16 March 2017
Why Athletics Coaches are our sport’s Best Salesmen
For a long time, the main opportunity for traditional, organised Athletics to compete for public attention has been Olympic or Commonwealth Games: serious, elite, dramatic spectacles of individual excellence far beyond the reach of most mortals and, while attention-grabbing, even compelling, is this a bit hard for most people to relate to on a personal level?
Sebastian Coe famously says that Athletics is our Sport but Entertainment is our Business. Recently, Nitro Athletics has been positioned in Australia precisely to compete with other TV content as entertainment with the first objective to generate revenue to fund our Sport.
A by-product of Nitro is that it is also good marketing and may encourage adoption of our sport by potential participants. The Nitro athletes are revealed as somewhat human and, while they are clearly talented, the message is that athletics could be for everyone. Images of sacrifice and glory we see at the Olympics are replaced by enjoyment and camaraderie.
When deciding how to spend leisure time, good marketing like this can prompt consumer interest in Athletics for participation.
But Marketing and Sales are different.
Who talks personally to prospective athletes, explains our competition and coaching services, matches them to specific needs or preferences, and helps make the decision to choose Athletics over some other sport or leisure activity? Who converts good marketing into progress for Athletics?
While high profile current or former athletes could be seen as the salesmen for athletics, I would argue their role is really is the marketing department, raising awareness of the sport generally and allowing potential participants to be inspired to identify with another athlete. This won’t “close the sale” with prospective athletes personally. So who does that?
Particularly when the customer is a teenager or an adult, I think this is most often a Coach. I want to recognise the good work most of these front office sales people do to sustain and grow participation in our sport. In my experience, leading a range of service businesses, my best revenue generators were the expert front line service-providers and consultants. And in this respect I think Athletics is no different and those top sales people are our coaches.
What are we selling?
Taking a step back, the value proposition for anyone looking to do a sport is fundamentally twofold:
1. I’ll have opportunities to participate
2. Someone will show me how to get better
In more detail “Opportunities to participate” can include that it will be convenient, it will offer a range of types of competition from social to elite, team or individual, it will be safe, it will be fair, it might be serious or fun, it will be inclusive, it may be non-competition, it will provide me timely evidence of my performance through an easy to access results service.
“Someone will show me how to get better” basically means coaching. But this also reflects that I will get support services to improve (eg: a venue and access to equipment), that the services will be relevant to my capability and potential, I might get referral to equipment or medical service providers, and in athletics I’ll probably spend more time training than competing, so the quality of delivery of “show me how to get better” is actually mission-critical for our sport.
Given the great sport choices available to all Australians, we need to ensure that the escalating expectations of current and prospective Athletics customers are being exceeded. Improving and increasing the competition opportunities, refining safety and fairness, lobbying for improved and convenient facilities, providing easy event entry, access and results services, and supporting the continuous improvement and availability of coaching services, and great marketing like Nitro are not enough.
We also need to tell people about it. Personally.
We need to remind current athletes that they made a good decision to join Athletics. We need to ensure the conversations we have with prospective participants are clear and compelling. ROI on a decision to take up Athletics will not be measured in dollars, but in enjoyment, satisfaction, comfort, sense of progress, pride, all of which are outcomes you can get from most leisure activities. Coaches can explain how Athletics can deliver these in a way that suits each individual athlete.
Coaches are a Natural Salesforce
Coaches typically have good personal communication and influencing skills. They know our sport and good ones always have a genuine interest in what is best for the athlete. Those of us lucky enough to know a few good Athletics coaches know they wear the mantle of “trusted advisor”. (see Jeff Haefner’s article on the power of Coaches to do good click here ).
While integrity, genuinely caring about the athlete, and congruence (walking the talk) are features of a respected and successful coach, in most walks of life these characteristics also make the best salesmen.
This means Coaches are well placed to be the sales force for our sport as well as deliverers of a key value proposition element above, showing me how to do it better. When consuming a sport, or deciding whether to do so, prospective athletes (customers) usually prefer to be convinced to do so directly by the service-deliverer. Think of lawyers, doctors, plumbers, builders, etc.
It is almost always Coaches who will have personal conversations with our prospective customers and ask them directly to decide to turn up to training, enter a race, join a club, buy some spikes. Club administrators do overlap here and are often also coaches. The phone conversations when an enquiry comes into a club, or when someone shows up at the track and asks to join in, usually needs engagement with a coach before a prospective athlete really commits themselves to our sport.
How do we Engage?
We need to equip our Coaches with information to support the sale: Timely information about our competitions, opportunities to refer athletes to specialists, access to venues and equipment, smoothly passed sales leads from athlete enquiries via clubs or other contact points.
Coaches are a key listening post for when the sport’s product is not good enough, either “participation opportunities” or “someone will show me how to do it better”. Like any organisation, Athletics’ Clubs and Governance bodies need to listen carefully to a combination of Athletes (customers) and Coaches (the sales team) who are hearing about the good new features or unmet expectations, purchasing objections and “exit interviews” of athletes every day.
So, as Chair of a state Athletics governing body, I reflect on the “Coach as a Salesman” theme and look for ways to better support and recognise coaches for this key role in development and growth of our sport. I see coaches as our front office, part of a motivated team selling our proposition and each personally delivering services or referring customers on to ensure that “someone shows me how to do it better”. Clubs are our field partner/distribution support channel and local specialist product team. Our Officials are a key Service Team and we face a challenge to expand this group to increase our supply capacity for “opportunities to participate”. And our office staff and volunteer structures make up Wholesaler, Product Management, Marketing, Coach Education and support, Regulator liaison and Strategy, with a Finance function thrown in to keep it all flowing.
Brian was a fair 400m hurdler in the 1980s, who squeezed modest results and a lot of enjoyment out of very limited talent with the guidance of an experienced, articulate and caring coach. After his coach died, Brian drifted away from the sport to focus more on what became a successful business career. After retirement, and while involved in athletics as an administrator, Brian has taken up ski instructing. He knows his job each Winter is to make sure that every one of his clients has a safe day, feels more confident, improves their skiing performance and understands why, has fun, feels they got their money’s worth and wants to bring a friend and buy a another lift ticket and lesson for tomorrow!