The Numbers Game
In June 1975, I sat across the desk from the Regional Sales Manager, wondering if he would offer me a sales position. I needed to work that day, Monday. The previous Friday, I had quit my second sales job in eight months, my second job since graduating from college with a Liberal Arts degree.
My wife and I had purchased a house and planned to close on it in ten days. We owed the obstetrician a prepayment for the birth of our first child due to arrive in August. A full-time college student, my wife worked ten hours a week at minimum wage. I needed a job.
The Regional Sales Manager pitched the product as if I were prospective customer. Using a ring binder with plastic page protectors as both a prompter and visual aid, he went through the sales presentation page-by-page, features and benefits, trial closes and all.
This confused me at first. Wasn’t this a job interview? Wasn’t I the one who should sell him on my qualifications?
As he flipped through the final pages in the binder, I understood. The position in question paid straight commission. My talents and qualifications did not matter. The company had little at risk in hiring me: If I didn’t sell, I didn’t get paid. But if I didn’t believe I could sell the product, I might not take the job. They needed people on the street knocking on doors and pitching for them.
At my previous jobs, I had earned a guaranteed salary plus an incentive. As long as I showed up for work each day and made my calls, I got paid whether I sold anything or not. But this straight-commission job was the only one available. That I kept the appointment testified to my desperation. They didn’t need to sell me.
The man across the desk knew none of this and followed through with his presentation. I am glad he took nothing for granted because as he neared the end, before he covered the compensation plan, he laid out a hook that changed my perspective on selling and on life. He explained the numbers game.
“If you make twenty sales calls each day, talk face-to-face with twenty qualified prospects, you will average two presentations per day and sell one out of four presentations or one every other day. This isn’t speculation,” he said. “This is a matter of fact.”
He explained that the company kept records. Twenty calls per day produced four presentations every two days that resulted in one sale. With an average of twenty-two work days, I would make eleven sales per month. At an average of one hundred dollars per sale, my monthly commission would total eleven hundred dollars.
“How did that sound?” he asked.
How did that sound? The sales jobs I quit paid six hundred per month. Twenty calls a day and I almost double my income? I could do twenty calls a day.
It did not occur to me he might be selling blue sky to con me into taking the job. I believed him. Who knows why? Maybe because it was my only opportunity, and I needed to believe in it. Maybe because it sounded reasonable; it made sense. It didn’t matter why. I said it sounded great.
The Regional Sales Manager closed me by saying, “If we hire you, we will expect you to make twenty sales calls every day. Is that something you can do?”
“I think so,” I mumbled.
“You think?” He growled as he rose out of his seat.
The Regional Sales Manager wanted a believer.
“Right,” I said. “I know I can.” I had committed. He hooked me.
That afternoon and evening, I memorized the presentation. The next day I hit the streets. For four weeks straight, I made twenty face-to-face sales calls each day. At the end of the month, I had ten sales and over a thousand dollars in commission, the most money I had ever made. I averaged ten plus sales per month until I became Branch Sales Manager.
Selling, which had seemed such an intimidating and complicated process, became ridiculously simple. All I had to do was make twenty calls each day and, wham, the sales appeared. No longer did it matter what happened on an individual call. It didn’t matter if the prospect bought or not. What mattered was that I made that call plus nineteen others. The calls were just numbers. There was no success or failure, only numbers. Selling had transformed into a numbers game, and chasing the numbers became fun.
The numbers game taught me to accept failure as a necessary ingredient of success. Fear of failure had kept me from succeeding in my other sales jobs where the supervisors scrutinized every call that did not produce a sale and pointed out my mistakes. If I had done this, if I had said that, I would have made the sale. It was my fault. I screwed up.
I hated failing. I was miserable. So I did the only sensible thing; I cut my losses. I kept my calls to a minimum which assured my ultimate failure — no calls, no sales.
The numbers game changed that. I was eager to make cold calls even though I knew that most of the time I would get a no. That was okay; I had to get thirty-nine no’s for every sale. The important thing was to secure a decision from the prospect, because a decision, positive or negative, validated the call and my efforts. Now a no made me happy. It put me one step closer to a sale.
Once I embraced the role of failure in success, it depersonalized rejection. Rejection became a natural part of the process. It had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t being rejected. Rejection only meant that I had discovered a prospect who didn’t buy. Rejection actually enhanced my self-worth, because it moved me toward my objective. Now I saw failure for what it was, an accomplishment. Every no counted. I wasn’t being rejected; I was succeeding.
The numbers did not always work out in an orderly fashion: one sale every forty calls, one sale every other day. Sometimes the sale came on the first or second call, sometimes on the eleventh call; that was nice. But just as often, the sale didn’t come until the sixty-second call or the seventy-eighth or the ninety-fifth call. This was the test of the true believer. It took a devotion to the numbers game to keep making twenty calls a day, day after day, with no sales and a deep faith the numbers would work themselves out and the sales would manifest in time.
The numbers game taught me to look beyond the moment, to ignore the success or failure of the immediate action, to place it in perspective, to see it not as a measure of my abilities but as a step on a journey in which every step counted, every step advanced my cause. It was the cumulative effect of sustained effort that produced success. As long as I kept taking the steps, so many every day, I would reach my goal. The numbers game gave me a way to measure my steps and a reason to keep walking.
K.C. Knouse is the author of a collection of short fiction, Twenty Miles West of Branch, Texas and other stories (2018) and the personal finance book, True Prosperity: Your Guide to a Cash-Based Lifestyle (1996).