Who's On First

Baseball fans will be able to date this essay to 1988. I found it on my hard drive while looking for something else. I wrote it about five companies ago, but it’s just perfect given the season.


In sales, like baseball: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you just play the game.” The problems start when you don’t do any of the three.

Spring marks the rite of passage for many of our most treasured institutions. For some, the trials and tribulations of favorite baseball teams demand much attention, contemplation, and discussion.

  • What famous player or ex-player will provide the next really juicy scandal?

  • Can Oakland’s marvelous outfielder get arrested 40 times making him baseball’s first 40, 40, 40 man? [Students of the game will perhaps recall Jose Canseco’s marvelous 40 home run, 40 steal year.]

  • How long ‘til the Yankees have a new manager? [Where did you go Billy Martin?]

Others find truth and meaning in long par fours, crisply hit seven irons, and 6 foot putts for par. Ahhh, the blooming azaleas, Amen Corner, the Green Jacket! Lay up or go for it? What could be finer?

From Indianapolis, the Brickyard beckons motor racing fans to the world’s biggest month long speed orgy. Vrooooom, Vrooooom. Thrill while seemingly well-adjusted human beings strap themselves to 1600 pound projectiles and go really, really fast for 500 miles.

Then there are those darn birds and bees. Even those long married among us remember those warm spring days when romance filled the air, and thoughts of what’s-his-name stirred the imagination. (Those of us with teen aged daughters quake at the thought of our progeny feeling one instant of those same thoughts.)

And, oh yes, amidst all this reawakening, let’s not forget this is also the season for selling. Home buyers are buying. Purchasing agents are purchasing. The acquisitive are acquiring. Yes, folks, spring is in the air. The first quarter blahs are over. We’ve finally run out of excuses. It’s time to get out there and make things happen.

The Faster I Go, The Faster I Go

The truth is, it was never not time to make things happen. There is never a bad time to sell. Somebody is always buying everything, somewhere, all the time. (Yeah, and in a perfect world, sales curves should look like a step-less, seamless straight line heading off the chart at about a 45° angle.)

The problem is, reality is much different. Buying and selling are both profoundly emotional experiences. (How annoying!) Buyers have a whole raft of seemingly unexplainable reasons why they buy, stall, or object, all of which are cloaked in the mighty veil of logic.

Sellers, too, have buckets of mysterious reasons why this or that can or can’t be sold until such and such does or doesn’t happen. The end result is often a near comic opera of intransigent buyers, frustrated sellers, and half-crazed sales managers.

Will it ever change? For too many, probably not. Can it change? Yes it can.

Nobody Goes There Any More. It’s Too Crowded

The silly thing about this vicious cycle is that it’s very breakable (easily broken?). Whether you’re an individual producer trying to even out the ups-and-downs of selling, or a sales manager or executive trying to turn-up-the-wick on sales, it really only takes three simple things:

  • Process: Look at any top-performer, from any field of endeavor (baseball, golf, and motor racing are three areas we’ve already touched on), and you’ll find a system. All the seemingly mundane details that make up 98% of the effort have been pre-programmed, practiced, and developed until they can be performed flawlessly under all conditions. The same should be and can be true of sales. Increasing sales performance isn’t so much a question of training as it is one of “systematizing.”

  • Commitment: The world is full of wonderful ideas, techniques, and paradigms to explain all the mysteries of running a business. But few actually work because they come from “out there.” We think 95% of the answers to even the most intractable problems reside in the minds of the people doing the work. The key is being able to identify the real problem and activate all that tremendous brainpower to engage the doers in building systematic solutions that everyone – line, staff, and management – have confidence in.

  • Simplicity: Many of the most glamorous solutions to business problems are models of complexity, high-cost, and dubious value. This becomes particularly true where customer acquisition and retention are concerned. Truly successful sales organizations keep things simple. They routinely handle the obvious things too many of us ignore, and conquer the near-impossible too many of us give-up on, because they stay focused on keeping things simple, clear, and common-sensible to the people who have to do the work.

If you’ve found yourself waiting for a change of seasons – literally or figuratively – maybe it’s time you did a little spring cleaning. Take a hard look at whatever assumptions are holding you back. Seek out randomness and replace it with a system and commit yourself to using it. Take a fresh look: reassign yourself your territory or customers for the very first time. Pretend you’ve never worked here or with these people before. Pretend you have one quarter to make an entire year’s goal. Pretend it really mattered. Now what would you do?

Kevin Hoffberg