Fable Friday and Piano Tuners

How many piano tuners are there in New York City?  What do you mean, “How on earth should I know?”  You should be able to figure this out.

On today’s Fable Friday we’ll talk about Enrico Fermi, the most creative physicist of our time, and his methods for helping his students answer questions about the natural world.  Fermi had them solve problems that have no definitive answer or precise solution path.  He believed that if the solver used reasonable assumptions about what is known, complex problems could be solved within an order of magnitude (a factor of ten). 

So what does this have to do with anything we’ve been talking about?   Well, simply this. In my last post I suggested you help your team create a sales plan by making logical assumptions about call activities. Useful questions would be:  How often should I call on my A customers?  How many times should I call on a prospect to get a piece of business? How many calls of any kind should I make in a week?  Sales managers always struggle with this issue, make inaccurate guesses, then push down quotas to an unwilling and uninvolved sales staff.

So my solution is this.  Why not have them make some educated guesses to answer your questions, then build a plan around the assumptions?

Here is what you do.  At a sales meeting, put them into groups of 3 and ask them to figure out how many piano tuners there are in New York City.  Don’t accept wild guesses.  Challenge them to make some assumptions.  Believe me, they’ll come up with some good answers. 

Here is one logical approach, all based on reasonable estimates.  The population of NYC is about 10,000,000, of which families, or households probably number about 2,000,000.  Let’s say that 20% of families own pianos, so there are 400,000 pianos, and on average a piano is tuned yearly, so there are 400,000 piano tunings per year. So including travel time, a piano tuner can tune 4 pianos a day, then he will tune 800 pianos in a 200 day work year, so the number of piano tuners must be 400,000 divided by 800, or 500 piano tuners.  Not a bad guess when you think about it and consistent with the order of magnitude requirement, as there will certainly be more than 50 and not 5,000.

Making these rough assumptions to solve the piano tuner question is a lot of fun, and now you can encourage them to solve the call frequency question, which is much simpler.  After all, if they are wrong, they’ll only be wrong for one quarter and after that you will have some pretty good experiential data.  And what is more, the plan estimates will be theirs, not yours, which will gain your team’s commitment to the numbers they created.

The lesson here is that you should not give up on quantifying plan activities just because “no one knows” the right numbers.  Start somewhere, make some good guesses, and adjust from experience.  You’ll gain a knowledgeable, committed sales team who know what they have to do to succeed.

Treat your sales team as if they were customers, and

Think Like Your Customer

My May newsletter goes out on Tuesday.  Please look for it, as some direct pieces get spam-filtered out, and you will want to see this one. It contains a useful sales tip on follow-up after the call.  If you’re not signed up, go to my website www.actionsystemstraining.com, click on the newsletter link in the top right and enter your name and email address.  Thank you.  Gregory

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at www.actionsystemstraining.com.

One Response to Fable Friday and Piano Tuners

  1. Jennifer O'Connor says:


    I was asked this question during an interview at Case Western for their Anesthesiology Program. It did catch me off guard at first, but I did manage to reason my way to a response. I had forgotten about it until I read your article and will definitely ask my managers the question at our next sales meeting!


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