Rethinking Sports Approach to B2B sales

10:01 a.m.: A young rep, Jane, makes a call to a single game buyer in which she is trying to sell an upgrade to a partial season ticket package.

10:03 a.m.: The next call Jane places is to the purchasing group of a Fortune 500 company with offices around the globe and already has 8 season tickets to half of the teams in your league.

10:12 a.m.: She next calls the proprietor of a small retailer who has 20 part time employees.

This is a very common sequence of events in professional and collegiate sports. Most teams (maybe all?) have various versions of this story play out all day, every day.

This is a problem.

There is more than enough sales data – from within sports and outside – to prove that any variation of Jane’s story is not advisable:

  • Every salesperson has quantifiable strengths and weaknesses. Certain reps are better equipped to sell big deals. Very often these reps underinvest their energies in smaller deals. Likewise, other reps are great hitting singles all day long but don’t have the attention span/personality/ability to hit the home runs that are more common in B2B sales.
  • All businesses are not created equally. A law firm or medical office with only one or two partners will typically show different purchase patterns than, say, an industrial manufacturer with thousands of employees. These buying differences require a differentiated selling approach.
  • Sales reps who intimately understand the obstacles that are presented by specific types of buyers are significantly better positioned to navigate those obstacles and close the deals.

However, let’s be clear: Jane might very well win one of those deals. She might even win them all. This cannot blind us from the provable fact that, on the whole, sales teams in all industries that continually bounce back and forth between remarkably different kinds of sales are less successful than targeted sales teams. Nearly every other B2B industry has learned the benefits of a focused B2B sales approach. It is now time for the sports industry to follow the successful approaches that these other companies have taken.

Before we talk about specific B2B sales approaches that sports must begin taking, let’s take stock of the quantifiably obvious value that exists in having a robust strategy for B2B sales in professional and collegiate sports organizations. Compared to B2C sales, B2B sales should be expected to:

  • Close at higher win rates
  • Close at higher price points
  • More reliably renew year in and year out
  • Be less prone to cancellations resulting from poor performance on the field, floor, pitch or ice
  • Be more likely to upgrade their packages (additional seats, better seats)

Sounds good, right? However, in 2017 the vast majority of sports teams have no comprehensive B2B sales strategy.

Fear not, there are several steps that sports teams can begin taking to build powerhouse B2B sales organizations. There is no need to scramble to come up with brand new approaches. That would amount to “recreating the wheel.” Other B2B industries have implemented strategies that are easily replicated within professional and collegiate sports.

Step 1: Begin to Ensure Adequate Sales Data

Sports teams must approach B2B sales as a data-driven endeavor. Before teams can achieve their greatest successes, they have to understand what their own sales data is telling them. The first step in this process is ensuring that your team is tracking basic data fields:

  • Type of Account: Every account must be designated as a business account or a personal account. Most teams are already doing this, but many are not. For the teams that don’t designate account types, our strongest advice is to start immediately. Start with opportunities that have closed (won or lost) in the last twelve to eighteen months. Yes, this is a painful process, but one that will pay huge dividends going forward.
  • Industry designation: Every account that has been designated as a business account needs to have an industry associated with it. You will see different buying dynamics in different industries which will allow for tailored approaches to the industry. This must be handled by a centralized team authority. Do not expect salespeople to do this; they don’t have time to do this and the project is too important to leave to multiple different salespeoples’ interpretations. Consistency is a must. Lists with SIC designations can be purchased relatively cheaply.
  • Company Size: Likewise, there are differences between purchase patterns at large companies and small companies. Both total employee headcount and total company revenues are valuable.

Teams that are just starting to undertake a serious B2B sales program may be tempted to dive headfirst into a massive organizational realignment. Please don’t. Until this first basic (and maybe boring) step is achieved, any other elements of a B2B strategy will be driven by speculation and hope – neither of which are advisable business strategies. If your organization has decent B2B data in place already, keep reading.

Step 2: B2B Sales Training

Businesses interpret the value they receive from tickets differently than individuals. Individuals are more likely to be rabid fans of your team. They are more likely to identify with your team as a source of community pride. Businesses buy ticket memberships to serve a business purpose. Along with the different perceived values are differences in purchase dynamics. A B2B sale is typically a more complex sale. Unlike a personal sale, a business often has several influencers who may need to be engaged as part of the sales process – particularly with large companies. While they close at higher win rates, they also tend to close on longer sales cycles.

Salespeople must be taught these differences so that they can approach the value proposition differently. They need to learn the different drivers of B2B success so they can focus their efforts on the correct contacts, accounts and opportunities at the right time and with messaging that is likely to have the greatest impact.

Step 3: Align your organization for success – Specialized Roles

With such dramatic differences between B2B and B2C selling and with so much at stake, our strongest recommendation is to begin designating certain salespeople as B2B-exclusive sales reps. This might not be practical for small sales teams, but most teams at the professional level have the bandwidth to focus certain salespeople exclusively on B2B sales.

For organizations that are intent on building a world-class B2B sales organization, the individuals who should be selected as the first B2B sales reps should have a proven track record of success selling to businesses. This designation should come with an elevated cachet and should be seen as a promotion. This could prove to be a retention play as well for sales talent who often feel that their opportunities for advancement are limited within a team’s sales organization.

Step 4:  Specializations within B2B

Different types of companies buy tickets differently. Large companies buy differently than small companies. “Old Economy” companies (i.e. manufacturing or retail) buy differently than “New Economy” companies (i.e. technology or business services). For sports teams that have already defined a B2B sales team, we strongly encourage specialization within those teams so that sales people can speak intelligently to the nuanced buying patterns of different types of companies.

Step 5: Sales and Marketing Alignment

Marketing is given credit for creative, data-driven initiatives that bring buyers into the B2C funnel. However, too many organizations equate marketing with an exclusively B2C function. Marketing must be leaned on to support B2B sales initiatives. Just as B2C marketing campaigns target specific buyer demographics, B2B marketing needs to be approached with the same data-driven effort. Buying patterns of businesses and consumers are different. Marketing needs to build B2B campaigns that acknowledge those differences and focus and the value that B2B buyers perceive.

Step 6: Constantly Re-evaluate and Stay Nimble

The only certainty about purchase habits is that they will change. Sports teams must follow the lead of their colleagues in other B2B industries and strive to stay current with these changes. The only way to do this is to understand the buying and selling patterns that are deeply embedded in your sales data and truly what is driving B2B sales success (and failure!).

The best-in-class B2B sports sales teams will be nimble organizations which not only understand what types of businesses are most likely to buy, they will understand what campaigns, salespeople and activities will position the organization for the greatest success.