Selling By The Numbers

Tom Reilly discusses why the age-old "by-the-numbers" process is still very effective for salespeople.

This article first appeared in the September/October print issue of Industrial Distribution. To view the full digital edition, click here.

“By the numbers” is an idiom with a 200-year history. It reaches back to The Revolutionary War training of soldiers on the use of their bayonets. Today, it means by the book, according to procedures, rules, customs, or convention. We paint by numbers, dance by numbers, coach by numbers, dress by numbers, and even play music by numbers. People in the training business write and speak by the numbers. You can even sell by the numbers. We have a by-the-numbers formula for most things.

People like a by-the-numbers approach. It’s easy. Simple. Organized. There is no planning, just execution. Someone else has already done the heavy lifting of organizing. A by-the-numbers approach gives people confidence. They feel a sense of control. By the numbers sounds like a proven methodology. Selling by the numbers offers all of these benefits. A handful of numerical devices give us a roadmap for success in sales. This list of numbers will help you sell more effectively.

Plan every sales call. A seminar attendee once challenged me on this, “Are you saying that I should plan every call?” I responded, “No, plan just those calls where you want to sell something.” He got the message. Every call means all calls. This is 100 percent of your sales calls. Call this planning-by-the-numbers: What is your call objective? What questions will you ask? What benefits will you stress? How will you ask for the business?

When you probe, gather as much information as possible. Eighty-percent of your questions must be open-ended. They begin with why, how, what, and tell me about. These questions encourage customers to speak freely. It gives them the opportunity to volunteer any information they think is important. If you ask open-ended questions, be prepared to listen patiently. Listen twice as much as you talk. This means you must spend at least two-thirds your time on a sales call listening to the customer. Call this probing-and-listening-by-the-numbers.

Close on every call. Again, every call means all calls. Closing is achieving your call objective, whatever that objective may be—whether it is to get a follow-up meeting, financial information, or a firm order. At the end of each sales call, ask the buyer for something. You do this with an opinion question and a commitment question. “What do you think?” (Pause) “Where would you like to go from here?” Call this closing-by-the numbers.

Make sure that you sell all three dimensions of value: your product, your company, and you. This is a story only you can tell. The same product, from the same company, from two different salespeople is two different solutions altogether. This meaningful uniqueness makes you stand out. Most salespeople fail to differentiate their offerings.

Present your benefits using the 2-3-1 model. This is sandwiching your least compelling argument between your second most compelling and most compelling argument. Lead with your second strongest selling point, and finish with your strongest selling point. Offer proof to back up your argument. Proof and meaningful uniqueness increase your odds of success by 53 percent.

Give the buyer three compelling reasons to buy. Studies have shown that three points are ideal. Two are not enough, and four are redundant. What would happen if you compressed your presentation into the three most important things about your solution? Call this presenting-by-the-numbers.

Remember, selling is relationship management. Our studies have found that 79 percent of your success depends on your personal relationships with customers. You build relationships with trust. Trust comes from your delivering on your promises and looking out for the customers’ best interests. Buyers must feel that you have their backs. As far as I know, Theodore Roosevelt was never a salesperson, but he had great advice for salespeople. He said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Call this relationship-building-by-the numbers.

When examining your sales pipeline, use this formula to maintain a balanced flow of opportunities: 1-2-4. For every immediate opportunity, have two intermediate opportunities, and four long-term opportunities. Another way to view this is that for every imminent opportunity, have two pending and four possible opportunities. For every red-hot prospect, have two prospects, and four suspects. 1-2-4. Based on national closing ratios, this will help you maintain a balanced pipeline. Call this managing-your-pipeline-by-the-numbers.

Selling-by-the-numbers is your road map for sales success. Do one thing, then another, and then another. At the end of the process, you will find that you have succeeded by the numbers.

Tom Reilly is a professional speaker and author. You may contact him at

More in Operations