Why All Client Relationships Are Built On Trust With John Clark

In sales, trust is and always will be the name of the game. When you make deals, there has to be a certain level of trust there. You can’t build relationships without trust. Join your host, Lance Tyson, as he sits down with John Clark, the Executive Vice President & Chief Business Development Officer of Fenway Sports Management. John reviews the universal values encompassed in all sales, the importance of trust, and necessary traits of success that will help sales reps in any industry. Give this episode a listen. There are true sales gems enclosed.

Listen to the podcast here:

Why All Client Relationships Are Built On Trust With John Clark

I have a good friend of mine, John Clark. I call him Clarkie during the interview because that’s what I call him. He is the Executive Vice President and Chief Business Development Officer for Fenway Sports Management. John, when you introduce yourself, explain to everybody what properties are under Fenway Sports Management. They would like to know about it.

Fenway Sports Management is an agency 100% owned under the Fenway Sports Group umbrella, which originally purchased the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and 80% of NESN back in 2000. Over the years have acquired a Liverpool Football Club in the EPL, 50% of Roush Fenway Racing and Minor League Baseball clubs.

Our job is to sit in the middle of all the things that John Henry, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon have invested in over the years and find ways to drive revenue. We’ve been fortunate over the years to build out a couple of other lines of business. Primarily, we’ve been sponsorship-focused but we’ve got a consulting business that we’re on the growth move with. We’ve got an experiences and events business that we’ve been working to grow as well, announcing a college football bowl game, hopefully, at the end of 2021 at Fenway Park.

It’s an interesting line of business to be in. We’ve run something, the Red Bull Crashed Ice at Fenway Park in 2020. We did several different college football games over the years. We’re tasked with trying to fill Fenway when it’s not a baseball game or concert. One of the biggest ones was we did the big air competition. We built a 140-foot ramp in Fenway Park, had skiers and snowboarders, Olympic-style skiing and snowboarding. That was an incredible event.

When was that?

That was years ago. We’re fortunate to be the entrepreneurial arm with the Fenway Sports Group. They push us out there and we’re able to go look at other things. It gives you a lot of different challenges and fun.

You’re all over the place. My sons always get excited when you as do Frozen Fenway with the hubs, teams and stuff like that.

The Inaugural Winter Classic was at Fenway. That’s years ago that that was out there. That did inspire us once we had winter classic. We own a rink. We try to keep it every other year where we put a sheet of ice down. We’re fortunate where we are in Boston. We have some of the best colleges in the country. We’ll do Frozen Fenway and it’s always a big hit.

I’ve been doing a lot of these with my other guests. My premise is if you’re in sales leadership, you probably were in sales. When you move up in an organization, it’s either through high finance or you bring meat to the table at some level. Tell everybody your journey. What was that first sales job?

I sold my lawn mowing services in the neighborhood. I was asking the neighbors for some pity on me. The first time I’ve ever heard the term upsell was when I was working in Burger King in high school. When supersize or value meals came in, every time we got an incentive. It was another $0.50 an hour or whatever it was if we upsold someone to a supersize. Career-wise, I started in Minor League Baseball. I started as an operation guy in Kinston at the time and the same way club for the Cleveland Indians. I defaulted into selling because it was close to where I went to school, East Carolina University.

A lot of friends liked to come down and we had Thirsty Thursdays. I get them a quarter off their tickets. They enjoyed it because they’d see me running around lugging kegs, back and forth in the stadium. I sold a decent number of tickets and did do a couple of program ads. In my mind, I wasn’t selling. I thought there was some value to what I was delivering. At the end of the year, I got a commission check after getting paid nothing for the year. It piqued my interest that the selling thing isn’t bad.”

Was that right after college?

If you bring your family out to a ballgame and only two of you don’t like baseball, it will still be a good family investment.

That was my junior year of college and in my senior year, I went back. I worked with Johnson or any operation down there. He’s still a good friend. Dave Eccles was my direct boss. He runs the Charleston RiverDogs in South Carolina. I was an operations guy. I painted and stow the floor bleachers. I painted rows of seats. I lugged kegs around but then somewhere in there, there was some element of selling that I didn’t even realize. My first full-time job after that was Norwich, Connecticut and I was selling group tickets.

What team was that in Norwich?

It was the Double-A club for the Yankees. I walked into a stack of papers because we didn’t have CRM databases at the time. I was told to call a lot of people and sell in groups. That was the first tangible sales gig. I was there for three years.

Your next move was where?

Another gentleman and I built a ballpark in Lakewood, New Jersey, the Single-A club for the Phillies. I was there for six. At that time, I was the assistant GM in the title, which I was the Head of Operations and Sales. It was clear that doing both of those is challenging. A lot of people still do it in Minor League Baseball. I spent eleven years in Minor League Baseball. I have a ton of respect for anyone that has and still stayed close with a lot of people that I worked with.

Some real talented people frankly worked an incredible amount as they go through it. Those are lessons that I learned everything from the operational side through the sales side. It’s funny. I didn’t come out like, “I’m going to be a salesperson.” I always thought that I would have been selling used cars or insurance stuff.

I do believe that if you bring your family of 4 out to a ballgame in a night and 2 of you don’t like baseball, it’ll still be a good family and investment. I didn’t have a problem saying, “Bring your Cub Scout Pack out. Bring your church out.” The competitive side would get into me and I’d be like, “They did 50 last year. You should do 75 because you had a great time.” That’s when it started. That was the time in Norwich when I was selling group tickets.

I didn’t know that you spent much time in minor league sports. Kerry Bubolz who’s the President of the Vegas Golden Knights and Formerly President of the Cavs always told me that what prepared him a lot for management was the number of jobs he had. If you’re reading and you’re not sports or in entertainment, in a minor league team, you wear a lot of hats. You could be pouring beers one night, cleaning off the field the other night, selling tickets and managing something. Part-time people are all over the place.

ASO 3 | Building Trust
Building Trust: When you’re in a sales call, stay in the moment. Make that person on the other end of the phone feel like they’re the only person that matters.

Management leadership was dated back to Kinston, North Carolina. I was 19 or 20. I was an intern. One of my jobs was to manage the main concession stand, which sounds as glamorous as it was. In that concession stand, I would have the teenage kid who was made to get a job and I’d have an adult sometimes retiree having fun or needing the job. I had to figure out how to get both of them to care equally, as odd as it sounds, to make sure that the hotdog going out the window tasted good and warm.

I had realized very quickly, incentivizing, you couldn’t throw money around. You made an hourly wage. The main thing that I still live is I had to prove to them, I’d be willing to do what I was asked to do. That’s fundamental for me as I go through things. I would never have called them strategies or tactics back then but I was realizing early on that exposure helped. In Minor League Baseball and minor league in general, you do get a lot of responsibility that you’re probably not ready for and get thrown into it. It helped me tremendously. Those eleven years were huge for me and my career.

You made that leap from a minor league team to a bigger brand. What was that jump?

It was a very pivotal moment. I have a good friend of mine and someone you know, Tom Glick, who’s the President of the Carolina Panthers. He and I met in ’96 or ’97 at a marketing conference and stayed in touch. He was the guru in Minor League Baseball. He’s running the Lansing Lugnuts. He had come up with all the neat promotions. He was well-polished. Fortunately, for me, he gave me time every time I asked for it. He took a job with the NBA, a TMBO under Scott O’Neil. I didn’t know what TMBO was or anything. He was at the Winter Meetings back in 2005.

I thought he was hanging out with old buddies of Minor League Baseball. He was recruiting people. He and I had a conversation. He said, “What are your goals?” My goal at the time that I stated was, “I want to run a Minor League Baseball Team. I’m going to be the GM,” which was the title. He said, “Have you ever thought of anything more than that?” I said, “The Phillies own half of the BlueClaws. I’ve been sitting in more of the Phillies meetings. I’ve been curious about the business of Major League Baseball.

I’m a baseball fan. It wasn’t just I want to work for a big-league club. I was curious about the business side. He said, “I can share some insight on you. Let me tell you about what I do. Before you go, chase that dream job. Let me open your eyes to a couple of things.” Within two weeks, he had me on a plane to Detroit for the Pistons and Houston with the Rockets. I can only imagine what I was like in these interviews with all of that leadership management that you pride yourself on. You build a team. You’re managing 50 people and a minor league stadium. We need you to sell sponsorship deals.

To me, a lot of what I love is when I get the team in the right direction and we all succeed. That was, “No, I need you to go do deals.” Rightly or wrongly, I still respect the statement that you still have to “do the big lead deals.” That’s what I still say to people in Minor League Baseball. By the way, it was a hell of a lot harder to sell some of the minor league deals that I ever did than it has been for some of the bigger deals that I’ve been a part of.

In sales, when you can sense that someone’s having a bad day, don’t dive in. Read the situation.

Sometimes smaller businesses are way more conservative in spending and not budgets for these bigger deals.

They don’t have people that focus on the value of a sports marketing opportunity. Those working on web design and social media presence are not thinking about a minor league team. That conversation is probably about a month and a half stint that I went and did that. I leaped but had never been to Houston before. I became the Director of Corporate Development, one of five new sales hires down there. After they had some transition, Tad Brown became the President.

Of what team in Houston?

The Rockets, the NBA team. I spent two years there and then had the opportunity to go to Miami with the Dolphins and be a Vice President to help run that organization. It was right in the Steven Ross acquisition time and Wayne Huizenga. There was another leadership change. It was poised to stay there. When Scott O’Neil, who I’d met through the NBA got to MSG, I was fortunate to be one of those folks. There are probably ten to a dozen of us that went in the MSG.

If you’re not in the industry, Scott Neil is the CEO of Harris Blitzer, Philadelphia 76ers and so does the New Jersey Devils. It’s a very big sports entertainment property.

Scott had left the NBA to be the President of Madison Square Garden Sports.

That happened to be right in the middle of the whole financial meltdown.

It was tough but we like this weather through it. I was fortunate to work there for four years. A couple of those, he was there then he had moved on. Sam Kennedy is our President of the Boston Red Sox and at the time Fenway Sports Management. We have known each other for years through the industry. The great thing about sports is it’s a very small network.

Most people who think about big brands don’t realize that the entities themselves are run like midsized businesses because the brand and athletes are big. The organizations are anywhere from 2 to 300 people. They’re not huge companies.

It’s years that we moved up here to Boston and I’ve been with Fenway Sports Management.

Let’s hit reverse on one thing. As a salesperson, John Clark, what were you like? Any competitive situation? Where were you on the board? Were you the number one guy or in the middle?

I feel lucky to have risen the way I spent through Minor League Baseball because I see and talk regularly with our sales academy with David Baggs who runs it. Some folks over at MSG and Adam Campbell are fantastic to run their groups. I walked into their rooms and they’d say, “Will you come to talk to them?” I walk in and I see 20 and 30 people. I’m like, “I’m glad I didn’t start that way.”

I started where there were four people selling group tickets. Three of them had been there in Norwich since they started. The Norwich was three years old when I got there. My boss, the GM had gotten there. Brian Mahoney, who works with the Phillies, was a great friend too. He said, “Call people and you’re going to have success.” Thankfully, that’s all I could probably handle. Much like an athlete, I was good at the fundamentals. I was tenacious in my outreach. I like to think that I was respectful in my relentlessness. I spent time thinking about who I was calling and what I was calling about.

The thing I always said to myself was, “Stay in the moment.” That means two things, “Make that person on the other end of the phone feel like they’re the only person that matters.” More importantly, one of the key indicators for me with salespeople or myself and otherwise is they don’t know if I got off the phone and made the biggest deal of my life or if I got off the phone and got crushed.

ASO 3 | Building Trust
Building Trust: Even if you’re speaking with someone who isn’t a client, still build a relationship. All your relationships should be based on trust.

It’s something that’s going on personally. They don’t care because it’s all about them. That’s why I love your book Selling Is an Away Game. It’s true on many things. You wrote it differently but it’s about them, whatever their situation is, which is why you’ve got to be able to read them. If you get on the phone, you know someone’s having a bad day and sense that it’s not the day to dive in then don’t dive it. I learned that. I was good at fundamentals. I was by no means the best presenter. All due respect to East Carolina where I went, I certainly wasn’t the stats genius that’s for sure. Coming out of it. They’ve been nice enough to let me come back a couple of times. That’s been nice.

This is something that always impressed me about Clarkie. He’s the graduation or commencement speaker they’ve asked.

I did the fall. It’s been a couple of years ago. It was neat. The interaction with the students and parents was an achievement. I was good at fundamentals but frankly, I worked my ass off. I would bury myself in it and will myself in some cases to get where I needed to go.

Trust is the most important value internally and externally.

You got to think about what John’s been talking about, especially in the world he lives in. If you’re in sports or not in sports, you’re talking a lot of big deals that are multifaceted where you can be talking naming rights or something, complicated media deals with agencies, other people involved, other buyers across the seas. Take these fundamentals in what you learned in being salespeople. What do you try to instill in your salespeople?

A couple of the traits I had and looked for. Curiosity is one of them. I was a PR major and a business minor. Frankly, that is when I wasn’t working too hard. I was too lazy to go be a business major. My curiosity about business and how businesses operate is what I love about my job. Getting to meet all these companies and understanding how and why they operate. That curiosity will help you craft what you possibly could do with them because you’re trying to understand what those goals and initiatives are. That curiosity is something that has always been there with me. That’s something.

That shows you’re interested in other people too. People buy from people they like. That’s a natural fit there.

Everyone’s story is unique that I enjoy learning that. Also, the more about their story, the more you’ll understand as you go through the possibility of working together, whether that’s negotiation, style or how they operate. That resiliency we talked about keeps bouncing back. Have a closer mentality. Have a poker face where they don’t know if it’s good, bad or indifferent. Also, diligence. Along with that curiosity, asking the right questions and then most importantly, listening for those answers.

I was very diligent. I still am a notetaker. I write it down. If I don’t write it down, it typically doesn’t stick, even then it’s still a little bit debatable. Even in these times, if I fire up the laptop at a meeting, I must say, “I am writing down the notes that you’re giving me. I am not emailing somebody.” The best compliment any salesperson for me can get is, “You heard exactly what I said when you came back with this information.” It still might lead to no deal. Ninety-five of these conversations are going to end up nowhere.

It’s the biggest compliment you can get. If a buyer says to you whether you sell them or not, “You listened to me,” that’s all the credibility you need especially in very complex sales.

That’s where diligence and resiliency come in. Any deal can take a lot of time. Some of them will take 12, 14, 16 months. That takes a commitment that you’ve got. Several people started in sponsorship. I wouldn’t have been able to start in sponsorship because the carrot wasn’t close enough. Tickets, especially Minor League Baseball, “Can I get a credit card?” I do then it’s close. That’s rewarding. That got me through the hundreds of calls where nobody answered, called me an idiot for calling them at dinner time, whatever they did or didn’t do. I needed that reward to keep me going.

That’s one of the things we’re fortunate with our team here. We have such a wide swath of properties that we work with that you can have some smaller, shorter bursts that we can do whether it’s a spring training deal down at Blue Park or worked with the PGA tour and the Northern Trust, which is a golf outing here in Boston, hopefully in August 2021, where you can buy a hospitality option for not an incredible amount of money. It allows us as our team to have some younger, newer salespeople to be involved. At the same time, we’re trying to sell the sleeve of the Liverpool kit.

Developments for many sales leaderships point is important. You said, “I’m good at fundamentals. I want to be in the moment with people.” You’re like a yoga instructor. Be in the moment and meditate. It’s like I listened to that Calm app where Tamara Levitt is always like, “Be in the moment. Pay attention to your breathing.” We need to be with people, whether we’re coaching or selling to them. If you had to pick 1 or 2 values that you instill in your team, give me the cliche. What do you say?

Trust is the first one, internally and externally. This is why I go back to Minor League Baseball. I don’t like ranking the teams I’ve worked with but some of the best I’ve worked with were in Minor League Baseball. With smaller organizations, it’s so easier to get 40 people on the same page than 400, 500 when you get to bigger companies but if one person fell in that 40, the whole place fell. That’s brutal as we fell doing the tarp. The tarp didn’t get on the field and the game didn’t get played. Two merchandise got delivered, we’ve all got to go do it.

That trust internally, I’ve always tried to instill that in the sales teams. I’ve wanted it when I’m on the sales team. I hope as a leader, I preach and live that. That trust goes external. When you do this well, you’re building that trust with your external initially prospect then a client. Even if you’re not a client, you build a relationship and that’s all based on trust.

The bottom line is a lot of people are in a relationship but an outcome is based on how much rapport, credibility and standing because they’re all things you do. You’ve got to establish trust but that comes in how you present and communicate like it’s a brand-new world like when you look at your team. We’re right in the middle of COVID-19. Every day, you watch the news and order your masks. Nobody knows what’s going on. What do you think selling is going to look like?

ASO 3 | Building Trust
Building Trust: Everyone gets caught up on their own BS. Your goal should be to be as direct, honest, and transparent with the team as you possibly can be.

When this all went down, John was one of the first execs I talked to. I said, “What do you think?” The first time you hop in a plane or go down across town and meet with somebody, it’s going to mean something. What’s selling in your opinion? You’re looking around the corner. You’re selling the big brand and multi-culturally over in England, Europe and the States. What does this look like moving forward?

That was my initial statement back in the beginning and I’ll stick by that because in person, without a doubt, will always win the day. However, in a certain situation, especially here in Boston, we’re in the surge. I said this on a call with our leadership team saying, “We might get more credibility if we say we’re not going to come to see you.” The face-to-face will always be there. The good news is we’ve been working with you and your team on these types of presentations for years. It’s getting more comfortable. I shared with you a call we had and while face-to-face, I’m a hugger and all that stuff still, that part of the right time will be king to everything. That’s how you’ll know.

The reality of it is I’m getting to know more about people’s families that I don’t know. I have kids running around here all the time. Initially, the first two weeks, I was like, “Timeout. Clear the screen. Turn it off.” We were on a call with a woman that put a necklace on her six-year-old because she wanted a necklace on. She asked one of the smarter questions of the meeting during that time. That might be the difference between women and men. They can handle that. It’s like, “I got to shut it down.”

You will see a lot of progression of deals like this in a place that we’ve not seen before. We closed a deal virtually over the phone. I still think about these bigger broader things that we know are going to take a lot of time. Back to trust. You’re building that trust. When there are bigger deals, there needs to be more trust.

You’ve done a nice job of integrating your sales philosophy and what you’ve installed on people. If you had a label on your sales leadership and sales management style talking about trust and communication, what is it in a nutshell? At the same time, what frustrates you that have to coach salespeople on? What is your leadership style? Your value systems dictate things you observed that frustrated or rub you. Double answer those questions.

My goal is to be as direct and honest with the team as I possibly can be. That’s on all fronts.

Would you say transparency is the word?

Absolutely. What frustrates me is when I feel that that’s not coming back my way. I believe all of our teams have high integrity but we all get caught up in our BS. We all will say, “I heard this,” but when I get involved it’s, “Did you hear that?” You do this with our team so well. It’s diving in and getting past. Don’t just hear what you want to hear. Go to that next level of depth. That’s going back to if you build the right level of trust with a prospect, you can get the real answer. I rarely say, “Let me get on the phone with you.” If I’m doing my job, they’re asking me to get on a phone with them.

Bigger deals equal bigger trust.

They’re saying, “Can you dive in?” Even better, strategically, it’s the right time to bring you in. We’ve got levels and layers of salespeople. I want that working up and down that chain. I’ll get on a call with anybody on the team as well as our VPs and RSVPs but I want it to be never a forced thing. The one thing that frustrates me is when I hear them tell me something that they wanted to hear. When we talk about filling the funnel, they’re telling me all that because they don’t have anything for the next conversation with me. They’re holding out hope that this is the thing that’s going to work.

I never realized this about you. It doesn’t sound like you play much of a political game with your people. If they’re holding back, playing political or not being able to manage up to you, that’s frustrating. I would concur 100%. I can’t stand the rumor mill. I’d rather tell you what’s going on. Let’s deal with it. We went through a tough time as we went into this. It lay a few people off and it sucks. It’s horrible. I had to choose between ship and crew. It’s a horrible situation but I was transparent with my team about what I was going to do with them. We’re a lean organization. They didn’t want to hear it. That was tough transparency but I got more comments about, “I appreciate that.” If it doesn’t reciprocate, it’s very frustrating. It’s very much your style.

Especially in these times, most of us in sales have a certain personality about it. We want certainty. The crazy part about that in sales is there’s much uncertainty. I started in operations. I love the process. For me, it’s two things, people and process. In the process, you put people in it then it gets all screwed up. We get the sales process in and the people part when we’re going to externally, that throws all the uncertainty.

If you’re in sales, you’ll love it. That’s what feeds you and what you were chasing. You’re trying to control some of that. In these times, unfortunately, there’s no certainty for any of us in much broader speaking than what we’re talking about. All I’ve said to the team that I deal with is, “Whenever I can give you any certainty I want to but know there’s a lot of uncertainty around all of us and that includes ownership.”

You’re going to be certain about the uncertainty. I’ve had to get on more executives that are trying to paint this picture of everything’s going to be fine and great. I was like, “You lying to people. You got to tell them it’s going to be different because it is going to be different. There are so many unknowns but to say this is going to go back to what it was, it’s not. There’s going to be a new nature of things. Anytime we’d gone through a transition. You better off tell them you can’t predict it.”

That’s the best way. With tough, it builds trust. When we’re talking to clients that we have and they’re like, “What are we doing about the baseball season?” We don’t know is the answer. While it’s not what you want to hear, we don’t know and we’re working through it. Hang in there with us. Troup Parkinson who runs sponsored for the Red Sox has been there for years as stronger and deeper relationships with clients than I’ve ever seen. I’ve been sadly on these calls with him and the client. The reaction from them is, “Troup, we trust you. We got it. We’ll talk next week.”

Speed round. Think of your sons. You’re sitting on the edge of the dock at one on one side of you, one on the other. They go, “Dad, what’s success mean?” What do you say?

It all starts with your attitude. The same we have in our house is attitude is everything. To get the outcome of success, your attitude has to be right. The simplest way is, “If the two of you have a discussion or disagreement and walk away happy, that’s a success.” It’s like with their classmates. If you want to play this and do that, if you both can come to an agreement that you’re both happy, that’s a success. When you boil it up to us and we can get a deal together, great. If we walk away, don’t have a deal but we respect, trust each other and learned, that a success.

It’s your wake. Fast forward, what song do you want your loved ones to play that describes your life? Anything’s on the table.

Everybody’s going to answer for me. It’s Country Roads since I’m from West Virginia. They’d all hear me singing because that is the one karaoke song that I’ll try. I’ve got no favorite artists. I like all music. Country Roads was played at my wedding so it should be played in my wake.

Mine is like a Frank Sinatra song, My Way. This is the way it is. It’s how I acted. It’s what I want to play. I can’t say I love Frank Sinatra but that song hits me. I cry over Danny Boy. I don’t know why I cry over Danny Boy, especially The Irish Tenors.

I’m also I don’t have a long reflection. Learn from the past and reflect on it. I’ll go week to week like the boys with the kids. Luke Combs’ song about his dad when he goes off. That one’s got me.

Here’s my last question. I love listening to Tim Ferriss. He always asks this wonderful question. He has a great show. You should listen to him. What book do you gift? You can’t say mine.

Two books. The one for leadership is Maxwell’s Daily Reader, John Maxwell’s. I love it because it sits on the top of the desk. I’ve never read it cover to cover because it’s every day. I’ll pop it open and honestly, it’s still at my office so it’s driving me nuts that I don’t have it. At some point, as my wife says, “You can’t only read about leadership.” I reflected but the one that will tear you, it’s called When Breath Becomes Air. It’s written by a doctor at Stanford who gets diagnosed with stage four and ultimately passed but he writes the book as he’s dying. Back to living in the moment, it is all about that. I gifted that a couple of years ago to some folks. He does it so well and his wife finishes it off. It goes from this incredibly negative to appreciate what you have. In these times, there’s probably no better message than we’re all healthy and here.

It’s been wonderful having you. My only advice is heads up, hands washed.

Important Links: