What if... We Stopped Setting Sales Goals?

There’s something in the air in Ireland that encourages a questioning nature. Maybe it’s leprechaun dust, maybe it’s the Guinness fumes. But whatever it is, if you’ve worked with someone from Ireland, you might have noticed their tendency to ask questions and challenge conventions. I know that I can’t help myself. And in sales there’s maybe no bigger challenge than suggesting you don’t set sales goals.

Goals as a principle make perfect sense. If you set a goal, you can define success. How else would you know if you’ve done the job you needed to. If I need to lose some weight after being housebound with COVID-19 for the past three months I’ll set a goal and track my progress towards hitting that weight. And that works because I’m in an environment where I can control everything – I select what I eat and when I eat and how much exercise I do.

In sales we don’t control our fates. If we did, sales would be easy. Unless you’re selling face masks or hand sanitizer, sales are difficult these days. Endless books and articles have been written about how to sell. There’s not a sales person alive who doesn’t think they could write a book on what made them successful, but it’s still a skill that’s hard to define. It’s easier to teach kids how to throw a basketball than it is to be a sales person that’s consistent year after year. And that’s down to control – you control everything that goes into that free throw shot. But in sales, the bulk of your time is spent responding to the customer. Sales isn’t about the getting in the basket, it’s about rebounding.

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With the advent of COVID we’re in uncharted territory. No one knows what the world will look like in six months. And six months ago, no one knew what the world was going to look like now. This year will be a "let’s see what happens" year. Next year will be a "let's see what happens" year and after that, who knows what life has in store for us. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the last few months it’s that we’re all rebounders, reacting to the missed shots and scrambling to adapt to a changing situation. And that’s the essence of sales, particularly in the markets and products and customers we try to sell to.

The focus on setting a goal quickly shows it’s weakness as a concept. Everyone had goals in January for 2020, everyone has different goals now, and we’ll be guessing when we’re goal setting for next year. For those of us who have paychecks that depend on meeting goals the setting for that goal is pretty important. And to be honest, if you’re fixed salary, your paycheck depends on the company hitting their goal as many of us learned over the past few months, so you’ve got goals too, just indirectly.

It always bothered me that a good sales person could have a bad year by doing the same things as they did last year. Was the sales person suddenly bad, or were we measuring the wrong metric for success?

I think the tendency to make sales like sports feeds into this too. Sports is about winning. Great coaches and players can be dropped because it’s ultimately about the win. And then teams see great players and coaches go elsewhere and win constantly and never ask if maybe they’d been evaluated the wrong way.

You see the goal is the result, and I think instead, the measure should be showing the habits and doing the right things that lead to the result. The things you can control, instill and train on until it becomes second nature. Those are the things we should measure, those are the things that will provide long term results. It’s not the sale, but everything we do that gets us the sale.

In my weight loss example the path to success isn’t to jump on the scale once a week and tally where I stand, it’s in forming the habits each and every day to do the right things that encourage weight loss. Less snacking, better foods, better portions, more structured meal times. Structure, again the things I can control. Now imagine what those equivalents are in sales.

Staying fresh on product knowledge, frequent customer outreach, fast response time, using the right systems in the right way, having price discipline, communicating clearly – there’s no end of measurable good habits that can drive success. Those are core to your business – if you can’t list the things that make for successful sales you’ve got big problems.

There’s another reason to think about goals differently, and that’s the changing work environment. We were already facing a generation shift that will change how we function, and on top of that we now have a workplace shift that might be long lasting. Travel budgets disappeared this year, and how difficult will it be to get them back next year? Will we ever return to 2019 travel budgets again? The airlines believe it’ll take years. Zoom meetings and working remotely might become the new norm, as companies are learning that you can succeed working this way and save unnecessary costs.

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There’s one last challenge with a goal of course. If you hit it you might think you’re done, you’ve met your target for the year. And this is where business further isn’t like sports – there’s no trophy waiting for us. Sales is an endless exercise. There’s no finish line, nor should there be. Creating a goal as a finish line creates a vacuum when you cross it. So if sports couldn’t evaluate players on wins and losses, how would they evaluate them? They’d use the measures that lead to success.

While I don’t expect the idea of setting sales quotas and goals to disappear overnight, I think it’s something we might be forced to consider with our new workforces. Some day bonuses might not link to sales revenues, but instead a series of controllable soft skills that encourage the disciplines that can drive consistent long term success. Occasionally that might mean rewarding someone even though the sale weren’t what you wanted, but I believe it’ll help you drive better more consistent results over the long term. It will help you uncover hidden problems you have with your sales people – to see if they have the sales DNA to respond in the right ways and navigate our complex selling environment.

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Mark McGready

Mark McGready

Mark McGready has been working with data analysis for over 20 years in the electrical industry. For the last 10 years Mark founded and ran Jigsaw Systems Inc, a successful data analysis and process improvement company that focused on key sales and marketing challenges like SPA contracts, pricing matrices, inventory analysis and harnessing Point of Sale. Recently Jigsaw was acquired by SPARXiQ, formally Strategic Pricing Associates, in order to widen the services and capabilities available to the industry. Mark brings a combination of understanding data with a commercial sense of real world applications. His tools have generated millions of dollars in top line and bottom line results with his long list of clients.