Sales and Sales Management Blog

August 10, 2010

Mark Twain Was Right–Numbers Lie


I’m a numbers guy.  I break everything in sales and management down to numbers.  I know my numbers backwards and forwards, as I do those of my coaching clients.  I firmly believe that if you don’t know your numbers you can’t possibly make sound decisions about how to spend your time, where to find new business, where to invest your marketing dollars; and if you’re a sales leader, who to hire.

Even though I am a firm believer in numbers, I’ve noticed something of a distressing trend over the past couple of years—an emphasis on numbers to the point that intangibles are virtually ignored.  I see more and more books and hear more and more presentations arguing that numbers should determine every decision, that management and sales can be broken down to a numerical formula. 

I believe that is a huge mistake. 

Numbers are extremely important.  They can tell us a great deal about our company, our customers, our market, our product, and our selves.  They can point out strengths and weaknesses.  They can give us direction.  They can reveal great opportunities and help us avoid great pitfalls.

But as helpful as numbers can be, they ignore one critical factor about management and sales—we are selling to and managing human beings, not machines.  Unlike a machine, humans do things they’re not supposed to.  They don’t always act according to the numbers. 

I can think of no better example of numbers lying than the NFL draft.

Almost all football players are human (there are a few that I really do wonder about).  All the players who are considered for the NFL draft have a long history of playing the game—generally from grade school through at least a couple of years of college ball.  That history can span as many as 12 or more years.  That’s a long time, a lot of football games.

Over that span of years each player has developed habits and expectations.  Some have learned how to win; others how to lose.  Some have learned how to work within a team; others how to perform despite the team.  Some have learned their limitations; others have learned they have no limitations.

Almost all of the players who make the grade to be considered by the NFL come from winning teams.  They all are used to winning, but not all know how to win.  They all enjoy the perks of winning, but not all know the sacrifice required to be a winner.  They all expect to win, but not all are willing to pay the price to win.

They all have a set of numbers.

Those numbers become critical when they show up for the NFL Combine.  The combine is where numbers come to the forefront.  There are numbers for everything: height, weight, speed, agility, vertical jump, quickness.  The NFL has managed to quantify everything.  There are the numbers from the physical evaluations and the numbers from the mental and intelligence evaluation.  Everything is evaluated and every evaluation is put into a number.

The Combine has a tremendous influence on whether one gets drafted or not—and if they are drafted, in what round.  The difference is between tens of millions of dollars and zero dollars; between a career as a professional football player and just an ex-college football star.

Every year teams invest huge sums of money drafting players who blew out the numbers at the Combine; players that had the perfect combination of physical and mental scores, who outperformed all of their competition.  These are players who came from winning teams, who were stars in high school and college, who put fantastic numbers up at the Combine.  And who failed miserably in the NFL.  Who never started a game.  Who were out of the league within three or four years. Nevertheless, they are the ones who made tens of millions of dollars because they had good numbers.

Contrast that with the men who were drafted in a low round—or who weren’t drafted at all but were invited to someone’s training camp for a tryout—and ended up in the Hall of Fame.  These are men who came from winning college teams, who were stars in high school and college, who put up average or worse numbers at the Combine.  Indeed, these are the Combine also rans; the ones who made the early round draftees look good.

Every year the numbers lie.  Every year there are a ton of big number guys who bomb and a number of also rans who become NFL stars.

Sound familiar?  Recognize the same thing in your sales team?  If you’re like most sales leaders, you do.

What’s missing in the Combine evaluation of players?  The intangible.  How do you measure a winner?  How do you differentiate the players who play on a winning team from the player who is a winner? 

How do we recognize the intangible in a seller?  Will an assessment do it?  Can we spot it in a resume? 

We can certainly say what it isn’t. 

It isn’t personality or charisma.  We all have hired charismatic salespeople who flopped—and shy people who have become stars. 

Is it a commitment to hard work?  Nope.  We’ve all hired sellers who work hard all the way to the day we have to let them go.

Is it a sharp intellect?  Not at all.  We’ve all hired incredibly intelligent men and women who didn’t make it.

Is it a hunger for success?  I don’t think so.  Again, we’ve all hired people who desired success more than anything; yet failed.

Is it luck?  Again, no.  I know of some unbelievably “lucky” people who failed at every sales job they had.

Is it being at the right place at the right time?  Naw, it isn’t that either, as we’ve all seen two “equal” sellers go in different directions—one skyrockets while the other dies on the vine, both in the same “right place at the right time” market.

So, what is the intangible that takes the least likely to the top and leaves the shoo-in in the ditch?

I don’t know.  I do know I’m not going to find it in the numbers.

I’m still a numbers guy.  I’m still going to boil everything I can down to numbers.  I’m still going to be using numbers to help make decisions.  But I’m not going to take numbers as Gospel because I know they lie, they’re unreliable on their own

I’m looking for that intangible.  I know it exists because I see its reflection in too many salespeople.  If you find a way to discover its existence prior to hiring someone, please let me know.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] This post was Twitted by paul_mccord […]

    Pingback by Twitted by paul_mccord — August 10, 2010 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  2. Your article was very intersting and really caught my attention. I found that how you related the business world to the NFL. I very much agree that numbers do lie. Most of the time you can’t solely rely on best statistics. People may look good on their resume but you must remember that they are the ones making that resume. Like you said, we can’t make decisions based only on personality, commitment, and intelligence. When searching for new employees you must not only take “the combine” method but also use own judgement. You can’t judge a book by its cover. You never will really know how you pick the perfect employees, but you can provide the information so that they can grow to that.

    Comment by Sonia — September 1, 2010 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

  3. […] his blog “Mark Twain was Right—Numbers Lie”, Paul McCord talks about how all the numbers and statistics don’t necessarily mean anything when […]

    Pingback by The People Factor | Delta Point — February 25, 2011 @ 1:35 pm | Reply


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