The way in which sales targets are set can determine the results. An unwittingly indifferent organisation, that fails to engage its sales team when setting stretch targets, is likely to fall short. This isn’t based on economics, it is because of how our brains operate.
Constantly striving to simply survive in an organisation does little to contribute to a person’s wellbeing at the level of basic human energy, let alone their target delivery. Moving leaders away from unwitting indifference, to an approach that allows the sales person’s brain in question to feel connected and therefore trust, can be a turning point for organisational change.
Let’s look at a real scenario and demonstrates the role a coach can play to create a more productive sales performance.
The atmosphere was very tense.
There was a huge hole in sales delivery versus budget (and I mean huge). The product development and sales teams had not worked well for months. The division in question had recently been taken over and the sales targets had been set without real consultation with the businesses and everyone felt their neck was on the line.
The CEO had intervened at the operating company sales director level and threatened to fire people. There were undercover turf wars, silo behaviours and outright competition. No wonder they had missed their numbers.
Individually these were all decent bright people. There was no malicious intent to undermine but they had all managed to find themselves in a situation where their primary response was to fight for the area they most closely identified with. Unfortunately, their protectionism and lack of collaboration meant they failed catastrophically at their sales task.
The emotional indifference with which sales targets had been set had triggered a survival reaction; something our brains are programmed to do when we feel threat is imminent. The primal escape-avoidance response was what led to delivering sub-optimal results.
This approach had failed to motivate and energise the team and missed out a fundamental requirement for effective team-working. To bring out the best in employees, they need to feel emotionally and psychologically safe.
The sales director called in coaching support to help the sales team to fundamentally shift this dynamic. The intervention with the sales team started with getting real clarity on whether the sales director could truly count on the CEO’s support and backing. This needed to be demonstrated in a way that was clearly genuine to the whole team. Without it, the feeling of threat would not lessen. The CEO did this. He came to the team’s intervention and, without being corny, demonstrated his backing for the sales director. He was then asked to leave the session.
The team moved into some exercises that enabled them to explore what was important to them personally at work and what represented purpose for them. Space was further created where they could give professionally based feedback to each other. The role of the coach at this point was to create a safe place for this to happen. The work took place at a leisurely pace over two-and-a-half days and there was plenty of relational time between working sessions.
People said what was on their minds and the feeling of hidden agendas were removed, which enabled a sense of psychological and emotional safety and an emergence of greater trust between individuals and departments.
Working from this more solid relational foundation, the different groupings within sales came together to find ways to plug the sales-budget gap. Of course there was still an element of survival involved and the threat of what the CEO’s response would be if they did not make up some ground but this created a prompt for action. Through some genuine collaboration, the team managed to make up the sales gap by £1M (the previous gap had been many times that).
With some prompting from the sales director the CEO said ‘well done’ on a much more personal level than he might otherwise have done and the team breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Inadvertently, so many sales targets are set in the context of low relationship and emotional indifference. What the leaders setting them fail to realise is the very act of sending out the signals of indifference creates an immediate sense of emotional and psychological insecurity. This in turn signals to sales people’s brains that they are under threat.
Sales people generally understand the importance of relationship, yet they are human and cannot switch off their instincts to protect themselves and this is often where dysfunction starts. If more leaders, sales and otherwise, could fundamentally understand the performance power attached to enabling their people to feel that sense of emotional and psychological safety – a much more sustainable energy and performance culture would be the result.
About the author: Kate Lanz is MD of Lanz Executive Coaching www.lanzexecutivecoaching.co.uk