Sales targets don’t make good sales people. Sales people make good quotas – and they do it through a constant flurry of activity that’s developed, adapted and refined over time. A methodological approach can go a long way – at least until your sales manager makes one of the most common mistakes in business: raising the sales target without first knowing how the sales team is possibly going to reach it.

There’s nothing wrong with asking a lot of your sales team. As I’ve seen many times as a sales coach in Vancouver, if you’ve done your hiring right and your sales reps are true professionals – and you’ve already got incentives in place to pay for performance, then they will aim to achieve their sales quotas before you even start tweaking things.

The problem with unrealistically high sales targets doesn’t typically start with the sales manager; it often starts at a higher level, with ambitious VPs or department heads who have a good grounding in the overall finances of the company, and who think they have found a way to stand out. “Sal’s sales team is making pretty steady progress and we did see a bump in sales of 8 percent when the new product launched – but why not 10 percent? 15 percent? This company could be rolling in cash if they just roll up their sleeves…”

Pressure is placed on the sales manager to arbitrarily raise the quota – and if the sales manager isn’t on top of things or is a relatively new hire themselves, with an eager-to-please attitude, they may just go along with it. I’ve seen it happen several times with new sales managers who are still adjusting to their job and haven’t had the time to really get to know their sales team. In this case, the sales manager feels more loyalty to the executive who hired them than the people they’re supposed to be leading. Naturally, there’s a built-in incentive for the sales manager as well – if they can show results, they’ll get that year-end bonus as well.

Arbitrarily High Sales Targets Can Turn High-Performing Sales People into Burnouts

The sales quota that the out-of-touch executive wants to raise was never forged out of thin air. When the business started, sales targets were likely set according to the company business plan, data pulled from competitors or the sector as a whole and a bucket-load of best guesses.

After even a few months, the sales team and the company as a whole had a better idea of the marketplace they were really in. Sales targets were refined according to the strategies and processes the sales team already had in place; but even when those targets were more nebulous, the sales reps were still doing all they could to succeed – quota or no quota, every sales person realizes that if they don’t sell, their job is toast.

As the sales team refines what they do, the sales manager can see what they’re doing and give them guidance for how to improve. A higher sales quota isn’t a substitute for hands-on management. All it will do is ensure that some sales reps don’t make their quotas – and won’t get their bonus. A high-performer who gets penalized because of ambitious number crunching won’t stick around long.

A sales manager that lets other executives push him and his team around with unrealistic expectations is asking for trouble. It won’t be long before the target is on their own back.

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