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If Sales is a Numbers Game, Why Are You Losing?

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Somewhere along the way, the expression "sales is just a numbers game" stuck as the long and the short of the sales profession. Instead, however, of being a pithy summation of the profession, the numbers game notion reflects a gross and prevalent misconception of sales among its professionals (at least those who subscribe to the numbers game idea).

Commonly, sales professionals understand “numbers” as a charge to sustain or increase sales activity. The idea is elementary: output yields return—sales. Greater output: greater return. While sales organizations that have identified performance levels (numbers) for sales activity are a step ahead of organizations unclear about their performance standards, when numbers are given precedence in the evaluation of sales efforts (e.g., counting the amount of outbound calls made), conclusions drawn from such assessments are likely to be misleading for this reason: quality of activity, not quantity of activity, more accurately accounts for the results derived from sales work.

POINT: If you are looking at numbers without regard for the nonnumeric variables that directly impact results from sales efforts, you are very likely losing opportunities to improve your sales. This shouldn’t be revelatory.

Beyond Numbers

Over the past several years, in their articles and annual reports about the state of the sales profession, Salesforce, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Aberdeen, HubSpot and numerous other respected sales and business resources have highlighted the ongoing difficulties among sales professionals to sell or improve their sales. Alarming numbers—that, depending on the resource, range from 40% to nearly 60%—of salespeople are not reaching their quotas. Interestingly, you won’t find “lack of activity” as the explanation for the problem. It may be the case that a variety of factors have made once realistic numbers unrealistic. Also plausible: too many sales professionals are activity-driven and unknowledgeable about and/or deficient in the areas that make activity valuable.

If you’re not ready to lower your expectations from sales activity, you may want to consider alternatives to the numbers game notion. Here are a few thoughts, from a different perspective:

· Sales is a dynamic profession. Shifts in the economy, social trends, technological advancements, and other factors impacts how, when, and why buyers buy. Sales practices must evolve in order to keep pace with the ever-changing world of business. This evolution is slow to occur in numbers-centered sales organization. Put differently: sales success has less to do with “numbers” than with competency, which requires sales operations to update their objective knowledge about sales, and their practices.

  • While sales managers should monitor numbers related to sales efforts, numbers should not be interpreted in a vacuum. That is, managers should regard numbers in the context of their decisions for sales practices—how they convert sales potential into actual sales by way of steps, the objective of a step, application of a skill, an approach or a strategy, etc. Numbers are delimiting, static, and inappropriate as the means by which to understand complex interaction among dynamic variables, such as the skillfulness of a salesperson in conversation with a prospective buyer, which cannot be quantified.

  • The numbers game line of thought is exceedingly limited, and offers little value with regard to questions about how to improve sales. Once a degree of sales activity has been maximized, possibilities to improve sales have been exhausted – your potential has been reached. However, when quality of work and means (i.e., support of productivity) are considerations, the potential to improve sales expands significantly.

The central problem with the "numbers" mentality is the primacy of quantity over quality of activity. Numbers account for a single (quantitative) aspect of sales work—an amount of time, action, and outcome—and cannot, alone, outside of a comparative evaluation of quality (such as to determine the merit of an improvement effort) account for the qualitative dimension of sales activity, which is more essential to sales effectiveness.

It's Not a Game; It's a Mission

As we move beyond 2020, permanent changes will settle-in and reshape day-to-day business and the sales profession. We’ve heard about “the new norm.” In actuality, we are in transition; we’ve yet to fully arrive at will constitute norm. Through this transitional period, complacency with familiar sales practices will continue to be questioned, and new knowledge about how to sell will remain a company priority. As you discover how to thrive in business, it may be useful to embrace a more accurate characterization of sales than its being a mere numbers game.

As obsolete notions about sales are replaced with useful concepts and practices, here are a few thoughts to bear in mind:

1. Discovery is the course to success in sales

There exists no premade map to sales success. Each company is on a unique mission to discover the balance and combination of resources, approaches, processes, strategies, etc. in order to know how to engage a specific market, prospect, and sell its products and services against competitors.

2. Process facilitates conversion (of potential sales into actual sales)

The work of sales professionals is to discover—through trial and error—how to reliably convert sales potential into actual sales. Conversion never occurs spontaneously; conversion always results from some process. Each step of a sales process should have a primary objective. A sales strategy, therefore, should not merely regard the ultimate objective (“close”), but support the successful achievement of each objective in the process.

3. As sales comprise the lifeblood of a business, productivity is the lifeblood of sales

Productivity, the most misunderstood requirement for success, is not activity; productivity is a standard of accomplishment required by your goal. In order for you to be productive, results from activity must achieve progress that keeps you on-track to your goal. Since subpar performance could jeopardize your success, targeted results from sales activity must be safeguarded. (Note: each step in your sales process could involve a targeted result.)

"If you can't describe what you're doing as a process,

you don't know what you're doing."

- William Edwards Deming

Sales is About Conversion

Success is not incidental. Success is the accomplishment of something intentionally pursued—an anticipated result from deliberate effort. Success in sales necessitates being able to describe the details (i.e., methodology, training, tools, approaches, management, etc.) about the process by which you achieve success. Since success demands productivity, productivity involves all influences that impact, or could impact, results from your sales efforts.

Consider this foundational concept as the heart of the sales profession: sales is about discovery and refinement of a process that most reliably advances sales opportunities. Advancement of sales opportunities is only possible through conversion. Therefore, the role of productivity in sales is to optimize conversion across each step of a process. Or you can simply say, "Sales is about conversion."

“Conversion” simply means: advance from one point to another. Each of the following is an example of a type of conversion in sales (there are others), which vary among sales operations:

  • lead to > prospect;

  • prospect to > qualified prospect;

  • initial contact of a prospective client to > sales presentation made to a prospective client;

  • nurture rapport to > gained a sales opportunity;

  • proposal or quote submitted to > sales order received;

  • lost account to > regained account.

Given this foundation—sales being about conversion—, how would you answer this question: how does conversion occur across the steps of your sales process?

Here are a couple suggestions to help you improve conversions:

1. Be open to discovery and change. As a sales professional (rep or manager), your mission is to learn—through a discovery process—what is actually the most effective means by which to engage, nurture, and secure sales. Suspend your assumptions and seek to know how process is dependent upon skills, knowledge, strategy, etc. Know how quality in your work relates to your ability to meet each objective and reliably advance sales opportunities.

2. Think IDEAL. When you're ready to shapeup productivity and improve your sales, consider IDEAL. IDEAL is an acronym for a five-part productivity model, a framework by which to plan your success—the achievement of your most important goals (personal and professional). IDEAL is dynamic; it evolves as you put your plan into action. That is, by design, IDEAL is cyclical. Once you’ve reached the final step in the model, draw from discovery (through use of the model) in order to improve the other steps. This process will allow you to become more productive and build on your success. IDEAL is a powerful model that, with proper use, can promise improved sales. (You can learn more about IDEAL at my website:

In Conclusion

As a summation of the sales profession, “just a numbers game” is grossly reductive. Perhaps, the original numbers game concept was in reference to probability, not meant to be a prescription for a methodology. Certainly, no competent sales professional would leave their success up to chance. The practices of sales professionals should improve the odds, which involves attention to skill development, the acquisition and use of quality data, new knowledge, strategic solutions, and quality of work. These are the topics that should be ongoing and central in discussions among sales pros.

As it is (and always has been), sales is about conversion of some potential for sales into actual sales. That’s it, most simply put. Conversion, however, is not a simple subject to cover. There is much to be said about stages of conversion and how to achieve these conversions, which is relative among companies. Each company’s sales success is a unique accomplishment, and made so by its staff, products and services, resources, place in the market, brand identity, competition, and a number of other factors. These factors, more so than some level of busyness, must be understood and regarded as the key to your success—and greater success—in sales.


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