A Tale of Three Golfers (and a very persistent sales guy)
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A Tale of Three Golfers (and a very persistent sales guy)

Note: Today’s post comes from RLI CEO Stephen J. Meyer

Lee Trevino was the most important. Justin Rose was the most difficult. And David Graham was the most rewarding.

Those are, of course, three esteemed professional golfers. They also happen to be the three living U.S. Open champions at Merion. And, thanks to the persistence and persuasiveness of veteran salesman Andy Abrams, their signatures are all on a gift Andy gave to a lifelong friend.

Think it was easy? Think again. The only reason Andy succeeded is that from the start he assumed that making it happen would be the sales challenge of his life. Turns out it was, and how he closed the deal is an instructive yarn for anybody who sells for a living.

Here’s the story.

It’s June 2013 and Andy is in the merchandizing tent during round one of the U.S. Open at Merion. He sees a poster and thinks, “Me and my friend Rich Kupersmith were here in 1971 when Trevino beat Nicklaus. We came together in 1981 when Graham hit all 18 greens in regulation and blew away the field with a final round 67. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get Trevino, Graham and this year’s winner (it would be Rose) to sign this poster for Rich’s 50th birthday?”

Crazy thought. Most people would have abandoned it and bought Rich a hat.

But Andy’s a sales guy and getting those three signatures would be like closing a dream account that everybody said couldn’t be closed. So he decided to go for it.

His strategy was simple: Gain credibility by getting early buy-in from revered Hall of Famer Lee Trevino. So in mid-June he kicked off his quest by contacting the PGA and got the number of the firm that represented Trevino. He called Assured Management Companies in Westfield, KS, hoping for a quick win. But he got an administrative assistant whose job is to get rid of pestering fans. She said no. Andy protested several times. Finally she said, “Look, Mr Trevino is tired of signing autographs. He signs too many.”

Okay, Andy thought, so much for the easy win. I need a story. So he crafted one and called back Trevino’s gatekeeper in early July. “I know people are calling Lee all the time for autographs,” he said, “but this is different. Here’s the MOST important thing you need to tell Lee. Tell him the autograph isn’t for me. It’s for my friend Rich, who was with me when Lee beat Nicklaus at Merion in 1971. We were eight years old and that experience inspired Rich’s lifelong passion for golf. It would mean a lot to Rich.”

He was sure that his golf bromance angle would get him a quick call-back. Didn’t happen.

Over the summer Andy grazed the Internet and found articles about how Trevino was the people’s golfer, an average guy who made it big. In that research he found the name of Trevino’s agent at Assured Management, Arnold Brown. He bypassed the gatekeeper and after repeated efforts got through to Brown in mid-September. He recounted his gift-to-a-lifelong-friend narrative, adding that Rich was just an average fan whose passion for golf is what allowed Lee and other pro golfers to do what they do.

This time he got traction. “Arnold totally got it,” says Andy. “Finally I was talking to the right guy.” Andy sent him the poster. It had taken Andy three months, but in the first week of October, Brown took the poster to Trevino and he signed it.

Never one to miss a chance for a referral, in his thank-you email Andy asked Brown, “Aren’t Lee and David Graham friends? Could you send me his contact info?”

He got a reply that said “Sure” and provided an email address where Andy could reach Graham. Andy sent a message and on October 14 got this reply:

You may mail the poster and I will be happy to sign it for you.
David Graham.

Andy held off sending the poster to Graham because he’d already started pursuing Justin Rose, who he knew would be the toughest of the three to persuade. Over the summer he’d called Rose’s agent, Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management, the guy who represents Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar and other top golfers.

For weeks he went back and forth with Steinberg’s administrative assistant. Andy kept making his now-enhanced narrative that included buy-in from Lee Trevino, but it was clear that the people representing players like Rose, a generation behind Trevino and Graham, had a different perspective on autographs. The admin kept telling Andy to go to Upper Deck, where top players get a cut on sales of autographed memorabilia. (Want a pair of Rory McElroy autographed golf shoes? Just $999. A Tiger Woods autographed shirt? $1799.)

“She was a nice person, but she just didn’t get it,” said Andy, “So I did the only thing I could. I said, ‘Here’s exactly what you need to tell Mark: ‘This isn’t just about getting a signature. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about protecting and enhancing the legacy of golf. It’s about honoring the fans. THIS IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO!’ “

Luckily, Steinberg was in the office that day. We can imagine the gatekeeper telling him, “Mark, I’ve got this pesky guy with a Moses complex who says he’s been to the mountaintop and talked to Lee Trevino and ….”

Minutes later Andy’s phone rang. “I pick it up and a voice says, ‘Hi this is Mark Steinberg.’ I couldn’t believe it. He said he was really sorry and that he wanted to help. He said, ‘Send me the poster and I’ll have Justin sign it.’ ”

In mid-November Steinberg traveled to Anatalaya, Turkey where Rose was playing in the Turkish Open and got the signature. On December 6, Andy had the poster.

Two down, one more to go. “I was about to mail the poster to David Graham when I realized I was going to Dallas a couple days later, so I emailed David and asked if I could deliver the poster in person.”

Graham replied, “Sure, here’s my cell phone number. Call me when you land.”

Andy did just that and Graham told him to drive to his home course, Preston Trail Golf Club, former host of the Byron Nelson tournament. “I got lost on the way and was late. I thought he might have gone home, but I was blown away when I found him waiting patiently for me in the lobby. We went into the pro shop and I had my third autograph. I asked if I could take his picture and he suggested that the two of us pose holding the poster. David was just fantastic. He said to me, ‘You know, most people in golf today don’t realize that the fans are the base of the game.’”

On January 3, Andy presented the framed poster to his friend Rich who, obviously, was delighted.

I asked Andy what he thinks was the key to his success and what other salespeople might learn from his story. “I got this done because I totally believed in my product,” he replied. “I believed it would be a validation for us as passionate fans for 40 years if all three living U.S. Open champions at Merion signed a poster for one fan who was also part of that history. I believed it was the right thing to do and it would be outrageous if they said no.”

It’s also pretty outrageous that they all said yes.

A few more sales takeaways:

  1. You need a story. Andy’s was weak at first. But he strengthened it and got traction. Then he really turned on the juice and achieved what Guy Kawasaki calls “enchantment” – changing people’s hearts and minds because you provide them a vision.
  2. Get to the right people. The greatest narrative in the world won’t resonate with the wrong person.
  3. Be persistent. What’s most interesting is that the more Andy’s narrative matured, the more persistent he became. Your story, and your belief in it, are what drive you to persist.

Stephen J. Meyer and Andy Abrams are members at Rolling Green Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia. Both are three handicaps and have paired up for the team club championship at Rolling Green for the last three years. Abrams is Executive VP of Global Passive Safety Systems. Meyer is CEO of the Rapid Learning Institute.

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