Selling a Winner

In the late 1960’s, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup tennis team Donald Dell, founded a sportsmarketing company whose first clients were winning Davis Cup team members Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. Since those first ground breaking years in sports marketing, the concept of using sports superstars to sell everything from hamburgers to cars has reached such heights that many stars are known as well for their promotions as for their wins on the tennis and basketball courts or at the Olympics. Dell’s company ProServ currently represents top names in basketball, tennis, cycling (the up and coming participant sport), golf and many others. In this exclusive interview with PSP, ProServ’s VP of Marketing Steve Disson shares some of the hard lessons and behind the scenes facts about selling a winner.

PSP: Would you say that ProServ signs up heroes to sell products?

Steve Disson: We’re looking for people – not necessarily sports superstars – people who, properly packaged and marketed and presented, can become sports superstars. We still have to aggressively sell a superstar like Michael Jordan, whom we represent but it’s not as difficult a sell as someone like Connie Carpenter Phinney who won the gold medal in the ’84 Olympics in cycling.

PSP: How do you sell a sports star on ProServ representing them?

Steve Disson: An athlete may be the greatest tennis player, basketball player or cyclist, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he or she can translate that into income and endorsements. It is not only the talent you’re working with but how good you are in marketing that particular talent. They sign with us to make money and to save the money that they make, so they don’t just make it and lose it. When you’re involved in professional sports, you never know when you might get a serious injury that may prevent you from continuing to compete in the sport.

PSP: How do you match an athlete to a company sponsor?

Steve Disson: You need to be a good listener, and find out really what a company is looking for, and then decide what you have that fits their needs.

PSP: How do you accomplish that needs analysis?

Steve Disson: By staying aware of what companies’ problems are, and what their needs are. Ideally, instead of just calling a company and saying, “Let’s sit down and talk,” find out beforehand what, if anything, they’ve done in the past in sports. Of course when we contact an executive, he or she already knows that we represent people like Jimmy Connors and Michael Jordan. If there’s some interest in sports on the part of the person we’re talking to, we can usually get in the door. What we’ll often try to do is hear about their past experiences, find out what they’ve done in sports and why – if they haven’t, why they haven’t. Then we try to go back to them with specific proposals after we’ve heard what they’re looking for. We don’t just call and say, “Thought you might want to buy this athlete or this event.”

PSP: Let’s say you call on a prospect…you’ve done you homework, you know there’s a need.. you call on a prospect, what kind of resistance do you meet?

Steve Disson: When I started out a lot of conservative companies said, “We just have no interest in that.” It was viewed as a luxury from a business standpoint when business times were good or business was going well. What we say is we’re not trying to sell just sports, we’re trying to show how a company can use sports packaging for product visibility, company recognition and potentially for customer entertainment as well. Other resistance might be that a company assumes the sports star has to become a spokesperson for the company. What we try to get across to them in our initial call is that an athlete could be in a particular campaign, for a particular ad, or for a particular function, like an outing. A lot of companies will say, “Our president is our spokesman,” or, “We never had a spokesman before.” We don’t want to scare those companies off by saying, “If you want to use this person the only way is through advertising and promotion.”

PSP: It’s still part of the process of being a good listener..

Steve Disson: Yes. Companies look to do two things – increase sales and solve problems. We try to address both.

PSP: What was your most memorable sale?

Steve Disson: When I made the deal for Jimmy Conners with McDonald’s. It started out where he would wear the McDonald’s patch* and eventually led to his being used worldwide in advertising. It seemed like I was on the phone for 10 hours and up through the middle of the night the day before the U.S Open started to try to make this major deal for Jimmy. We wound up making the deal early in the morning the day before the U.S. Open began because that was the key for him to start the relationship wearing the patch at the U.S. Open. He won the U.S. Open. That was a great way to start the relationship.

PSP: So, even though Jimmy Connors is who he is, there’s still a lot to selling his services to a company…

Steve Disson: That’s right. Nothing is easy. I think right now Michael Jordan is the most marketable athlete in America, in any sport. And selling Michael requires meetings, phone call negotiations – it’s not just that some one calls up and says, “I’d like to order Michael Jordan to go.”

PSP: What do you do when you are turned down?

Steve Disson: When they won’t give me an answer, or they’ll turn me down, I just won’t take no for an answer.

PSP: Do you then try to go sell them on some other aspect?

Steve Disson: Most people out in the corporate world know who I am because they say, “There’s this unbelievable pain in the neck salesman named Steve Disson.” You can’t be so aggressive that you become obnoxious. You have to be persistent. I think people know that I’m selling them and I’m selling them hard but they really believe that I believe in what I’m selling them. Sometimes they say, “You’re not going to let me go unless I buy this, are you?” Or, “You’re never going to give up, are you?” But, you know, people like that quality and appreciate it.

PSP: Do you think that when you are being so persistent they are also thinking, at least subconsciously, that you are going to work this hard to sell them, then probably you will work that hard to make this work for them?

Steve Disson: Yes, and then they think, “Well, maybe this will help my business, if he really feels that strongly and he’s not willing to take no for an answer, then maybe I ought to give it a try.” Of all the hundreds and hundreds of endorsement deals and event sponsorships I’ve made, I would say probably well over half of them said no to me before they said yes – actually said, “No, I’m not going to do it.”

PSP: What allows you to turn those nos around?

Steve Disson: Most salespeople in that situation will hang it up. Some others may suggest doing some other things at some future time. They’ll leave the door open. I think that’s a mistake, unless you have no relationship with the party and they say I’m just not interested in doing sports, period. Then don’t waste your time. I think what you should then do is find out why they said no. Don’t accept that. Say, “Well, tell me why.” See if you can find out what the bottom line really is. Then try to address those things and then turn it around.

PSP: That goes back to being a good listener.

Steve Disson: And also showing that you’re concerned about their needs. Being quick enough on your feet that you can adjust a proposal or an event or an endorsement to satisfy those needs.

PSP: What was your biggest professional disappointment?

Steve Disson: We were selling an event called The All American Tennis Championships. You don’t try to sell an event to just one company. Instead, you talk to several and you let them all know that’s what you are doing. After spending some time with a few, we got an offer from DuPont. One of the other companies made an offer one day too late and they were upset with us for giving the sponsorship to DuPont. I think that had an adverse effect for a while on our relationship and when we tried to sell them on something else, they wouldn’t do it.

PSP: In that situation you wished you had two events to sell.

Steve Disson: Yes.

PSP: What are some common problems your 12 salespeople face?

A lot of the younger salespeople in our business get down because they misread people. A prospect may say they’re interested but that’s a far cry from giving a commitment. You can also have situations where you’re working for a long time on a contract and just when you’re about to get it done, that person is transferred, or the company gets bought out. You just have to take them in stride because they are going to happen a lot in the business world.

PSP: So you have to be philosophical about this?

Steve Disson: Yes, not take them personally.

PSP: How has selling sports superstars affected your own view of success?

Steve Disson: Before, I just presumed that people who were such great sport personalities had it easy – that people were calling them and I never thought that it took a well-thought-out plan and an aggressive marketing plan to sell them. Now I realize to make someone a marketable personality is a combination of how strong a personality they are in terms of name recognition, performance, their character and everything else, and equally important, how good of a job the person selling them is doing. Idolizing sports heroes is gone from my thinking. I judge them as people. What makes someone special…let’s say Stan Smith…is not so much that he won Wimbledon or The U.S. Open but that he really cares about people and the companies he works with. He really gives 100 percent; he listens to what people are saying. I guess what I’ve come to appreciate are those sports heroes who aren’t affected by their fame, who don’t treat people like they’re beneath them.

PSP: So, for you success is not just that fleeting moment of glory when you win something. It’s a long-term commitment to a kind of quality in your dealings with people.

Steve Disson: Yes, and success comes from such things as how many long-term relationships you’ve built with different companies and people. Often people will buy something just because they believe in and trust you and have confidence in you. I like to think that there are 100 plus people working for major corporations who will say, “Steve Disson is not only a great salesperson but it’s really a pleasure dealing with him. He has really given me good value for what he has sold.” I think that’s part of the chain of success.

PSP: A long-term commitment to quality pays off over the long haul.

Steve Disson: If you make a million dollars in sales for your company and you have a short-term perspective and you’re bringing people into a bad deal if you’re not servicing them well and you don’t really show them that you care about what they’ve come in to – that one million may be gone tomorrow or the following year. If you oversell something for too high a price, people are eventually going to find out about it and they’re not going to want to come back. Success is not only making a sale but also maintaining building relationships. Salespeople are confident, sometimes cocky, and think there is a big difference between the two. If I’m trying to sell you something, the bottom line is not how I perceive what I’m doing but how the customer perceives it.

PSP: How do you get them to share their perceptions with you?

Steve Disson: I think you’ll know first of all if they decide they want to do business with you and how much business. You’ll know if you’re not getting people to return your calls in a timely manner. Much of the selling business is an understanding of people. Do they view your persistence as a pain? Do they want to do business with you? Often I’ll say I hope you don’t mind my persistence in calling you but the reason is so-and-so and then they’ll usually comment on that. I look for excuses or reasons to follow-up more quickly with people or to nudge people to give answers because I want them to realize that if they don’t do it, someone else may come in.

PSP: Can you give me an example of a company that gave you a flat out no that is now one of your sponsors?

Steve Disson: Evian, the French company that’s famous for their natural spring water, is a good example of how a dead issue became something valuable for all concerned. I saw them entering the U.S. market so I called the general manager of Evian in North America and then set up a proposal for about 7,500 to 10,000 dollars for a whole series of events. Well, he said he didn’t want to do it. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t need some of the benefits and he didn’t have the budget required for all the promotions. What he really wanted was TV exposure. We revised the proposal to suit his needs and his budget and that account has grown from one $5,000 event until we wound up getting them to sign Yannick Noah, who is the number one player in France, on a one-year basis for the U.S. only to wear a patch. It was for $50,000.

PSP: What do you say to people who think sports is too commercial – that there’s too much money in it?

Steve Disson: If you really look at the number of athletes, let’s say tennis players, maybe 200 or 300 players on a world-wide basis are making respectable money and it’s maybe 10 or 20 who are making the big money. It is a question of the demand of the market. People who think patches on tennis players are to commercial – my answer to that is, unlike a racecar driver, they have limitations. They are only allowed to wear two. They don’t become billboards.

PSP: Do you have certain success habits that you’ve developed or that you’ve consciously worked out?

Steve Disson: I come in early because I find that you are fresher and uninterrupted by the phone. At the end of the day I put together a phone list – a clean sheet, a clean list of the people I need to reach the following day. One thing I do is I look at the end of each week, analyze it and set certain goals that I am trying to do that week and at the end of the week, I make a personal evaluation, you know, what did I get accomplished?

PSP: How about long-range goals? What are you looking for in the future?

Steve Disson: I usually think ahead for the year. I put together a memo to myself, saying here are 30 key companies, what are your goals for them this year? Then at the end of the week I look at them and say, where have I gotten with each of these companies? Whom do I need to target on the following week? Something I do with my salespeople – which I actually have to write up for some – is I want them to give me a weekly written sales staff report on Friday. I ask them to put it in an easy form so they don’t have to worry about getting it typed. Put all their accounts alphabetically (they Xerox that list and then they leave a space for status), what has happened that week and next, course of action. This 1) lets me know what is going on with that company and 2) forces them to think of what their next step of action will be. Monday morning my comments, which I’ll usually handwrite legibly, giving them feedback, will be on their desks. Suggestions, ideas, comments, whatever. If you just ask them to do reports, for reporting sake, they think it’s a waste of time.

PSP: How do you teach the art of making a sale?

Steve Disson: The best way is to take people with you out to meetings and to let them listen and also let them plan some meetings. When the meeting is over, evaluate it. Let them evaluate it themselves, then you evaluate it for them. Then get all your salespeople together on a regular basis and let them share their experiences. You can learn a lot from each other. They can all share what has worked for them and what has not worked. That is a really positive thing.

PSP: Do you find that your sales force is less competitive and more cooperative?

Steve Disson: In the beginning of this year, we put people on a commission structure in such a way that if they are involved together, no matter if it is 1 percent or 99 percent, they split credit. They work on it together and they each have territories geographically, but in addition to that, each one also has one area of expertise. So, let’s say if you are selling someone in your territory on cycling and one of the people is a cycling specialist, it may make sense for you to get that person involved with you, even if it means sharing on the commission and the credit. You basically want them to feel excited about each others’ successes. Its ours, or we sold him this. They get excited about making a sale personally because they have done it but they are also excited because it is good for the company.

PSP: Thank you.