Occam's Razor

Any experienced salesperson will tell you that their career has been full of peaks and valleys, creating a feast or famine way of life. The factors that determine at which end of the spectrum a salesperson or team may find themselves can be elusive at best. Seasoned salespeople may tell you that they have to wear their lucky shirt to sell their way out of a slump. Veteran closers will sometimes employ tricks like pitching from back to front to make their presentation seem more fresh. A strong sales rep who knows how precarious a good groove can be can seem as superstitious as a world-class athlete that would crash and burn if he or she did not tie their shoes just right.

It takes a zen-like approach to master the ups and downs of a career in sales. And yet the landscape of sales efficiency is changing at a rapid rate: we live in the age of Big Data. There are so many different metrics available to us that when examining the determining factors of sales success, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Sales managers often find themselves in a state of analysis paralysis where so much time is spent reviewing statistical data that actionable measures get delayed and results stagnate.

While well-measured data is essential to effective management on all layers of a business’ success, in the enigmatic world of sales, it can be beneficial to take a more streamlined approach in assessing areas that need improvement.
In such cases, one can turn to a centuries-old philosophical principle called Occam’s Razor. The principle has been used to solve various problems ranging from science to religion to probability theory. Investigators have used it to solve crimes. Doctors and medical specialists have used it for diagnostic purposes. Can Occam’s Razor be applied to help solve the problems of a faltering salesperson or team?

Occam’s Razor: What is it?

Earlier iterations of the principle can be traced all the way back to Aristotle. Other philosophers and critical thinkers adopted versions along the way and at some point the principle became attributed to a medieval philosopher named William of Ockham, who used it in his theological works and lended the term “Occam’s Razor” his name.

From a sales perspective, in their business terms glossary, Techtarget.com describes Occam’s Razor like this: “in trying to understand something, getting unnecessary information out of the way is the fastest way to the truth or to the best explanation.”

How Occam’s Razor works in the context of sales is the real meat here, so let’s take a look at a couple of instances where it might be applied to improve closing rates on sales.

Let’s say that you manage a team of sales representatives that rely on cold-calling prospects in order to reach their goals. The team is in a slump lately and it’s your job to get them back on track. One thing you could do is sit down and take a deep dive into your numbers. You notice that sales are 2% higher between the hours of 3:00pm-5:00pm than they are between 1:00pm-3:00pm. Based on that data, you instruct your team to focus on making calls between 3 to 5.

Sounds like an analytics-driven strategy, right? Occam’s Razor would disagree.

Let’s use Occam’s principle to “shave down” to the reason that sales are higher during that time. After taking a walk through your sales floor, you notice that everyone seems to be more concentrated at the end of the day.
You don’t know why but without looking at numbers and instead just taking in the ambience of the room you could assume that your team is more focused during these magic hours. They seem to be making an effort to hit their daily sales goals. Or perhaps they are in a better mood because their work day is almost over. Whatever the reason may be, it’s obvious that their focus is leveled up during the last two hours of the day.

Occam’s Razor would suggest that it’s not necessarily the time of day that is affecting your numbers but rather the state of mind that your salespeople are in. Instead of focusing on a particular time, which in this case would give you a very minimal increase in closed sales, you could center in on shifting the mental state of your reps for the entirety of the day.

There are many ways to improve your salespeople’s mental state. You could introduce an exciting new incentive program. You could make adjustments to the workspace. It’s been said that a well designed office space can increase productivity by up to 20%. Room temperature, noise, and even the color of the walls can have an effect on the mental state of your employees.

It can be easy to make deductions about the best time of the day for your salespeople to make cold calls based on analytical data, like in the example above. Regarding attitude, there is an age-old “rule” in sales that says the best time to call a prospect is not a particular time of day, it’s immediately after closing a sale.

Just to be clear, chaining your victorious rep back to the sales desk after a touchdown is not the way to reward him or her. Instead of having the agent do their victory lap around the office gathering high fives and back pats, encourage the rest of your sales team to gather around him or her as they make their next call. The team will feed off of the energy and the agent will feel the support of his or her teammates. You have just created a symbiotic level of energy that you never could have generated at a desk looking at charts and graphs.

Any seasoned salesperson will admit to having been guilty of pre-judging a prospect. It’s human nature. If a salesperson has been rejected by 9 out of the last 10 prospects from Iowa that he has pitched in the last two weeks, then it can be very difficult for that representative to not pre-judge the next Iowan lead he gets handed. Pre-judging leads to a poor presentation and sales get missed.

Of course, there is a difference between dealing with pre-qualified prospects and pre-judging leads. If a prospect lines up with the buyer’s persona that fits your organization’s offer then it falls at the feet of the representative to give the best A to Z presentation they can deliver.

Every day there are sales managers that start their mornings faced with a team of professional representatives hungry for new leads. In our new world of Big Data there can be a lot of information about the prospects handed out to these representatives, including their physical address. Let’s assume that your team is closing poorly on a particular geographic target, even though internal research lines the leads up as strong prospects for your offer.

In our hypothetical example, let’s say a couple of your more seasoned reps have not been able to close deals in a particular zip code and they spread the word about it throughout the office. Less experienced agents, when seeing that zip code on their leads, pre-judge the prospect and give a weak pitch. They assume the lead is bad, so they rush through the presentation so that they can move on to more profitable prospects (in their minds).

As a concerned manager, you approach your VP of sales and ask to have the zip code removed from the database and replaced with higher performing leads. When the VP asks you why, you tell him that your representatives are pre-judging the prospects from that particular zip code. You feel the leads are a waste of time and money.

The VP applies a little bit of Occam’s Razor logic to the situation. In his mind, the leads aren’t bad. The salespeople’s perception is bad. So instead of scrapping leads in that zip code from the database, he instructs you as the sales manager to remove the zip code information from the leads before they are handed out to the representatives.

Remember how we talked about the sportsman-like superstition of sales superstars? You don’t want to remove what they think is a vital piece of data without replacing it with something more powerful.

You introduce a new format of lead distribution to your reps. As a sales manager you have decided to empower your agents by delivering a more impactful set of prospect data. Instead of address information you focus on providing a more drilled-down profile that gives your salespeople information on the last three third-party services the prospect has invested in, giving your representatives a wide-open window into the lead’s recent hot-button purchases.

While using the application of Occam’s Razor in regards to performance, it turns out that the perception of the leads is what is driving or killing sales, and perception is something that can be managed. A widely effective adjustment has just been made based on Occam’s simple principle and the geographic prejudice that was crippling a sector of your sales has dissipated in the smoke of excitement over new and empowering data.

Final Thoughts
Analytics and well-measured metrics are essential to any sales team and should not be ignored. Today’s technology has afforded us a wealth of information both about our prospects and our teams’ performance. In that respect, we are much more fortunate than those a decade or more before us.

Occam’s Razor is by no means a be-all and end-all principle for solving sales problems. One can find many arguments against using the philosophy, the most important being that Occam’s Razor should be a starter approach. Antagonists of the ideology will say that the problem when using the Razor to backtrack is that there is quite often a tendency to reason retroactively from a foregone conclusion. Fair enough. Remember when we talked about how nuanced the ups and downs of sales success can be? When solutions based on statistical analysis fail to work, sometimes the answer can be found in a more organic approach to assessing sales challenges. In these situations, the answer may be to ignore the forest and take a good look at the trees.