I recently had the opportunity to tour the Major League Soccer National Sales Center in Blaine, Minn. This innovative approach to recruiting and onboarding sales talent was the idea of Bryant Pfeiffer, vice president of club services with MLS. The program is essentially “Sales University for Professional Soccer.” They recruit trainees nationally to live in Blaine for an intense two to three month curriculum of professional sales skill development under the direction of two industry experts. What emerges are candidates more prepared to have an immediate impact on sales performance.
Two years into the program, the metrics are impressive. The 100 sales associates that they’ve placed across the league perform 35% better than average and have a 20% higher retention rate. The program really works.
During my visit I had the opportunity to chat with Bryant and his two sales directors, Jeff Berryhill and Sean Ream. The conversation that follows sheds light on their special approach to preparing sales talent for success.
Ryan: Tell me a little bit more the MLS Sales Center and the sales competencies you’re addressing here.
Bryant: I’m on the road a lot working with our clubs. When I first started visiting clubs, I noticed right away that we have a very young sales staff. In 2008, we did some research and found that 85% of our sales force had less than three years of experience. Also, we were losing people, and a lot of the recruiting at the club level wasn’t happening until after a sales seat opened up.
Our teams needed help accelerating their recruiting processes and finding stronger talent.
So we started started thinking, why don’t we create a program at the national level that can support talent development and drive revenue through a national call center?
We launched the program in July 2010 in Blaine. Our offices overlook the soccer stadium where the Minnesota Stars play. We have dormitories and a cafeteria here, so it’s a lot like a college campus.
I definitely feel like I’m at Sales U for pro soccer. Tell me more about the how you find the trainees that come here.
We recruit nationally. More than 30 states and several countries have been represented by trainees. One of the unique aspects of our recruiting process is requiring candidates to submit a 2 minute YouTube video answering 2 questions: Why Soccer? and Why Sales?
The videos allow us to get an inside look at candidates: Did they take the initiative and time to do the assignment, and do they have a basic level of charisma and confidence? Do they have basic sales instincts and creativity?
What happens at sales school? How do you take someone with raw potential and turn them into a sales pro?
We’ve built a very high-octane training curriculum. The first 30 days is heavy classroom-style content, all done through Powerpoints, lectures, role play, and guest lectures both from people inside our teams and from veteran salespeople from other industries. During those first 30 days, we slowly introduce trainees to the phones, and then in months 2 and 3, the program is 70% sales on the phone and 30% content and training.
The backbone of our curriculum is a 6-step sales process: Build Rapport, Set the Agenda, Ask Questions, Apply Product Knowledge, Handle Objections, Ask for the Sale
What does a successful salesperson look like, and how do you evaluate whether a trainee is ready?
We provide performance feedback constantly. Trainees are ranked and graded every week, based on revenue, call evaluation scores, call volume and hustle points and peer evaluations. As former ticket sales directors in the sports industry, we ask ourselves: Would we hire this person right now? We don’t send trainees out into the field until they are ready.
There’s a lot of energy here. What kind of culture are you creating?
Sales is tough. If you can’t maintain your sense of humor and laugh a little but, you’re going to struggle. We have a partnership with an improv workshop, and we do a lot of work with them, including improv-based warm-up exercises and sessions that are facilitated by improv instructors. We believe that the fundamentals of improv overlap with the fundamentals of sales.
Let’s talk results. What has been the impact of the talent coming out of this program?
We have placed 100 trainees in the field. 13 people have been promoted to sales management already, and a dozen or so have been recognized for their sales performance at league meetings. Trainees from the program stay at a club 20% longer than salespeople who are hired locally. And their performance is 35% better. This sales development program has a huge impact on MLS teams.
We have recently expanded the program to include new sales managers that visit the Sales Center to develop their ability to lead, manage performance and shape a sales culture. We already see the impact.
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