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The Ridiculousness of the “Numbers Game” Mentality

The NFL lockout is over, and camps are opening up, practices are in full swing.. I can almost guarantee not one coach is saying this to his quarterback.

Coach: "OK I need you to go out there and throw the long bomb on every play. Every time you take a snap, just toss it as far as you can. I don’t care where, put it up."

Player: "Uh, coach, shouldn’t we mix it up, try to move the ball downfield, be selective, read the defense, run strategic plays?"

Coach: "Nope. It’s a numbers game. I want passes. Put up the numbers."

Another Player: "Coach, we have a better chance of scoring when we run good quality plays."
"The more passes you throw, the more chances you have of scoring. Long bomb, pass, pass, I tell you!"

Baseball season is just past the midway point.. I’ve played and coached baseball, and still try to arrange my travel around when a Major League game is going on in a city where I’m doing training. I can say with confidence the following isn’t happening in any team’s dugout:

Manager: "Guys, I want you to go up to bat and swing at every pitch. The more times you swing, the better your chances of getting a hit."

Player: "Well, uh, coach, if a ball is out of the strike zone, we’ll either miss, or it won’t be a good hit."
Manager: "No, it’s a numbers game. The more you swing, the more hits you’ll get."

Another Player: "I don’t get it. Shouldn’t we work to get a good pitch, one we can drive for a good, quality hit?"
"Nonsense. Get those bats waving. You’re not getting hits if you’re not swinging the bat. And for every miss, just tell yourself you’re that much closer to a hit."

I’ve been a sales rep for large corporations. I worked phone jobs in high school and college. I’ve been a sales manager. I still sell every day. I’ve worked with tens of thousands of sales reps, and hundreds of companies. I can say, WITH CONFIDENCE, that this DOES happen in some form daily:

Manager: "Get out there and pound those phones. Make those calls. I need (pick a number) calls per hour."

Sales Rep: "Uh, boss, wouldn’t it make more sense to put more emphasis on the quality of the calls?"

Manager: "The important thing is that you’re on the phone. The more times you dial, the greater your chance of making a sale."

Another Sales Rep: "If we invested a bit more time on our pre-call planning, wouldn’t we be able to place more focused, personalized SMART calls, tailored to the person and organization we’re speaking with?"

Manager: "That wastes time. When you’re on the phone, banging out calls, you’re in the game. And it’s a numbers game."

Yet Another Sales Rep: "Doesn’t it make sense to talk to people other than the ultimate decision maker? Like other people in the department, or users of our product within the company? Perhaps screeners and executive assistants who can give us great information about the company? Wouldn’t this help us put together better, more interesting opening statements and voice mails?"

Manager: "You’d place fewer calls. It’s all about the numbers."

Sales Rep: "Really, though, isn’t it all about the sales?"

Manager: "You need to be on the phone cranking out calls to make sales."

Sales Rep: "When I invest a bit more time on a call, questioning, identifying needs, going deeper into a problem, my calls are more consultative and I’m able to offer a better solution. These calls take longer."

Manager: "Sure they take longer. And you’re not hitting your calls per hour."

Sales Rep: "But I’m surpassing my sales numbers."

Manager: "Doesn’t matter. I’m measuring calls per hour."

The first two scenarios are a bit absurd, of course. Sadly, though, the sales example is very close to reality in some organizations.

Here are a few points:

- Sales is NOT just a numbers game. It’s a quality game.

- Activity, for the sake of activity, indeed gives numbers. It also contributes to burnout, poor calls, bad morale, resentment of managers, and turnover.

- The most important number at the end of a day, week, month, or year should be sales and profits.

What if the "throw it up against the wall and see how much sticks" model was used in other professions? Surgeons. Airline pilots. Cooks.

So why is this "numbers of calls" thinking so prevalent?

As one wise manager told me, 

"Counting calls is the easiest way to quantify what a sales rep is doing every day. However, putting a focus on quality means investing a lot more time in people … one-on-one coaching sessions, conducting sales training meetings, monitoring calls or tapes of calls, really rolling up your sleeves and developing people, understanding why someone produces at the level they do, identifying the areas where they can get better, then helping them get there. Just counting calls and reading reports is like a baseball manager sitting in his office, never watching a game, trying to manage by reading the box scores of the previous day’s game."

I know that some managers will hate me and this post.  I would ask them if they are too lazy to work with their people. I would also encourage them to take a look at their own operation and ask what is really best for their people and department.

So is there a "right" number of calls in a day, or per hour?

How would I, or anybody outside of your organization know that answer? It’s like when someone asks, "What is a good direct mail response rate?" One percent? Three percent? Ten percent? Actually, it could be anything. The REAL answer: anything that makes the most money over time.

And that could be your answer for the number of calls as well.

Attention Sales Reps: Please don’t forward this to your manager with a "See, I told ya so. Look at what this guy says." There still is a definite correlation between being on the phone and making sales. I’ve seen plenty of situations where call volumes were low because reps were doing lots of "research and planning" before calls, which under further scrutiny was call-avoidance behavior.

Likewise, there are reps who have long, in-depth calls, but poor results. They say they’re "building relationships."

Perhaps. But they’re not building sales.

Again, it all gets down to putting in quality activity.

I know I’m a bit long-winded here, and I didn’t really provide any sales tips, or answers. But hopefully with some folks I raised questions that might result in reviews of procedures and ultimately sales increases.

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  1. 2 Comment(s)

  2. By Doug Rice on Jul 28, 2011 | Reply

    “What if the “throw it up against the wall and see how much sticks” model was used in other professions? Surgeons. Airline pilots. Cooks.” Excellent insight, Art. I really don’t like the # of calls metric. Contacts are more important and, even beyond that, conversations, and even beyond that, commitments. Each call should be treated with a single-minded focus to gain commitment from the prospect, HOWEVER LONG THAT TAKES. A call should never be something to be checked off a list. It then moves from a sales activity to an administrative activity.

  3. By Emilio Peire on Apr 24, 2012 | Reply

    Excellent analogies and a very entertaining way of busting the myth that sales is purely a numbers game. Actually sales is a process game and most Sales Managers know that the salesperson can’t magic a sale (bluebirds excepted) without going through the activities process (including cold calling), and with all the tools available nowadays such activities can be easily measured and monitored on a daily basis. You can also work on more strategic sales opportunities without compromising the tactical activities that will keep new good quality leads coming into the top of the sales funnel. However, all the sales managers I ever worked for would agree that ultimately it IS all about the Sales (i.e. salespeople meeting individual sales quotas that help the company achieve its business goals), and any sales rep that was ahead of quota would be spared the need to sit in on “supervised” cold calling days when it did become all about the numbers. When it comes to lead generation, quality trumps quantity, but as you say there is no reason why you can’t have both. So there has to be a minimum activity level that will generate properly targeted, qualified leads. Measuring telemarketing success by number of appointments generated is also really bad management as this often results in poorly qualified appointments made solely to “hit the numbers” and can distract your salespeople away from the quality leads they are or should be pursuing. I worked for a company where, annoyingly, “head office generated” appointments took priority over those generated by field sales.

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