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The Art and Science of Service

Darrin Gross's picture

Seventeen years ago when I began my career in sports and entertainment the overriding theme in sponsorship sales was volume – more is more. During my first four years in Single-A ball we were only concerned with how much money we were bringing in right then. There were no Long Range Plans (LRPs) or real thought put into how we were going to secure our partners beyond the current season. The same was true for our season ticket department. We were so shortsighted we did not even offer partial-season plans because we wanted to put the most money in the bank as possible right then and there, and mini plans were viewed as a way for our fans to pay less. We soon realized the error of our ways, and after substantial prodding from key members of our staff we were able to convince our owners that the only way to secure our eroding season ticket base was to offer ticket plans that fit the lifestyles of our fans.

Shortly after taking over our sponsorship team, and later our ticketing group, I began to formulate my professional opinion on “service.” I had four people selling sponsorships and seven people selling season tickets, FSE’s and group outings, but it was clear that something was missing. I would regularly sit down with my account managers on the sponsorship side and ask about our prospects of renewing a specific client. The response I would receive was simply “It’s only June, why should I worry about that now, particularly since I have not hit goal for this season?” I had similar conversations with the season ticket and group sellers as well. They would tell me they needed to focus on the now and not tomorrow. This mindset was prevalent throughout the office and around the country, but that did not make it right. We needed to follow the wise words of Harvey MacKay, “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty.”

Just prior to my departure for the greener pastures of Triple-A baseball, I developed a plan to implement a service team for all aspects of our business. Right around this time I had the good fortune to meet my future boss, Tom Glick, in Las Vegas at the Triple-A World Series. Over a couple of drinks we discussed the renewal process, upselling and service. Little did either one of us know we would soon be working together and developing a sales/service concept that would serve as the model for minor league baseball in the 21st century (please excuse the hyperbole, but that is how I felt at the time). Three months later, Tom and I were both in Sacramento putting together a team of sales and service professionals that would ensure the long term success of our yet to be named team in our yet to be completed stadium.

Once in Sacramento, my initial hire was not a top notch sales guy, but rather a skilled service professional to lead the first service team in minor league sports (as least that is what I like to believe). The woman I hired was working in the property management business where her days consisting of hand holding, nose wiping and putting out fires. Next we hired two service coordinators and then finally got around to the sales folks.

Once our hiring process was complete we sat everyone down and focused on three main points: first, the service team does not work for the sales team, but rather with them; second, it is necessary to involve the service coordinator in practically all aspects of the sales process from needs assessment to renewal; and third, communication between service and sales is the key to success with this new model.

By hiring the service team first we were able to establish SOP’s and create a framework of service that the account managers could easily follow. Not everyone has the benefit of starting from the ground up like we did in Sacramento, thus not all implementations of a service team will be as easy or smooth as it was with the River Cats. What we were able to create in Sacramento was the foundation for the top grossing sponsorship team in minor league sports for many years. It was not without hiccups or some pain, but for the most part it was an exceptionally well-functioning unit that took pride in the service they provided.

Oakland has been a bit of a different story when it comes to service. The A’s were one of the last MLB teams to adapt a service mindset for their sponsorship team. Upon my arrival we hired our first service coordinator and moved an existing manager to oversee service and then began the process of implementing many of the practices we utilized in Sacramento. Per my earlier comment, it is a more difficult task to insert a new layer into an existing department. Not deterred, we pushed forward and now have two and a half people dedicated to our service team and three people selling. Not the preferred ratio, but we’re still growing. One of the first things we did was remove some of the more time consuming tasks our sales people were involved with. We taught each service coordinator how to use our research methods, enter contracts and prepare for business reviews. Since the service team’s inception they have continued to take on an even greater role in preseason planning, hospitality and interaction with our clients. We have a ways to go, but we are definitely headed in the right direction.

Other benefits of utilizing a service team, aside from freeing up time for your sales managers, include grooming future sales people. There is no better way to learn the sales business than from the ground up. We recently promoted our very first service coordinator, Tim, to an account manager position. Tim is doing a great job due to the fact that he spent a year and a half on the service side. Additionally, the ability to open up different levels of communication with our partners is key. No one wants to call the COO of a major corporate partner on a Friday afternoon looking for a new version of their logo. Now we have our service coordinator reach out to their direct contact, probably a marketing manager or coordinator rather than pestering the boss. We have found when there are multiple lines of communication between team and sponsor, more useful information can be gleaned from some of the lower level conversations.

While this information is not earth shattering by any means, it is valuable content for thought if you are not currently using service professionals in either sponsorship or ticket sales. The value of having a service department to complement your sales team will not be seen immediately in terms of more dollars rolling in, but give it time and you will see the advantages.

Now go sell something and don’t forget the service!

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