales teams engage to improve the hiring process in the sports industry?
Sales managers and sport management programs need to work together to paint a realistic picture of the sales profession in ways that fundamentally shift the way sport management programs teach sales and the way sales departments work with universities. This group conceptualized sales education on two dimensions: where the learning occurs (inside or outside the classroom) and time investment on the part of the university or faculty (ranging from high to low)
2. Use realistic job previews (RJP) during the application process to weed out those who are not a fit for sales.
I think people are leaving because they didn’t know what they were signing up for when they get into ticket sales. It can be very mentally exhausting and stressful.
- Within the Online Application Process: Create a video RJP that covers job expectations and requirements, how the sales program operates, and presents video or audio of salespeople engaged in their job. The purpose of this video is to give applicants a realistic perspective of everything a ticket sales job encompasses, including compensation structure, hours, and tasks performed. The video is watched as part of the online application process.
- After the Initial Application: Conduct a Group RJP on Zoom with applicants that have cleared an initial screening of applicants. This group zoom call has three stages: job expectations and requirements, challenges, and personal testimonials of how sales is a challenging yet rewarding career. By this point of the hiring process, only prospects that have an in-depth understanding in sales and the proper work ethic will be moving on to the last RJP.
- During the Interview: The final RJP in the hiring process is a 1 on 1 training or job shadowing that will fully immerse prospects into the life of a ticket salesperson. Everything that the prospects have learned in the first two RJP’s, they will now get to experience firsthand. They will experience the workload, the amount of rejection to sales, and how successful salespeople conduct calls. At the end of the RJP process, the only prospects left are the ones who have the belief and understanding that they can be a successful ticket salesperson.
Reimagine How Growth is Measured to Value Process and Outcome
Hustle and grind are cherished values in inside sales. But an overemphasis on number of calls made and amount of revenue generated too early in a salesperson’s career can lead to frustration, burnout, unhealthy workplace competition, and other negative mental health consequences. Evaluation rooted in two performance metrics on an artificial 9-12 month timeline can also overlook late bloomers who don’t immediately find themselves on top of the leaderboard. We found that salespeople who are slow to show success on the sales leaderboard, but who are coachable with a growth mindset want to show how their skills are developing over time. Sales managers who focus on coaching and mentoring want to measure growth to see the 360 degree view of development.
One sales manager in professional sports said:
I think we focus too much on the end result of sales, we focus too much on did you hit your number? Did you hit your goal?” The current weeding out process in sport sales overlooks talented salespeople. I think what happens is that we miss out on great, great, talented folks that just need a little bit more time.
3. Prioritize and invest in ongoing sales training platforms and initiatives.
Most inside sales reps have no prior experience with sales, making sales training a critical component to their success. While most organizations deliver sales training during onboarding, ongoing sales training is more inconsistent. A recent study by Nels Popp found that 51% of entry-level sales reps received less than 2 hours of ongoing training per month, and that only 33% of reps felt their ongoing training was excellent. Popp found that job satisfaction increased and intent to quit the job decreased as the quality and quantity of ongoing training increased.
Imagine entering in the sports sales industry with minimal experience, but with an overwhelming urge to learn and succeed. You sit in on the training along with your class of inside-sales reps and start learning the basics of sales, but within a couple of weeks you are thrown into the battle, making 80 calls a day. You find some of your peers succeeding, but you are slowly falling behind and begin to lose confidence and question why you are in sales. The lack of ongoing training plays a major role on how you look at your time in sales and wish to have learned more because it could have propelled your career and confidence. Inconsistent ongoing training is a problem because it lacks variety and consistency to make a lasting impact on the short one-year timeframe of an inside sales rep.
One group set out to solve this problem by asking, how might we reimagine sales training by giving managers more flexibility in how they deliver training?
Sales managers need a way to engage the next generation of sales reps on a consistent basis during their first nine months to reinforce the training delivered during the onboarding experience. We recommend sales leadership in sports adopt virtual sales platforms to customize, emphasize, and incentivize training as a whole. Learning management platforms exist to help sales managers deliver a better ongoing sales training experience that is customizable, flexible, consistent, and able to reach diverse learning preferences. This allows management to create a unique way to learn sales concepts through various learning styles such as audio, visual, and hands-on learning. Platforms such as Ispring, Docebo, and TalentLMS bring the technology that creates a consistent, unique, and flexible learning environment.
4. Leverage the power of mentorship to cultivate late-bloomers.
New salespeople can sometimes feel isolated and need help beyond training sessions. One group set out to solve this problem by asking: How might we develop entry level sales people so that we are able to support those who are a fit for sports sales long term?
Their idea is to implement a mentor from the company who has been on the sales team for at least two years to help new salespeople who want to grow in their sales skills by getting the support they need from a mentor. By having a mentor the entry level positions will have more of an emphasis on personal development.
One sales manager we interviewed said,
“Most important thing that you need to do, particularly early in your career, is align yourself with the best leader that you can. If you don’t have a good leader, or get inside sales managers to recruit you and set you up for success, you’re just not starting off on the right foot.”
In our research, we found that 76% of those with a business mentor say they are valuable, but only 37% of professionals have one. Mentees are promoted 5 times more often than those without mentors and the mentors themselves are 6 times more likely to get promoted by being a mentor. Supporting new salespeople by adding mentors to the mix would be an effective way to give salespeople a resource so that they can be successful long term.
5. Prioritize and invest in sales enablement technology that aligns how sellers and want sell and buyers want to buy.
Hundreds of cold calls fail everyday. Calls get screened, go to voicemail, get picked up at inconvenient times for the customer, and are left unanswered. Salespeople spend a significant amount of time smiling and dialing, but are not improving their chances of having a sales conversation at the right time, creating anxiety, frustration, burnout, and lack of job satisfaction. Even with CRM technology that scores leads and provides information about the customer, many salespeople make calls to customers with little to no knowledge of their current needs and interests. Calls tend to reach fans when they are not in the mindset of buying. Salespeople need a way to reach fans when they are ready to buy, and fans find value in talking to salespeople when they are thinking about buying. We believe sales teams need to invest in technology that improves prospecting to better align sales calls with buying interest.
This brings us to the question: How might we leverage technology to align with how customers want to buy and sellers want to sell?
It is important for sales leadership to invest in sales enablement technologies that integrate in the CRM system that improve specific steps in the sales process. Sales leadership needs to invest in platforms that leverage artificial intelligence to help the salesperson reach the customer when they have buying interest. Investing heavily in sales enablement technology helps sales teams be more efficient with their time prospecting. These technologies create a better buying experience because the customer can connect with the sales team at the right time.
One platform that allows employees to work more efficiently is Conversica, which uses artificial intelligence to flag customers based on activity on websites and social media then engages with the customer to help them with the next steps. The Milwaukee Bucks have found that this platform has helped their employees to become more productive and efficient. Less time is wasted on manual tasks, opening up the opportunity to focus more on selling and closing. While implementing sales technology can be overwhelming, it opens up the opportunity for salespeople to become more organized and efficient in their day to day operations. With technology continuing to become increasingly more specialized, applying these types of sales tools opens a massive window of opportunity for companies and organizations.
Reimagine Communication Structure to Unlock Innovation
Salespeople are on the front lines interacting with customers gathering unfiltered information on phone calls, at their seats, on the concourse, and over email. Salespeople hold valuable information from fans about their attitudes, opinions, and pain points. During our research, we found that sales teams are frustrated that siloed communication creates a major disconnect that limits cross-department collaboration. Communication needs to be restructured vertically to upper management and horizontally with other departments so sales teams can disseminate their key insights that would have otherwise remained trapped within the sales department. Sales teams are seeking a way to vocalize their knowledge of the consumer because sales teams can harness the power of their insights to align products and experiences that fit the wants and needs of the customer. However, sales teams are currently not translating their observations into powerful insights that can be used by marketing, business intelligence, and fan experience. We believe the sales team can harness the power of their insights and create products and experiences desired by fans.
One group set out to solve this problem by asking: How might we restructure communication so that the sales team can disseminate their key insights and include them in the design process?
6. Build a culture of innovation rooted in the design thinking framework to create products and experiences desired by fans.
Design thinking is a collaborative, iterative, and human-centered approach to solving problems. Sales reps have a deep understanding of the customer’s attitudes and experiences. However, for salespeople to be heard throughout the organization, all of that information needs to be synthesized into insights. By restructuring the sales process and the design process, communication will be restructured to promote inclusivity and transparency throughout the organization. The four key phases of design thinking can be applied:
- Capture Observations: Identify a central collecting place to capture information and observations about fans. This could be as simple as writing the observation down on a sticky note and placing it on the sticky note wall, or more tech-savy integrated into the CRM system. This helps salespeople get the most out of all their customer conversations and interactions, even those that don’t end in a sale.
- Make sense of information: Armed with a mindset of empathy, the sales team can synthesize information from step 1 into insights and points of view about the customer. A variety of problem framing activities, like developing personas, journey and empathy maps, and Rose Thorn Bud, help translate information into insights. The key skill set needed is the ability to find the right questions to ask that lead to the right problem to solve. This continuous synthesis process can be led by the inside sales manager or an innovation and business solutions manager.
- Ideation: Bring all key departments and levels of employees together to have a seat at the table to engage in structured ideation activities. This will allow for fan experience, business intelligence, event & facilities management, marketing, and senior management to function at an elite level by promoting better horizontal and vertical communication in the organization. Ideation is a divergent thinking activity designed to spur a large quantity of ideas to solve the problem. We recommend that teams use design sprints, a time-constrained process that spurs innovation. These design sprints should take place twice a year during the off-season and the in-season break. Design sprints help you reduce risk when bringing a new product, service, or feature to market and address major pain points experienced by consumers. This innovative mindset uses the insights identified in the previous steps to create solutions tailored to the wants and needs of the consumer.
- Deliver: With innovative ideas on the table, the team can now converge on co-creating and delivering solutions. The importance of prototyping takes center stage here, as you create low-fidelity prototypes that offer enough tangibility for users to give you feedback on the extent to which your idea solves the problem. Prototyping can reduce the overall production time, eliminate undesirable finished products, and prioritize important features required by fans. Therefore, the product will be co-created with customers so it can go to market faster and be more effective.