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Sales Quotas: For Whose Benefit?

Furniture World Magazine


Tools and techniques to keep the best salespeople working for you instead of for your competitors

Cicero, ancient Rome's most prominent orator, was fond of asking his audiences Cui bono? (For whose benefit?) Store owners and managers might well ask the same question regarding the sales questions they set for their salespeople: For whose benefit?

In his best selling book, "In Search of Excellence", Tom Peters examines and questions the rationale most companies use in setting their quotas, In the chapter of that book entitled "Man Waiting for Motivation", Tom Peters claims that "all of us... like to think of ourselves as winners" and therefore resent it whenever we are shown to be losers. As proof that we like to think of ourselves as winners he cites a study in which sixty percent of those asked how they ranked themselves as leaders and as athletes considered themselves in the top ten percent, twenty five percent considered themselves in the top one percent. The author adds that "rubbing our noses daily in the reality" of our averageness "doesn't do us a bit of good." I hasten to add that rubbing our salespeople's noses in the weekly or monthly results of sales quotas doesn't do them any better; in fact, it does them a lot of harm, something ignored by most managers writes Tom Peters. Trainers like Zig Ziglar have been sounding the same note for years: "Change the picture and you change the performer. Change the performer and you change the performance." The Old Testament said it best: "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." One is reminded of an old razor blade ad which used to insist that to be sharp one has to feel and look sharp.

Let's admit it. In too many stores, sales quotas merely succeed in holding up the same ten percent as winners and the same ninety percent as losers week after week. One would think that by now our industry would have learned that in setting up salespeople to look like losers and referring to them as such whether in the lounge or anywhere else seems only to serve as a tranquilizer for those owners, managers and sales trainers who need such calmatives to substitute for their own inability to train salespeople in the three areas that insure their greater productivity... Attitude, Skills and Product Knowledge. I like to refer to these skills with the acronym ASP to remind us that we can cure the venomous bite of the 'asp of mediocrity' with that other ASP... Attitude, Skills & Product Knowledge.

To illustrate the effect of self-image on our performance, Tom Peters cites a second study in which two groups, A and B, were given ten difficult puzzles to solve. The individuals in each group were next given fictitious results: group A was told it had done fairly well; group B was told it had done poorly. The groups were then given ten new puzzles of equal difficulty. Group A did considerably better while group B actually did worse.

The psychological principle contained in the old sayings "Nothing succeeds like success" and "Success breeds success" seem to have evaded those owners and managers who obviously prefer to manage by disregarding the principle that if you tell people often enough that they are going to fail, they most probably will.

At this point I can imagine some owners and managers objecting: "Sure, we can set sales quotas low enough for ninety percent of our salespeople to hit them, but for whose benefit? We'd only be setting them up to be satisfied with mediocrity."

I must confess that when I first read Tom Peter's words, I too shared that objection. I too missed the obvious (How true the words of the person who said that the obscure we eventually see; the obvious takes us a little longer). To help us see the obvious a little quicker it might help to ask what the first reason is for setting sales quotas. While it may seem that the first reason is to increase the sales productivity of salespeople, that is really the second reason. First and second must be interpreted here to mean first and second in the order of logical sequence and not in the order of ultimate importance. In other words we are dealing with the logical sequence of the proverbial horse before the cart. What owners and managers truly value may be what is in the cart but they've got to put the horse first if they want the horse to get that cart to market.

Since mixing metaphors is not wise, let's add the old saw which states that one can lead the horse to the trough but one can't make it drink. The intent of that saw is not to convince one not to lead the horse to the trough. Rather it is that one must make sure the horse is thirsty before one leads it to the trough. The legendary Elmer Wheeler stated it best in his book "How to Sell Yourself to Others", written in 1947: "Don't make'em drink-make 'em thirsty."

Now a sure way not to make salespeople thirsty is to set up their quotas so that they repeatedly fail. That can only succeed in discouraging them. Discouraged sales people normally do poorly in sales. The conclusion? Any quota system which repeatedly gets salespeople to think of themselves as losers should be abandoned in favor of quotas that get them to think of themselves as winners. To start with, let the quotas be modest. Make the horse thirsty enough to drink the water. It doesn't have to drown in it! Gradually, the quotas can and should be increased.

At this point I am reminded of the mother who hit upon a clever strategy to get her young children to drink skim milk. At first she had them drink a small mixture of skim milk with regular milk. Gradually she kept adding more and more skim milk till they become accustomed to drinking it pure. That mother did not take a little longer to learn the obvious.

Specifically, what kinds of quotas should be set for salespeople? I do not presume to know. In general, however, I would suggest that in arriving at specific quotas for their salespeople, owners and managers use the skills of clarifying and confirming we mentioned in an earlier part of this series. In other words, they should get feedback from and give feedback to their salespeople. Should they meet with resistance from their salespeople, they might try using the "what if" technique shown in the following role play.


Manager: Tom, if you were my manager and you were required to set my monthly sales quota, how would you go about doing so?

Salesperson: But I'm not your manager, Sally.

Manager: I know. Just make believe you were, Tom. How would you do it?

Salesperson: First thing I'd do is ask you what you thought was a realistic quota.

Manager: Why's that, Tom?

Salesperson: Because there's no sense in setting a quota you can't reach.

Manager: Fair enough. What quota might be within your reach?

Salesperson: Not the one you set for me last month.

Manager: Oh. How's that?

Salesperson: Sally, I've never hit fifty thousand in any month, let alone February. You know how cold this month has been.

Manager: So what you're saying is that I should set it at only five thousand more?

Salesperson: Two or three thousand more would be more like it. It's not getting any warmer you know.

Manager: OK, Tom. Let's set it at three thousand more. Agreed?

Salesperson: Agreed. Say, how'd you con me into agreeing with you, anyway?

Manager: Manager's secret, Tom, Oh and Tom...

Salesperson: Yeah?

Manager: Thank you for sharing one of your secrets. Makes my job a little easier.

That was just a role play. Meant to be memorized? Of course not. To borrow from what another sales trainer wrote about a different situation, the trouble managers have in memorizing their lives is that the salespeople keep on forgetting theirs. But do learn the management principles contained in the role play. Get your salespeople involved as much as you can. That is a sure way to help salespeople to look upon themselves as winners and to increase their sales productivity. Remember the primary responsibility of owners and managers is to help salespeople to become mature, responsible people. Nor is that something owners and managers can demand of them. Salespeople must be made to feel that they have freely chosen to be mature and responsible. Until they feel that way, look for no significant changes in them. Samuel Johnson, the father of the English dictionary stated it best for all of us: "The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove."

Owners and managers of course have a right to expect the best from their salespeople. I share the thoughts of the one who said that most salespeople who fail do so not because they aim high and miss the mark, but because they aim low and hit it. Owners and managers should do all they can to get their salespeople to aim high. However, they won't be successful unless they first get their salespeople to look upon themselves as winners.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to him care of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at pmarino@furninfo.com.