Selling Soft Numbers

Numbers can be your greatest ally in large B2B sales, because they have a certain sense of concreteness that  carries great weight in the minds of decision makers. The mere use of numerical data in a sales call or presentation sends important signals to the audience. It tells them that you are competent—you have solid information to back up your sales pitch. It tells them you are prepared, because you have taken the time to gather the data.

There are people who will tell you that only hard numbers count in sales—that if it can’t be measured, it does not exist. Hard numbers are those that are directly measurable; soft numbers are difficult to measure or too intangible to really count.

That advice may have contained more truth in previous days, when value in the economy consisted principally of things, but in today’s knowledge economy following that advice will cause you to leave huge amounts of value on the table. We’ve reached the point in our economy today where the value of intangible assets is almost equal to that of tangible assets, and the trend is sure to continue. In today’s increasingly intangible world, perception carries greater and greater weight, and effective salespeople know how to use it to their advantage.

Even data-driven decision makers and influencers have ordinary human brains, in which currents of intuition and emotion beneath the surface affect the direction of their thoughts. So, even if they discount the soft numbers that emerge from sales discussions, you can be sure they are at work in their minds, influencing the direction of the decision.

To salespeople, one of the biggest obstacles is that price is hard, but value and risk are soft. Yet, those two are the factors that will most determine the success of the decision.

Value is perceived in the eye of the customer. Will they value such things as time to market, employee engagement, innovation, security even if you can’t put a hard dollar value on them? Of course they will. It’s your job to affect that perception; don’t preemptively surrender by leaving out “intangible” benefits.

Because purchase decisions are fundamentally predictions about the future, there is always an element of risk in the decision. Risk, by definition, is uncertain and therefore “soft”. You can nudge—or even shove—the decision in your desired direction by asking the right questions that focus the customer’s mind on risk, such as the risks of inaction or of choosing a competitive solution.

“Soft” numbers have the disadvantage of being much easier for people to challenge, but that can also be an advantage, because frequently your customer might put a higher value on an intangible than you would dare to claim for it.

Besides, even hard numbers come wrapped in a lot of intangibles and uncertainties. For example, if you can prove that your solution will speed up a process by 15%, can you ensure that the time savings will translate into a proportional dollar impact? Maybe the improvement will be dampened by bottlenecks in another part of the process, or workers will use the extra time to take it easy, or the customer might not be able to sell the increased output.

Because soft numbers are so dependent on perception, the best way to get buy-in is to get your customers to tell you the numbers they want to hear.

Ask questions: Implication and cost questions get the customer to estimate risks and costs. Often customers will estimate risks and costs even higher than you would, because they are the ones who can vividly imagine the future if their current situation is not improved.

Even if you don’t get an answer, you can bet they are thinking about it. I was once in a sales call where a VP of Sales told me if his account managers did not learn how to talk to high level decision makers, they could lose some of their best customers to an aggressive new competitor. I asked him what that would mean in terms of lost revenue. His answer: “I don’t even want to think about it!” But of course, that’s exactly what he was thinking about when he said it.

Use their numbers: During the sales cycle, you should be talking to as many people as possible about their business situation, processes, and challenges. As you ask questions, use their numbers when you make the final presentation to senior management. Most times, you can reduce their numbers for greater credibility, and still have plenty of room to justify the investment decision.

Hard numbers are definitely useful, especially with skeptical buyers. The best thing about hard numbers is that they enforce boundaries on perceptions: you can’t sell the “sizzle” unless there is some steak there.

Yet in the end, selling is about influencing decisions, and decisions are based on perceptions, judgments and forecasts. That’s why, if you leave soft numbers out of your sales efforts, you will leave money on the table. Look at it this way: if only hard numbers counted in sales, the accountants would earn all the commission dollars.

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The Ideal Sales Conversation
November 11, 2013
  • Jack Malcolm


    I’m not totally sure why it is, either. It might be because buyers think it’s in their interests not to show they put too much weight on the number, and less confident or experienced salespeople don’t want to press the issue.

  • Absolutely right on. My experience also is that the soft numbers are always bigger than the hard numbers – and that they are subjective and more difficult to establish. That’s why I try to avoid talking about “ROI” and focus on cash effects, so that I don’t have to justify a hard-number hurdle investment return rate to a CFO. And you’re right on about having the customer come up with the number. I once had a CEO-level buyer say “The amount doesn’t matter – it’s a big number.”

    What I often wonder about is why this is one of the most difficult things to get a salesperson to do consistently and effectively.

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