Sowing the Seeds of a Deal
By Doug Gillett
You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them? Then go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.
—Alec Baldwin as the character Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Although Glengarry Glen Ross is fiction, the aggressive, conniving, often desperate salesmen of David Mamet’s play (and film) match the stereotype many of us have of salespeople in general: dishonest schemers who will tell us whatever we want to hear while they browbeat us into buying things we do not want or need. But that stereotype may be headed for obsolescence—and whether Mamet knew it or not, his play contains a passing reference to what has become the new philosophy in marketing: “Don’t sell a guy one car. Sell him five cars over 15 years.”
Though some salespeople may still be willing to do or say anything to make a deal, more and more of the country’s most qualified sales representatives are abandoning the old “hard-sell” techniques in favor of more complex strategies that emphasize people over products.
In fact, the priorities, roles, and responsibilities of the modern salesperson have changed so much that Robert Robicheaux, Ph.D., executive director of the marketing and industrial distribution program at the UAB School of Business, doesn’t even think the term “sales” really covers them anymore. Instead, he suggests the phrase “customer relationship management.”
“For example, when Mercedes-Benz places an order for parts or supplies with a company, the marketing salesperson’s role is not so much to persuade Mercedes-Benz what to buy and how much to buy—they know that already,” Robicheaux says. “The salesperson’s job is to make the exchange as satisfactory and seamless as possible.”
A Buyer’s Market?
Robicheaux invokes another legendary play, Death of a Salesman, in describing the early-20th-century sales environment that continues to inform many of our lingering stereotypes of salespeople. “Most of the negative connotations of selling originated during the Depression era, when a salesperson’s role was to knock on a door, persuade somebody, and make a sale,” he explains. “Willy Loman’s job was basically to hawk his goods, and he didn’t know how to do business as the world was changing, which ultimately led to his demise.”
UAB marketing expert Karen Kennedy, Ph.D., specializes in the study of buyer-seller relationships. She says the short-term, persuasion-oriented model—which she calls “transaction selling”—reached its peak shortly after the end of World War II. “There was very much a sales orientation to businesses at that time—people had made sacrifices during World War II, and once the men were back, there was a lot of pent-up consumer demand—they were ready to buy,” she says.
By the mid-1980s, however, globalization and a growing economy meant that consumers had more choices available to them. “Companies were becoming more market-oriented,” Kennedy says. “They were realizing that they had to be concerned with consumers and design products to fit their needs.”
An important wake-up call was the advent of the Internet. Not only did it provide a wealth of information to consumers, but the rise of e-commerce meant that customers could bypass salespeople entirely if they wished. In fact, some economists predicted that the profession would soon become extinct. These challenges forced marketers to fundamentally re-evaluate their role.
“With technology, alternatives can develop. If you annoy me enough, I’ll find a way to work around you,” Kennedy says. “And when salespeople weren’t seen as adding value—they were an annoyance, an added cost of doing business—consumers were finding a way around them.”
New Roles, New Responsibilities
Obviously, salespeople haven’t become an extinct species, but they are expected to fill different needs now. Instead of simply bombarding buyers with information, today’s best salespeople first figure out a customer’s needs and only then present a product that fills those needs. And while salesmen might once have been advised to “never take no for an answer,” truly successful salespeople realize that “sometimes ‘no’ is the answer,” Kennedy notes.“They’ll say, ‘I wasn’t able to help this person today, but if I can start developing some trust, then I can potentially have them back.’”
Robicheaux says that smart companies and sellers are looking far enough ahead to estimate the lifetime profit potential associated with individual customers. “The rule of thumb is that it costs five times more to replace a customer you lost than it costs to make the effort to retain that customer’s business,” he explains.
“Research shows quite clearly that price is not even close to being the determining factor in a firm’s selection of a supplier. What’s much more important is the firm’s relationship with the person who represents that supplier: their trust in that person, their confidence that the person knows enough about the industry and the products to help them, and their belief that the person will go out of their way to make sure that the exchange and the relationship they’ve created is satisfactory.”
In many ways, the buyer-seller relationship is moving closer to the Asian model, particularly that of countries such as South Korea and Japan, where trust and relationships are considered so important that deals can only be brokered over long periods of time. That’s one reason American companies were so frustrated for so long in their attempts to make sales to east Asian countries, says James C. McCroskey, Ed.D., scholar-in-residence in the Department of Communication Studies at the School of Arts and Humanities.
“They don’t buy from, or make deals with, people they don’t know,” he says. “So from the outside, we see them making deals with their good friends and it looks like ‘crony capitalism,’ but what we don’t realize is you have to make friends—sales is a long-term deal.”
Sales of the (New) Century
The School of Business has been quick to recognize the changing landscape in buying and selling, embarking on a number of new initiatives to ensure that its graduates are fully prepared when they step out into the real world.
salespeople realize that “sometimes ‘no’ is the
answer. They’ll say, ‘I wasn’t able to help this person today, but if I can start developing some trust, then I can potentially have them back.’”
One of the most innovative of these programs is a new track in the industrial distribution program, set to begin accepting students this fall, that will focus specifically on the marketing of medical equipment and supplies—a field in which representatives must navigate murky legal and ethical issues on a daily basis (see “From Buyer to Seller”).
“We’re trying to fill the void of well-trained people who combine an understanding of medical administration and terminology, as well as basic courses in anatomy, with the business side,” says Thomas DeCarlo, Ph.D., Ben S. Weil Chair of Industrial Distribution, who is heading up the new program. “Companies are struggling to find highly qualified people who have that combination—they typically get people who are nurses or clinicians but have no business background, or people in business who have no understanding of the health-care system.”
Judging by the statistics DeCarlo cites, graduating students will enter a booming market: Nationwide spending on health care is currently estimated at $2 trillion a year and is expected to double by 2010. The medical equipment and supplies industry is expected to grow 7 percent a year—double the rate of the gross domestic product. And the growing number of aging baby boomers will only increase the demand for medical equipment, drugs, and services.
“UAB is uniquely positioned because we have a tremendous industrial-distribution program and a tremendous medical training program,” DeCarlo says. “So we’re combining our resources to become one of the first in the nation, as I understand it, to focus on this area. UAB’s unique collaboration between the medical program and the business program enables us to get a good understanding of what doctors are looking for—and that means the students we train will have an intuitive understanding of what to do and what not to do.”
High Pressure—and High Rewards
The medical equipment and supplies program isn’t the only new sales training track for the School of Business. Karen Kennedy is currently building what will be Alabama’s first professional sales center, an educational outlet that will give aspiring marketing reps insights into some of the world’s most successful training organizations and corporate executives.
Whereas anyone with a reasonably engaging personality might once have been able to succeed in the sales world, Kennedy says the new expectation is for sales professionals to be problem-solvers and relationship-builders, and this has put a premium on education and top-notch training. “Now that customers are so much more informed, selling to them is different,” she says. “Customers once looked to a salesperson to provide information, but today’s customers are very knowledgeable, and salespeople have to recognize that and respond to it. The same thing is true in the business-to-business market, because buyers are more likely to have college degrees now—and they are also using the Internet to check out the competition.”
The School of Business is planning to implement a certification program for its sales center that would be available not only to students but also to working professionals who want to hone their skills. “People would take a series of select classes or business seminars and then obtain professional certification,” Robicheaux says. “That training would improve their skills and give them a leg up on the competition in the job market.”
Employers are finding that sales skills are useful even in industries that are not within the traditional “sales” realm. “We get a lot of interest from accounting firms, law firms, and medical practices,” Robicheaux says. “You might not think that these practices have much to do with the selling process, but I like to tell my students that if you become successful as an attorney or accountant or doctor, 90 percent of your activity will be in client cultivation. The farther you go in your profession, the more you’ll get involved in marketing and the less you’ll be involved in the delivery of the actual service.”
While the requirements and responsibilities for sales professionals have increased, the rewards have risen correspondingly, says Robicheaux. “In all of the studies of the hottest career opportunities of the next decades, professional salespeople are consistently in the top five,” he says. “And it’s because good people—for example, people to sell medical equipment to UAB Hospital—have got to have great communication skills. They also have to be fairly sophisticated with regard to the products they sell. Most of their work involves identifying the precise needs and interests of their customers and then crafting a proposal to meet those needs efficiently and effectively. It’s not at all what the average person thinks selling is all about.”
Over the past decade and a half, the Internet has leveled the playing field in the age-old contest between buyer and seller. As consumers have become better informed and more selective, many have decided they don’t need a salesperson to tell them what to buy. In response, some companies are using sophisticated marketing campaigns to create a new sales force: the consumers themselves.
It’s not exactly a new phenomenon—for years, toy companies have aimed their pitches at kids and then depended on those kids to close the deal with their parents. “They know the child has the influence, so it’s all about getting the message to the child—Disney does this wonderfully,” says marketing expert Karen Kennedy. “The child then becomes an advocate for the product.”
Play with a Purpose
Monica Baskin, Ph.D., a health behavior expert in the School of Public Health, says one major trend now is “advergames”—Internet-based games that are almost as addictive to kids as the snacks they advertise. “Kids go to a Web site—and it may not even be an industry-sponsored site; it could be for a favorite television show on the Disney Channel or Cartoon Network—and they participate in a game that’s based around certain food products or that contains advertisements for food items,” she says. “It’s a combination of wowing the kid with a fun, interactive game and at the same time instilling brand recognition and, following that, a sense of brand loyalty. The goal is to make kids ask for your snack or soda or potato chip by name.”
It is important to build loyalty early, Baskin adds, because by age 10 or 11, kids are wiser and their habits more ingrained; a teenager who’s been raised on Coke all his life is unlikely to switch to Pepsi on a whim. Between the ages of 2 and 11, though, kids are open to—and curious about—new flavors, products, and names.
Other popular strategies include everything from lavish presentations and fundraising partnerships at elementary schools to something as simple as product placement in stores. “You’ll find a lot of these foods right in the middle of the shelves, at a child’s eye level,” Baskin says. “They often have very bright, colorful packaging and are covered with the characters that most appeal to young kids.”
These ploys are often enough to turn a child into a mini-salesperson who can create personalized pitches to get parents to buy. “When the kids see those items and start to pester their parents, they’re likely to keep asking until they get what they want,” Baskin says.
“As a mother of two children in that 2-to-11 age range, I can tell you that kids do sway the purchase of food items in the household quite a bit,” she adds with a laugh. “Particularly now, when so many families have so much going on—from dual-parent careers to the kids’ extracurricular activities—and the time spent in the grocery store is not necessarily fun. Parents are trying to make it as efficient as possible, and they don’t want to waste a whole lot of time arguing in the aisles. Children who are very assertive and know what they want can often get their parents to buy.”
When Doctors Say Yes
The comparison isn’t exactly flattering, but pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the physician-patient relationship in much the same way that snack-food companies leverage the parent-child dynamic. More and more patients are heeding the advice in pharmaceutical ads to “ask your doctor about” certain drugs. And physicians, just like parents, are not immune to the pressure.
Maribel Salas, M.D., D.Sc., who specializes in preventive medicine, says that many drug companies are now favoring direct-to-consumer strategies because they may be more effective than dealing with the doctors themselves. “Companies try to convince consumers that the new drug is the perfect drug for them,” she says. “And that’s a big issue from a physician’s perspective, because the physician really needs to convince those patients that not all advertised drugs are the best option for everybody.”
A hard sell from a patient can cut short those kinds of vital conversations as more and more doctors sense the danger of getting bad evaluations—and in some cases lawsuits—from patients who don’t feel their needs have been properly met. “Many times physicians feel pressure to prescribe a certain medication,” Salas says. “It’s one of the big issues we’re facing.”
Beauty and the Pill
Physicians also have to contend with increasingly elaborate pitches from the drug companies’ official sales representatives. It’s become an old stereotype in medical circles, but the image of the drug rep as a friendly, persuasive, fresh-faced—and sexy—young man or woman remains a fairly accurate one, and it’s no accident on the part of the drug companies. “It has a lot of influence,” Salas says. “These sales reps can engage attention, and it’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to a young girl who looks like Miss America.”
Today’s drug reps are armed with more than just good looks, however. While pharmaceutical companies were once content to hand out logo-bearing pens and notebooks and maybe a pill sample or two, salespeople are now enticing doctors with whole boxes of samples, expensive meals, sometimes even trips or office equipment. According to a study cited by Salas, the pharmaceutical industry currently spends around $12 billion a year on such freebies. And this has presented troubling ethical issues for doctors in nearly every specialty.
To help physicians sort out such issues—and to make them more effective evaluators of pitches from both sales reps and patients—Salas is spearheading a Web-based program to educate doctors on the process of pharmaceutical production and marketing, from the early lab research to the sales pitch at the clinic. The program is funded by the Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Grant, which in turn is funded by a 2004 settlement from Pfizer’s Warner-Lambert division—which had been accused of concocting a marketing campaign that fraudulently promoted unapproved uses for its epilepsy drug Neurontin.
“We are teaching prescribers how the drugs are developed, how they are approved, and then what strategies the pharmaceutical industry uses to encourage them to prescribe certain medications,” Salas says. “Doctors usually get short-term safety profiles on new drugs, but they cannot get the long-term profile because clinical trials do not last long enough to provide that information, and many times they don’t emphasize the safety issues related to a drug. We are trying to teach physicians how they can manage the information they receive from pharmaceutical representatives, how they need to review it, and then where they can find unbiased sources of information if they have any questions.”
WHAT CON ARTISTS REALLY HAVE TO OFFER
The basic idea is this: It’s called a “confidence” game. Why? Because you give me your
confidence? No. Because I give you mine.
—Joe Mantegna as Mike in House of Games (1987)
Just like legitimate transactions, successful confidence scams are built on relationships. Whether it’s a street hustle, a shady business deal, or an e-mail scam, the first thing the victim, or “mark,” must be willing to buy is the image the con artist is selling.
|“The most important thing in sales is selling yourself. You have to
establish a relationship with your customer.
You have to make
yourself likeable, and this is something that con men always do very skillfully.”
“The con artist is projecting his or her own confidence or trustworthiness,” explains John Sloan, Ph.D., chair of UAB’s Department of Justice Sciences. “So when you get into these large-scale cons involving artifacts or antiques or rare cars, the con artist will contact you and send you to this mansion and make you go through all of this rigmarole. They have to be able to project a certain aura of confidence in order to entice people to rent that mansion.”
Even something as implausible as the infamous “419” e-mail scam—in which a Third World official promises to share millions of dollars with the recipient in return for access to a U.S. bank account—can be effective if it comes cloaked in a believable facade. “The more legitimate the con artist can make it, with these long titles and official-looking addresses, the more likely people who are inclined to be risk-takers and who are looking to get rich quick will fall for it,” says Sloan. “It’s all designed to break down your defenses, get your guard down, and get you to buy in.”
In some ways, the Internet has made this kind of subterfuge easier to perpetrate than ever before. Sloan specifically cites “phishing” scams, in which marks get an e-mail informing them that something has gone wrong with their bank accounts. A link directs the credulous to an official-looking bank Web page, where they are tricked into divulging vital information, such as their bank-account or credit-card numbers. The pages are bogus, but savvy Web designers can create very plausible facsimiles of real pages without much effort.
Since most of us have been warned to watch out for such scams, why do people continue to fall for them? It’s not necessarily because they’re stupid, Sloan says. “It’s a combination of the fact that the pitch is good and the fact that many of us are looking to get something for nothing,” he explains. “And the better the con artist, the more he or she is able to make that case: ‘This is not a big deal, but look what you could get out of it.’ That’s where the expertise and the ability to present the con come into play.”
Psychiatrist Charles Ford, M.D. (read our interview with him), adds that con artists and legitimate salespeople often use similar techniques. “The most important thing in sales is selling yourself,” Ford says. “You have to establish a relationship with your customer. You have to make yourself likeable, and this is something that con men always do very skillfully. You have to find some area that you and the person you are trying to sell have in common so that you can establish some degree of bonding.
“So if you get the idea that the mark has a certain religious affiliation,” Ford continues, “then you may talk toward that, and say, ‘My grandmother was raised in that church,’ and mention a few things to indicate your familiarity with it. Then the mark becomes much more trusting, saying to himself, ‘He’s one of us!’ and tends to be less critical of what comes next.”
Many of us believe that we’re too sophisticated to fall for such transparent tactics. In reality, says communication expert James McCroskey, we tend to seriously overestimate our abilities. “One big advantage con artists have is that most people think they can tell when someone’s lying,” he says. “I’ve seen studies in which something like 85 percent of the subjects said they can tell when others are lying. But the research totally contradicts that claim. There are no guaranteed cues that indicate somebody is telling a lie. The number-one thing people say suggests that a person is lying is that they won’t look you in the eye. Con artists always look you straight in the eye.”
Throughout history, humans have been in a continuous struggle to trick one another, Ford says. “The contest is this: Can you fool other people, or can you detect messages that are being used to fool you? And in this arms race of deceit, the people who lie have always been one step ahead of those who are able to detect lies.”
But there is one group that has been shown to have definite skill at fingering liars, notes Ford: Secret Service agents. “Studies have shown that they are indeed pretty good at picking up on nonverbal communications and determining when somebody’s telling the truth,” he says. “On the other hand, most cops on the street think they’re good at doing this, but research has proven that they’re really not.”
One hypothesis is that Secret Service agents acquire their lie-detecting ability from their experience in scanning crowds, “where most people are normal and relatively few people are abnormal,” Ford explains. “In contrast, most policemen assume everybody’s guilty, and indeed most of the people they arrest do prove to be guilty, so they have a different bias. They assume everybody is lying, and they don’t have much of a normal group to compare that with. Therefore, they don’t really develop the skill to distinguish lies from non-lies.”
In other words, overconfidence is always the friend of the confidence man. “There’s a very interesting contradiction here,” Ford says. “The more assured somebody is that they can detect a lie, the less accurate they’re likely to be.”
Hard Sell is the
WHY CAR SALEMEN ARE STILL IN BUSINESS
While relationship-building and low-key pitches are gaining increasing favor in the modern sales industry, the “hard sell” hasn’t disappeared entirely. The lure of a quick sale makes this old tactic a constant temptation, and some buyers actually enjoy the game of haggling with salespeople.
Americans, as a general rule, are less willing to submit to wrangling over price than people in other parts of the world, says marketer Robert Robicheaux. “In Mexico and many other countries, marketing is done on a negotiated-price basis at the retail level,” he says. “We have a different culture here, so consumers are much less comfortable with negotiating.”
Oddly enough, though, attempts to remove haggling from some sales scenarios have met with limited success. When the Saturn automobile brand went on sale in 1990, the marque was heralded for its “no-dicker sticker,” which gave customers a price they could either take or leave. But despite widespread predictions that this might become standard industry practice, Saturn remains the only nameplate to make fixed pricing a companywide policy. “Not all people want to buy that way,” Robicheaux explains. “Haggling is not something everybody feels comfortable with, but I love to go in and have 14 or 15 percent of the sticker price shaved off.”
A person’s receptiveness to the hard or soft sell might seem to be a personality issue, but recent research suggests that other factors are involved. Sales specialist Thomas DeCarlo was inspired to investigate this phenomenon after a trip to electronics retailer Best Buy to purchase a new television.
“I told the salesperson I was interested in flat-panel TVs and asked if I could hear a little bit about the differences between them,” DeCarlo remembers. “The salesperson replied, ‘Well, first let me tell you that I don’t make any commission on any products that I talk about.’ And I got to thinking, what impact does that statement, ‘I don’t make any commission,’ have on consumers? Does that reduce suspicion, and if so, does that impact their perception of a salesperson’s persuasiveness?”
Those questions turned into a research project that was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. DeCarlo assembled a group of volunteers and had them listen to one of two sales pitches—one the traditional, aggressive hard sell, the other softer and more balanced. Before receiving the pitch, the study volunteers were randomly given information that either cast suspicion on the salesperson’s motives or reduced the level of suspicion. Some participants were told that the salesperson would enter the “Top Gun” ranking if he made one more sale (generating high suspicion), while others were told that the salesperson made no commision from any products sold.
The results were striking—and instructive. When buyers had reason to be suspicious of a salesperson’s motivations, the balanced, less-aggressive pitch was much more successful. “But when the buyers were not suspicious—when they knew the salesperson was not going to make any money off of them—they thought the salesperson was much more skilled if he used the stronger argument, and they were more willing to buy the product,” DeCarlo says. “It all seems to depend on your level of suspicion.”
Stupid Salesman Tricks
HOW NOT TO MAKE A DEAL
As someone who teaches numerous courses in professional sales, Karen Kennedy is the last person to target with a canned, perfunctory pitch. Yet that’s exactly what happened when she went to a high-end car dealership last fall.
“This was a successful dealership that put some guy out there who had zero training,” she recalls. “I look at myself as setting the bar pretty low when it comes to knowing about cars . . . but I knew more about that car than he did.”
The Internet has armed consumers with a wealth of information about specific products, but there is also plenty of information to be found about the people selling them. Numerous sites give buyers tips on how to recognize dishonest, incompetent, or just plain disinterested salespeople, and that has shaken up traditional sales tactics—when everybody is on the lookout for them, pitches that were once considered clever become laughable clichés.
So don’t use a customer’s first name over and over again just because you think he likes to hear it, Kennedy says. Don’t use a “fear close,” conjuring up all sorts of terrible consequences if the customer doesn’t buy today, or what Kennedy calls the “standing room only” approach: “If you don’t buy today, I can’t promise delivery.” Canned approaches in general are a bad idea, she says, because even casual buyers these days have enough experience to be able to recognize them.
Another potential hazard of the canned pitch is that it saps salespeople of their ability to prepare for unforeseen events and changing dynamics. “In one of my research projects, we found that higher-performing salespeople had more ‘if-then’ contingencies locked in their minds about what they would do in certain situations than the lesser performers,” says Thomas DeCarlo. “When we asked the lesser performers to take us through a typical sales call, they pretty much had a linear kind of ‘tree,’ if you will—they basically said, ‘I would do this, this, and this,’ A-B-C-D-E.
“But when we went to people with proven experience and effectiveness, they were able to say, ‘If the customer was X, I would do this; if the customer was Y, I would do something different.’ The ‘branches’ that they had were much larger and more well-developed, much more vivid and clear.”
In many cases, boilerplate pitches are the fault of inadequate training, Kennedy says. But some “old-school” salesmen with a track record of success can be resistant even when they’re taught the right methods. “Some people have been able to make money over a number of years doing things a certain way,” she explains, “so when somebody comes along and says, ‘If you do things differently, you can even make more money,’ their response is, ‘I’ve been your number-one salesperson for all these years—what do you mean, I need to change?’”
Above all, salespeople must pay attention to buyers and respect them as equals, Kennedy says. Sellers put their sales in jeopardy when they begin to lose respect for their customers and insult their intelligence—so they can’t just assume that acting like the customer’s best friend will be enough to close the deal. “Sometimes people think that in order to be successful in sales, you’ve got to be a smooth talker,” Kennedy adds. “You certainly don’t need to be a jerk, but just being a nice guy isn’t enough anymore.”
The Sport of Selling
BUILDING AN UNBEATABLE BRAND
Karen Kennedy has spent years in the sales field as a seller, a buyer, and now a professor in the UAB School of Business—so she speaks from experience when she says a salesperson has a responsibility to be a problem-solver, not just a hawker. “We spend money to buy something because we’re trying to solve a problem,” she says, “and if somebody shows us how their product, through personal selling or through advertising, solves that problem, then we’ll go spend our money there.”
The obligation to be a problem-solver and a relationship-builder has popped up even in some venues one wouldn’t think of as a “sales environment”—such as the UAB athletics department. And few people are more acutely aware of this than Sam Miller, who, as the department’s associate marketing director, is charged with “selling” the relatively new concept of Blazer sports to a region where existing team loyalties are already fierce. Success in selling the UAB athletics brand, Miller says, has come in part from recognizing and fulfilling that problem-solving responsibility.
What Fans Want
|“Everyone’s first assumption is that our competition is Alabama and Auburn.… [but]
our competition has
become as much what’s going on in the world of Birmingham as it is what’s going on in the world of sports.”
With UAB’s football program, for instance, Miller says he’s trying to solve the problem of people looking for a fun, family-oriented way to spend a Saturday, but he also has to solve it cost-effectively: Whereas a football Saturday at another university—including tickets, travel, seat licenses, and meals both on the road and at the game—might cost as much as $500, UAB tries to assemble packages for around $40.
“Everyone’s first assumption is that our competition is Alabama and Auburn, but we’ve really tried to develop our brand by focusing on our role in the community as an entertainment resource,” Miller says. “In doing that, our competition has become as much what’s going on in the world of Birmingham as it is what’s going on in the world of sports—so we’re competing with the movie theaters and the Birmingham Zoo, with the McWane Center and video stores and the Botanical Gardens, as much as we are competing with other schools.”
And while Blazer athletics might not seem like something one would build a “relationship” with, Miller says that’s actually a fairly accurate description. Athletics revenues come not just from putting fans in the seats, but also from apparel and merchandising sales, which involves making the UAB brand and logo something desirable—the goal being for fans to develop an affinity for the brand, much as they might develop an affinity for clothing brands such as Nike or Sean John.
Just Win, Baby
So how does UAB do that? In some respects, it comes down to simple visibility—putting the UAB logo on as many items as possible, distributing them to the public, and hoping people notice. “We did a promotion and put out 10,000 UAB T-shirts at a football game against TCU two years ago, and I still see those shirts every time I go to the Galleria mall,” Miller says. “Every time we give out 3,000 T-shirts at a basketball game, those ‘trickle down,’ and that has tremendous value for us.”
Making the UAB brand enticing, though, also involves winning. It’s difficult to quantify the effect of a big win in terms of the number of new fans it brings in, but Miller says the effects are a lot easier to gauge when viewed as advertising.
“If I run an advertisement during 24 on Fox, we get 30 seconds during a highly rated program. But if the basketball team goes and beats Memphis at home in front of a sold-out crowd, and it’s a news story for three days, we’re picking up 60 to 75 seconds of coverage for the basketball team at no cost. Winning, based on the amount of attention you get in the media, is something you can’t put a price tag on.”
And while each individual win might not have that kind of impact, a number of smaller wins strung together over the course of a season can create the impression of a strong program. “It certainly is no secret that people want to associate themselves with a winner in sports, just like everything else,” Miller says. “The greatest marketing boost for the program comes when the teams are doing well.”
Selling the Intangibles
Nevertheless, Miller recognizes that a team’s win-loss record doesn’t always have a direct, proportional effect on its other bottom line. The Chicago Cubs maintain one of baseball’s most loyal fan bases despite not having won a World Series in nearly a century, and even though the Los Angeles Lakers’ dominance has waned, with only one NBA Finals appearance in the last five years, Kobe Bryant’s jersey has remained by far the league’s most popular.
UAB’s football team is a case in point: After the Blazers averaged more than 20,000 fans per home game during their bowl season in 2004, their attendance dropped slightly as they sustained a series of heartbreaking last-second losses and finished the 2005 season 5-6. Yet they set a program record for attendance last year—on their way to a 3-9 record.
With fan reaction to individual wins and losses being so unpredictable, marketing can involve selling not just a specific team but the idea of a program. That might mean coming up with a slogan or catchphrase designed to build excitement over a specific style of play, Miller says. It might mean selling a given sporting venue as an attractive place to spend a few hours. And particularly when kids and families are a major part of the target audience, it has to involve showing coaches and players alike as people of integrity.
“We want people in this community to see the value in UAB athletics, and that includes everything from a football player speaking at an elementary school to the women’s soccer team holding a free clinic before a game,” Miller says. “Access, I think, is a great selling point for us. That’s not to say that other programs are not approachable, I just think that we are more approachable than others. . . . We want the community to have access to our coaches and student-athletes, and for our coaches and student-athletes to be, in turn, part of this community.”