10 things I've learned in 10 years: Selling in sport

by Adam vogel - sr. director, training & development - sports business solutions | December 19, 2018

This year marks my 10th year in professional ticket sales and what a journey it has been. From selling flex books after class in college with our local Triple-A baseball team, to canvassing local businesses in Grove City, PA, and helping young sales reps ascend in the sport industry… every day in this business has been a privilege and honor. This article is a tribute to some of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. “No” Was My Job

Early on in sales, I approached “no” with disdain, apprehension and often fear. This changed my attitude in how I approached selling. I was a defensive seller and often on guard, making me as stiff as a doornail and gaining very little ground in my conversations with prospects. It was not until I accepted and embraced that “no” was my friend, not my foe, when things began to change. In doing so, my career flourished. Over time I grew more comfortable and almost anticipatory of “no,” allowing me to remain nimble, relaxed and adaptive.

View “no” like a shortstop approaches a ground ball-- a constant part of the game and necessary means to an end. It was simply my job to field the ball cleanly and trust my coaching to execute on each play. Staying with the baseball theme, success at the plate usually requires a failure rate of around 70%. In a new business sales role, if you’re good, your failure rate will be around 97%. “No” isn’t just part of the game, it’s the name of the game.

2. The More You Sell, The More You Will Make

“No duh,” right? But how cool is this?! As sales professionals, our salary and take-home is a direct reflection of our daily attitudes, efforts and successes. You can’t get much fairer than that! I remember selling mini-plans for a Minor League Baseball team as part of an internship experience. Not only was I eligible to make minimum wage, but we also received a $4.50 bonus on every plan that we sold. In one 3-hour shift, I sold 16 packs ($72 in commission)—that was some good money for a broke college kid! From that moment on, I was hooked on selling sports and having control of my own financial well-being.

3. You Control When the Light Bulb Turns On

Sport sales is not rocket-science. Don’t get me wrong, our profession can certainly be challenging and mentally taxing at times. As a young sales professional, jousting with the customers, at times with teammates (primarily for position on the sales board), and constantly with myself as my own harshest critic, reoccurred more than I am proud to admit. Yet, in taking a step back and truly analyzing my duty as a sales representative, I realized a critical lesson. I wasn’t competing with any of those things…instead I was competing against ‘the game.’ In this case, my silver bullet was ‘hustle metrics.’ By this, I mean phone calls, talk time, appointments set, appointments completed, referrals and thank you notes. This was my light-bulb moment! If I could dominate the controllables, the uncontrollables would take care of themselves. And they will for you too!

4. The Secret Sauce of Authenticity (There Is More Than One Way To Do This)

There is more than one path to success in our business (spoiler alert: this will be a common theme throughout the article). Yes, process is important as it yields consistency and confidence for sellers. However, process without personality is what separates a telemarketer from a consultant. Obviously we want to represent the latter.

I learned this difficult lesson about three months in to my sales career. I was spinning my wheels trying to figure out why I wasn’t having success on the revenue board. I had owned the roadmap—asking the right questions, battling objections diligently and always inquiring for referrals. It required a vulnerable conversation with my boss at the time to help me realize the missing ingredient. ME!! I hadn’t inserted “Adam” in to my sales process. I was stiff, serious and sour. After this crucial audit, I made the career-saving adjustment and let my quirky and self-deprecating side slide into my process. Not every client appreciated this I am sure, but many did. Most importantly, I was having fun selling and this made all of the difference for me!

5. Practice Really Does Pay Off

The best in class don’t just love the bright lights in game, they also LOVE the grind that goes in to dominating their craft. Ray Allen said it best, “life is about the journey, not the destination. And that journey will change you as a person.” I learned that the best way to speed up my ability to grow my career was to practice at home and practice often. I certainly was not gifted with God-given sales ability when I first set out in this career. For me to grow my career in this business, I knew I would have to be the hardest worker on the team. Luckily my work ethic (as is yours) is completely and utterly under my own control. I recall countless work-nights and weekends reviewing product knowledge, reciting scripts, walking through my appointment process and reading sales content. These bonus hours of development compounded and ultimately prepared me for my next steps in my career.

6. Referrals Are A Young Sellers Best Friend

During my seven months in Inside Sales with the Pirates, my two largest sales were from faith-based communities. Both of which stemmed from a referral. One of which, a Presbyterian Church in Uniontown, PA, utilized a large group outing for parishioners AND a pair of season tickets for their volunteers. This forever solidified the importance of the referral for me.

When it comes to referrals, I practiced what I now brand as the YOLO approach. Stating either; 1) you’ve had a productive conversation with your prospect and have built rapport, thus increasing your likelihood of generating a referral based on your relationship with them—SO ASK; 2) you had an awfully unproductive call with the prospect and the conversation is going nowhere—SO ASK (what do you have to lose?). This approach led me to be a referral asking machine. It simply became a natural part of my process. Before long, I was no longer reliant on recycled leads and instead finding success with my own self-generated network. Plus, warmer conversations are always more fun!

7. Titles Are Overrated, Names Are Underrated

I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of title chasing in my career. It wasn’t until I served the role as a Manager of Inside Sales when my professional goals began to shift drastically. Impact took precedence over title—and with the right ambitions, few industries allow one to make an impact on others as quickly as the sport industry does. When joining Sports Business Solutions (SBS), Bob [Hamer] and I were discussing what my title within the company would be. In a moment of enlightenment, I remember thinking to myself, “I can literally be called anything, it will have no influence at all on my daily effort.” The faster you can come to this realization in your career, the sooner the floodgates will open for you to achieve amazing feats.

While titles are overrated, names are anything but. A mentor of mine once told me, “names are our livelihood.” The message has stuck since. The power of name usage with friends, family, co-workers, clients, business partners, stakeholders and your network in totality, is very real. I found the more I could use a prospect’s or recruit’s name in conversation, the better our overall dialogue would be. Especially when asking a question or making a suggestion. For example, something easy like, “Say Mike, tell me why you chose Syracuse University for pursuing your undergraduate degree.” Or, “Bob, based off of what you told me, I suggest you move forward with two seats in our half-season weekend plan. It is just 10 rows above the dugout. What do you think?” In sales and in recruiting, dialogue leads to opportunity—plain and simple. Using one’s name serves as much more than just a savvy business practice. It is a tool of engagement for all interactions—making our conversations more impactful and connections meaningful. Use names and use them often, there is just no reason not to.

8. Management Is A Skill-Set Of Its Own

The best athletes don’t always make for the best coaches. We’ve seen this time and time again within sports. The same is true in selling, and doing is much different than teaching. As a seller, I’d hit my sales goals primarily by brute force… time in the office. Although it never felt like a chore or requirement, I genuinely loved what I did and still do today.

In first assuming a leadership role, my plan was simple. I’d find 25 hungry and driven professionals built just like me and we’d wreak havoc. Well, that plan was nothing short of foolish. In my early management days, I tried squeezing results out of my team my way. Instead, I should have been focused on better understanding their unique strengths and personalities as a source to help them achieve their goals. During my time with the Mets, I remember one of our Inside Sales team members required much more autonomy than the rest of his peers. It was essential for his ability to function at both a high and consistent level. This individual later blossomed into one of the highest producing sellers in the history of the program and is still flourishing with the company today.

Though one must earn credibility as a leader, the blatant truth is there are many ways to get your people to ‘their number’ in sales. Contrary to the belief of some, it is not a prerequisite to be a #1 sales person on a team to be a great leader in sales. You simply need to be exceptional in getting the very most out of your people.

9. We Rock, All of Us

When the dust settles and the honeymoon ends pertaining to your initial excitement of a career in sport business, just remember…you are AWESOME. We all hit the proverbial wall in dealing with goals, expectations, challenging customers and self-doubt. In experiencing these, look at yourself in the mirror and remind yourself this…

“I rock! I am pursuing my dream and working in the industry that I’ve loved my entire life. My bad days are more enjoyable than most other’s best in their respective jobs. I’m crushing it!”

We generate our living from our lifelong passion. We are representing brands that we idolized growing up. Embrace the opportunity and embrace yourself for displaying the fortitude necessary in creating your professional reality. YOU’RE AWESOME. I’M AWESOME. WE’RE ALL AWESOME.

10. Everything Matters

Pessimism can be a very subtle influencer in a sales culture. It is easy for a sales professional and even leader to fall into the “victim” mentality. Days, weeks and months can blend together and a “slump” ensues. Before you know it, you or your team is falling behind pace and each activity seems to be a pressing one. Nobody is immune to steering clear of all bad moments, but what we do have control of is how long we let those moments negatively affect us. They can be mutually exclusive.

I began to realize not every day was going to be 100-call output and full of appointments, but I didn’t need to fill the stat sheet to ‘win my day.’ Instead I just needed to revert my focus to winning each activity (phone call, voice mail, e-mail). If I could do this consistently, I realized there would rarely be a day that I failed to put my business in a better spot than it was the day before. My mentality shifted to “have a bad five minutes, not a bad day.” This was a mindset I carried with me in leadership as well. We control whether or not we lose months, weeks and days to poor moments.

After 10 years in sport sales my hope is to be continuously blessed with 10 more years of memorable moments and working alongside tremendous people. The industry has given me so much and I am grateful for the opportunity to reciprocate. Thank you for reading! -AV

Adam Vogel is the Senior Director of Training and Development with Sports Business Solutions. Since joining SBS in April 2018, Adam has led training sessions for 20 different partners across the professional and collegiate sport landscape. Prior to SBS, Adam led successful Inside Sales programs for over five campaigns with the New York Mets and Miami Dolphins; directly over-seeing the promotion of 68 sales representatives in to Senior Sales or Services roles in the sport industry. Adam also spent time in new business development with the Pittsburgh Pirates. For more information on the services Adam can provide for your sales culture, email him today at adam@sportsbusiness.solutions.