A Sports Sales Director’s Advice on Surviving Your First Year As An Inside Sales Rep
The first year as a sales rep in sports should be fun and rewarding, but it can also be the very challenging and stressful.
As a result, the majority of new sales reps don’t make it through their first year.
Drawing back on my 12+ years of experience in sports sales and the hundreds of sales reps I've seen come and go, I've compiled some tips on how to survive your first year and put yourself in the best position to move up within the sports industry.
Let’s start with a little background
Inside Sales (IS) is where most sales reps spend their first year.
Inside sales is like try-outs for a sports team: A bunch of people try out but only a select few make it on the team. In this case, teams hire a bunch of new sales reps and give them a set amount of time (usually 6 months to 1 year) to learn the business and show they have what it takes to help the team achieve its goals.
At the end of the session, the highest producers usually get promoted into full-time positions on one of the ticket sales teams. If a full-time position isn't available, inside sales managers will do their best to place top producers on the full-time staffs of other teams.
The size of an inside sales team can vary greatly. A lot of NBA and NHL teams hire 6-15 new reps each off-season, however, there is a growing trend in the NBA for lower-demand teams to have 30 or more inside sales reps. I even know of an NFL team that hired 77 inside sales reps last season.
What You Can Expect in Your First Year
Before I dish out the advice, it’s important to understand what you can expect in your first year as a sales rep. If you aren't comfortable with these then selling sports probably isn't the career path for you.
First and foremost, sports is and should be fun. We get paid to watch the greatest athletes in the world. People love watching, talking about and playing sports. No matter how stressful the job may feel, it’s important to keep your perspective and understand that we are in the business of fun.
Don’t take that for granted! Enjoy the sights, sounds and opportunities that this industry provides.
As an inside sales rep, you are competing for a position on the full-time staff. The people sitting on either side of you are competing for that same spot. This may sound cutthroat, but it really isn't (hopefully). Teams put parameters in place to make the competition as healthy as possible.
You should always support your teammates, but don’t ever take your sights off your own goals.
Look at the wedding party pictures of almost any tenured sales rep/executive and you will probably see someone from their inside sales class standing alongside them. Your inside sales teammates become family. You train together, work alongside each other (often in an isolated area), work events together and you hang-out together outside of the office.
It’s almost impossible to spend that much time with people and not develop deep bonds that turn into lifelong friendships. This is why the competition is usually healthy - you want your friends to succeed and they want the same for you.
The role of sports is to entertain people when they are not at their jobs. This means we work nights, weekends and holidays. A typical game day in the NBA is 12-14 hours. If you work in baseball, you can expect to go weeks without a day off during the season. This is the same for everyone.
Beyond this, inside sales reps are often required to work additional hours, making night calls, setting up information tables at games and community events, assisting with the set-up & clean-up of prospecting and stakeholder events, plus performing a variety of tasks that fall outside normal work hours.
If you aren't passionate about selling and don’t love what you are doing then the long hours will probably be intolerable.
Sales reps make (lots of) phone calls. It’s that simple. Inside sales reps are required to make more phone calls than other sales teams in the organization (usually 80-100 calls a day). This is for a few reasons:
- The leads provided to inside sales reps are typically not the warmest so more calls are needed to reach qualified prospects.
- Older reps already have an established book of business to draw on, whereas, inside sales reps are starting with a clean slate. Given this, inside sales reps need to make more calls to build up their book of business.
- Making more calls helps young reps develop and refine their skills, which increases confidence and the ability to close more sales.
- Inside sales reps are also asked to make more calls than others simply to prove if they can. Managers need to know if the reps can be relied on to meet and surpass expectations should they be promoted into a more senior role.
I've never met anyone that’s enjoyed making 100 calls a day. I know I never did. As your skill set develops and you get better at prospecting, you won’t have to make as many calls. In this era of social selling, reps are getting much better at using LinkedIn and other tools to circumvent the cold call.
No matter what resources you use, at some point you will still need to pick up the phone and talk to people…lots and lots of people. Inside sales reps will be asked to make more than 25,000 calls in their first year. If you aren't willing to make the calls the person sitting next to you is, and that person will probably get promoted ahead of you.
As an inside sales rep you are going to get micromanaged.
It is the job of the inside sales manager to make sure you know as much as possible about selling techniques, products, the team, the organization, the resources, etc. To accomplish this, the manager needs to be near you, watch you, listen to you and study you. Your manager will be your shadow, but he/she is doing it to help you be the best you can be.
The faster you can show that you are confident and competent in all areas of the business the more freedom your manager will give you.
Whether you are a first year rep or in your 20th season, you are going to be held accountable to metrics.
Sales is a numbers game and there are certain numbers that management will require you to hit. Your #1 priority is to generate revenue. You will be given a sales goal and will most certainly be held accountable to hitting it. You will also be held accountable to other metrics - like the number of phone calls and appointments you complete each day. (I wasn't kidding about the micro-managing. Your stats are monitored constantly).
Inside sales is a lot like Survivor, America’s Got Talent, American Idol or any other elimination show. As the year goes on, the number of reps will continually dwindle and only the strongest will be left standing at the end. People leave for a variety of reasons:
- A handful of reps will probably quit after a couple weeks/months because they realize that the job is not for them, which is fine, this job isn't for everyone.
- Some reps may be asked to leave because of low productivity or they violate a company policy.
- Others may leave because they get a job somewhere else.
- Some reps leave because they are so good they get promoted early. I love when I get to promote someone!
[bctt tweet="Inside sales is like Survivor as the year goes on the # of reps dwindles, only the strongest last #sportsbiz "]
Not a Lot of Money
It can be a financial struggle to make it through the first year.
Like any sales position, reps earn most of their money from commission earned on sales. To earn big commissions you need to put up big sales, however, it usually takes time for new reps to put up big sales. It also takes time to get trained, to grow confidence, to prospect new leads, to improve skills, and to get people to the closing stage.
Additionally, inside sales reps are not given a base of accounts so all sales need to be self-generated (this is another part of the proving process). It’s not all bad - inside sales reps usually earn a decent base salary and many teams offer benefits.
When I started with the Cavaliers (many, many years ago), inside sales reps only received a base salary of $13k with no benefits.
My first year was brutal – I had to defer my student loans, I went without car and health insurance, I could barely pay my rent and eating out was a luxury. On top of this the Cavs were awful (this was pre-LeBron) and sales were not easy to come by.
This sounds unbearable but I loved it!
The desperation to succeed made me work harder and we still found ways to have fun. It was difficult, but I learned so much and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Now for Some Advice
Now that you know what to expect, let’s talk about ways to put yourself at the head of your inside sales class. Here are the essentials:
When managers look to promote someone from inside sales to a full-time position the first thing they look at is revenue. You could be the nicest, friendliest, most-respected person in the company but if you can’t close deals then you won’t be promoted.
Knowing this, don’t settle for mediocrity. Don’t allow yourself to be at the bottom of the sales board. Fight, claw and scratch for every sale. Always make sure your sales funnel is full. Always make time each day to prospect new business.
Revenue is the most important thing, but it’s not the only thing. Hiring managers also look at hustle to determine if you have the traits to be successful. Never let yourself be out-hustled. If you consistently do the little things that your colleagues aren't you will definitely stand out to your manager and likely be standing at the top of the revenue board.
- Don’t just hit your daily call goal – blow it out of the water. Your goal should be to make more calls than everyone else in your inside sales class every day.
- After everyone else has gone home for the night, force yourself to make 3 more calls.
- Making extra calls is relatively easy when you are just getting started. Doing it consistently every week is what truly separates good from great. Don’t get lazy!
- Spend more time studying than everyone else. Your products and your team are your life so it’s on you to learn as much about them as you can. Likewise, to be good at selling you should study the habits and teachings of the best sellers.
- Do more prospecting that everyone else. In order to close more business you need to have more in your funnel than your counterparts. To fill your funnel you need to carve out time to prospect every day. Most IS reps are given leads to help get them started, which is great, but to excel you also need to find your own prospects. Managers need to know that, if promoted, you will not depend on someone else to provide leads to you.
[bctt tweet="Want to be successful in inside sales? Never let yourself get out-hustled @wisCARLsin #sportsbiz"]
A positive attitude is everything.
You can’t work the hours we work and bring a negative attitude or it will spread like cancer. I have personally refused to promote some high-revenue generators because their attitudes were poor. You are part of a team and if your team can’t rely on you, or if your attitude brings the team down, then you’re better off not being a part of it.
My advice: always be a positive, motivating force. If you are having a bad day then take a walk outside to reduce your stress, DO NOT complain to the people sitting around you. If someone makes a big sale, be the first to congratulate them. If someone is struggling, be the first to offer words of encouragement. Support your teammates but don’t distract them either. Be respectful. Remember, your time in inside sales is limited. You can either make the most of every minute or you can squander it. You may not always be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it. Choose the high road.
Invest in making yourself better. I’m 12+ years into this business and I still read books, attend seminars, listen to podcasts and network with people around the industry in an attempt to be better at what I do.
I recommend you do the same.
Training never ends. Learning never ends. As a new sales rep, you should soak up as much knowledge as you can. Don’t just rely on your manager to do all of the educating. Set aside some time each week on your personal development.
Other Ways to Stand Out (for good reasons)
You've only got 6-12 months to make an impact. You should do this by putting up big numbers, but you can also get a boost by networking with those around you. Take the time to get to know the senior reps and managers. Ask them for advice. Ask if you can go on appointments to see them in action.
If your goal is to get promoted to a full-time sales team (and it should be), then take the time to get to know the people on those teams.
I am the Director of Group Sales, which means I am in a position to promote people out of inside sales. Sadly, most inside sales reps wait until the end of their term before attempting to get to know me or any of my reps.
It’s difficult to promote someone if I don’t know them! Don’t wait! Get to know the team leaders and senior reps early. Ask them out to lunch or to get a coffee every couple months. Stay on their radar and to give them updates on your progress.
Arrive Early / Stay Late
Inside sales is a short term commitment, make the most of it! Be the first to arrive in the morning. Be the last to leave at night. Use that extra time to prospect and get organized.
Trust me, you aren't missing out on anything if you meet your friends at the bar 30 minutes later than you expected. Remember, you are competing for a full-time position and hiring managers definitely notice the people that only put in extra effort.
If you want to be a professional then dress like one.
Come to work every day looking the part. Make sure your shirts are clean and ironed. Make sure your belt matches your shoes. Make sure your outfit is appropriate (if you would wear it to the club then don’t wear it to work). Wear dress socks, not black athletic socks - there’s a difference. Wear dress shoes and keep them polished.
Guys – shave!
Trust me, all eyes are on you. Your hygiene habits and wardrobe make an impression. You are an ambassador for the team. Take that responsibility seriously and always put yourself and your team in the best light. This applies to social media as well. Never say anything negative about any of the players on your team, in your league or in your sport. If you ever have to question whether or not to hit send – don’t send it!
It’s easy to disregard your health in inside sales because you are working so many hours. DON’T! I've seen people put on 30 lbs in a year (I put on 20 lbs in my first year)! Added weight kills your energy and impacts your confidence, which affects your ability to sell. If you don’t sell you won’t get promoted. It’s an unhealthy downward spiral that can be avoided. Schedule time to be active and hold yourself accountable to it.
Always be the first to volunteer for opportunities - even if it is for a task you aren't thrilled to do (like mascot duty). Show your manager that you are a team player and willing to do whatever it takes to make the team better. I know the last thing you want to do is give up a Saturday to work at some community festival, but that experience will help your skill development and give you an opportunity to close more business than your counterparts.
There is a great deal of information to digest here, and I assure you it comes from a place of hope. I hope you will find as much joy in a sports sales career as I have, and I hope this article will act as a tool you can use to make your first year in inside sales a great one.
If you've been hired on an inside sales team then congratulations! Getting on a staff is a major accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning. Turning opportunity into a rewarding career takes effort, persistence and dedication. There will be a lot of challenges in your first year but be strong and resilient and, not only will you make it through, but you’ll be standing on top.
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