Who Wants Realistic Sales Objectives? Your Salespeople Do

At a recent engagement with a major US company, a senior sales leader posed a question we hear a great deal:

How many sales objectives should my sales reps have?

It’s an interesting and important question, so I’m going to explore it here.

One of the basic beliefs we hold dear at Vantage Point is that the world of sales has become too complex. Way too complex. There’s no shortage of things to do in a sales force – there’s just a shortage of time in which to do them – so focusing on the right activities is an absolute necessity. We believe that a sure path to better performance is to strip away unnecessary layers of complexity for sales reps and focus them on the few key things that will drive results.

Conversely, a sure path to mediocre performance is to focus your sales team on too many objectives. We observed this phenomenon in one of our early clients that had invited us to their annual sales kick-of. The head of sales stood on the stage and announced the four key sales objectives that he expected his team to pursue over the next twelve months: 1 ) acquire new customers, 2) win back lost customers, 3) penetrate the existing customer base more deeply, and 4) expand their product footprint in all of the above. You could see the sales reps’ response on their faces… ‘Really… That’s all? We’ll get right on that.’

One issue with providing multiple ‘top priority’ sales objectives is that it becomes a little self-defeating. If I were one of those sales reps, I would immediately assess that I couldn’t possibly pursue that many sales objectives at the same time, so I would try to introduce some rationality into the process and pick the one or two that appear easiest to achieve. Of course, the moment I do that, I’ve defeated sales management’s original intent, which was to provide me with my priorities. If my colleagues follow in my footsteps, management would end up with an unfocused sales force, despite its deliberate attempts at the opposite.

But let’s put aside that potential logical inconsistency and turn to a much more practical issue. If you look at the sales objectives outlined above, some require conflicting sales activities. For instance, if I want to acquire new customers, then I need to spend my time calling on prospects. But if I want to penetrate the existing customer base more deeply, I need to spend my time visiting my current customers – not potential prospects. Practically speaking, it would be impossible for me to ‘focus’ on all of these objectives, since pursuing one prevents the other. Frustrating indeed!

So back to the question of how many objectives a salesperson can realistically pursue. Well, it depends. Based on the example above, as few as two objectives can be too many, if they send the sales reps conflicting instructions. Or maybe four is appropriate, if they’re all closely aligned. The counsel that we usually give our clients is to put themselves in the shoes of the sales reps.

From management’s perspective, it’s easy to assign a slew of objectives to the sales reps, as though they are superheroes capable of achieving astonishing feats. But from a sales rep’s perspective, it might look as though your plan is not to be taken seriously. Sales reps could think, rightly so, that you’ve lost touch with reality. So, before you communicate a new slate of sales objectives, imagine yourself as the recipient of those objectives and see what your gut tells you. If your first response is, ‘Really… That’s all?!’, then you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment.