How A Career In Umpiring Helped Me Develop My Sales Strike Zone

John Bennett, Sales & Business Development Leader with Peak 10

Sales success is about much more than converting prospects to customers. Many of the most important strategic skills that help sales professionals master their craft are ones that help them navigate more nuanced interpersonal situations, rather than convincing someone to buy a product or service.

Prior to my career in technology, I spent more than 20 years as a professional & NCAA Division I baseball umpire. In my previous life in baseball, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about management, diplomacy, and the need for honesty, accuracy and clear thinking in a fast-moving environment. Helping customers and prospects manage the shifting needs of their organizations in a world of rapid technological change is difficult. You must understand how to help others pinpoint challenges and prioritize complex organizational goals, but you also need to be flexible in how you approach the process.

Here are nine sales and business development lessons I learned from a 22-year career in umpiring.

Be willing to admit when you missed the call. Embrace self-criticism. You can’t lie to yourself. In baseball, everything is on film. You can go back and look at it, say “I missed this play, here’s why.” The ability to reflect honestly on where you can improve is an important skill to learn. There will be times where you’ll wonder “what could I have done differently?” A lesson I learned in umpiring is that if you’re willing to ask the question, you need to be willing to accept honest feedback and process constructive criticism in a positive way. It will only help you to improve.

Know when to be flexible with the strike zone. There was a time when I knew everything in the rule book, but in baseball, some rules aren’t always enforced as strictly as others. For example, before the days of every play being broadcasted and recorded, if a team was up by 10 runs in the 7th inning, the strike zone might have gotten a little bigger. The umpiring crew would have an understanding that “hey, this one is out of hand – let’s call more strikes and get out of here.” It’s an act of mercy for the players and fans. Today with modern technology, things are more closely tracked and that doesn’t happen as much. A lot of variables impact the sales cycle. It may be clear that a deal isn’t likely or they may be obviously leaning in another direction, but a sales rep needs to know when to do their due diligence anyway. If not, your boss may wonder why you weren’t pushing harder for the business or why certain questions weren’t asked. Understand when to stick to the game plan vs. adopting a more flexible approach. Yes, you need to remain focused, but sometimes you need to go outside the box.

Always keep your cool (especially when things get heated). One big thing I learned from umpiring is conflict resolution. Sometimes you’re not going to be popular with the calls you need to make or the calls you will inevitably miss. How do you handle yourself when you miss a call and have 10,000 people screaming at you, or when a manager with steam coming out of his ears is screaming in your face because he disagrees with a call you just made? You learn a lot about yourself in those situations. How are you going to handle the next pitch, or the next inning? You have to keep your composure in those situations, no matter how hard it is. The more experience I had calling games, I got a bit wiser and had fewer ejections. When you lose a big deal – particularly if it’s something you’ve been working on for a long time – sometimes it can feel personal. But I’ve learned over time that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Keeping a calm head and drawing from those conflict resolution skills has helped me immensely. If you’re feeling angry, recognize that you can only get in trouble when you talk. Sometimes less is more. There were times when I may have gotten caught up in the heat of the moment and responded to a manager’s fury by dropping a few four-letter words of my own. That’s something you come to regret. One of the most important skills I learned from umpiring is the ability to listen and know when to stay quiet.

Sometimes extra innings are part of the job. I can’t tell you how many times we’d go into the bottom of the 9th with one team up four runs, and the minute you’d start to think about wrapping up and heading home to see your family, that lead would evaporate. Extra innings seemed to always come at the most inopportune time, but you need to stay focused and keep your head down. You need to be able to work in the same fashion no matter the situation. Do what you’re paid to do. Recognize that extra innings come with the job, and sometimes you’ll need to put in the extra work in the evening.

Focus on the fundamentals. There are times when you’ll struggle. Everyone goes through slumps – be it players, umpires or sales professionals. I had stretches where I wasn’t seeing the low pitch well or the outside pitch easily. In those moments, I would adopt a “back to basics” mentality to help me get on track. Focus on the basics to try and figure out what you’re doing wrong. Knowing when to recognize when I was off and reset myself is something that has helped me tremendously.

Timing is everything. There’s a saying in umpiring “it’s nothing until you call it.” Let’s say there’s a big play at first base during a pivotal moment in the game and something screwy happens…maybe the first baseman drops the ball after the tag or the throw may have pulled him off the bag. You’re going to need to make the right call, but it’s important that you know how to pause for a moment in a high-pressure situation and take a deep breath, think it through and make the right call. Slow your timing – review it and call it in your head first. Hitting pause for a few seconds will usually help you get over a mess if something unexpected happens.

Be adaptable. Umpiring has helped me to adapt with changes throughout my life and career. In the early 2000s, there was a system called QuesTec that we started using. It was developed to track missiles, but in practice it was mostly used to track baseballs. Once QuesTec was incorporated into games, it was much easier to let an umpire know which calls they missed. Whether it’s pitch tracking technology on the baseball field, or the wide range of big data and machine learning tools increasingly used within an organization, sales professionals must abide by the technology in use and realize that on some level, it’s going to be about the numbers.

Climbing the ladder. In the minors, you’re competing with all the other umpires to get to the big leagues. There are two types of people – those who are happy for the success of others and those who say “that should’ve been me.” It’s important to recognize the benefits of being a team player and understand the need for patience. Team-oriented environments generate better success for all, and hard work goes a long way. The work you put in tends to pay off in the end, and being a strong team player makes you a more desirable asset to the organization than someone constantly seeking personal accomplishments above all else. 

Perception is reality. How you present yourself matters. In my umpiring days, this was incredibly important. Whenever I’d walk out on the field, making sure I was looking the part and acting the part made it a lot easier to do the best job I could. Work with confidence and be assertive. Make sure your shoes are shined and your pants are creased. Umpires and sales people are both used to being told no. Confidence is key. Whether I’m calling a bang-bang play at first base or making a sale, confidence helps show people that you know what you’re doing.

John Bennett is a sales and business development leader with Peak 10, a national IT infrastructure, interconnection, cloud and managed services provider. The company operates 16 data center facilities around the U.S. and serves thousands of enterprises in financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, logistics and other industries. John spent the last four years of his professional umpiring career at AAA and was invited to the MLB Arizona Fall League in 2003. As an NCAA umpire, he worked 11 conference tournaments, & eight NCAA Div-I regional tournaments prior to coming off the field due to work requirements and wanting to spend more time with his family.