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Reality (Sometimes) Sucks!

by David Brock on March 5th, 2014

Try as we might, sometimes we just can’t make our goals or commitments.  Managers push us for forecasts.  They pressure us to hit a certain number.  There are mandates about what we have to do.

We succumb to the pressure.  We tell our managers what they want to hear, not reality.  We may talk ourselves into believing what we’ve said.  We certainly will try very hard to meet our commitments.

But in our hearts we know there’s no way.  Looking at the situation pragmatically, even optimistically, we know we can’t possibly make the commitments being requested.  But we make them anyway.

Time goes on.  We miss our commitments.  We’re a little deeper in the hole, management increases their pressure.  Again we succumb and give them what they want to hear, not what we believe is realistic and achievable.  We make commitments that bear no semblance to reality.  We don’t know how to achieve the goals, but we’ve appeased management and gotten them off our backs for a little while.

And the death spiral continues.

Let’s face it, sometimes reality sucks!

But until we and our managers face reality, we can’t diagnose and correct what’s happening.  We can’t understand what stands in our way and take corrective action.

Recently, I was reviewing the pipeline for an industrial products organization.  They had been struggling somewhat, but thought things were OK.  They thought the pipeline was pretty solid.  After discussing the pipeline, reviewing the deals, we agreed to disqualify 52% of the qualified deals.  All of a sudden, what had looked OK, looked terrible.  But there was really a silver lining to what we had done.  We understood exactly where things stood.  We had a very accurate outlook for the business.  Most importantly, we understood the precise problems we were facing (why we weren’t closing business) and we could put in place the right corrective actions.

A pragmatic, realistic assessment presented a very bad picture.  But at least now we had an accurate view of what was happening, we understood why performance was suffering and we could take the right corrective action.

I see this too often.  We blind ourselves with wishful thinking.  We are afraid to deliver bad news.  We succumb to telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.  We try really hard, but just can’t make it.

Or worse, we mask, ignore, or even solve the wrong problems.

Not long ago, another client thought their people had a problem closing business.  They wanted to understand what stood in the way of closing business and correct it.  After looking at the situation, I found the people had very good closing skills and relatively high win rates — at least with customers in their sweet spot.  However, in responding to pressure to grow the business, sales people were being forced to look at prospects way outside their sweet spot.  Sales people went after those customers, but didn’t know how to close them.  Pipelines looked very good, but deals were stalled, sales cycles were skyrocketing, and win rates were plummeting.  But the sales people didn’t feel comfortable telling managers the problem.  They didn’t want to appear to be weak.  They were afraid to tell management they had difficulties in the new markets.

Once we helped management understand this, we now could isolate the issues that were impacting performance.  We refocused the sales people on prospecting in their sweet spot.  We determined the requirements for success in the new markets they were pursuing (it was a combination of product fit issues, market understanding, and skills.).  Management now understood the real issues faced in growing the business, and we could put corrective plans in place.

I could go on with story after story.  We face similar situations in many of our businesses.  Whether it’s succumbing to management pressure.  Or it might be unfounded/blind optimism.  Or it might be lack of understanding about the real business issues or problems.  Whatever it is, until we face reality–however good or bad it is, we can’t hope to address performance issues.

So what lessons can we learn?

First and most important.  For managers, it’s great to set stretch goals.  It’s important to make sure people are committed to, and working as hard as possible, to making their goals.  However, if we put our people under so much pressure to give us the answers we want, forcing them to distort or ignore reality, then we, collectively, will fail.  We have to make sure we have realistic–though aggressive expectations of our people, and they have realistic strategies to achieve the goals.  If we don’t face reality, however bad it might be, we won’t understand what our people face and we won’t be able to help remove the obstacles.

Second, regardless how much pressure our managers may create, we have to be pragmatic and realistic.  We can’t succumb to wishful thinking or telling managers what they want to hear–just to get them off our backs.  We have to be honest with our managers.  Regardless how bad reality might be, we have to be responsible and face it.  We need to communicate it to management, engaging them in helping address the issues we face.  If management doesn’t want to do this, then they aren’t doing their jobs!  (And I’d start looking some place else).

Reality sometimes sucks!  But ignoring it doesn’t enable us to meet our goals and commitments.

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  1. Ron Garland permalink

    Right. And as a lifelong sales rep, I can count on one hand the number of sales managers I’ve had who take the news well. Frankly, I think the problem begins with unrealistic revenue goals set by management.

    It’s not about what management wants to bring in or what Wall Street analysts expect. It’s about what the sales team can deliver. Frank discussions along these lines that include one or more fearless “feet on the street” sales reps would go a long way toward creating realistic revenue goals.

    Unfortunately, what usually happens is that sales management fires “underperforming” reps to cover their ass when in many cases the fault lies with management’s unrealistic revenue goals (i.e. assigned quotas).

    On a parallel note, isn’t it interesting how, year after year, management cuts territories and raises quotas, and then blames reps for not meeting their quota. They just keep moving the goal posts and blaming us for not being able to kick a 60-yard field goal every single year.

    And, frankly, it’s why I just ignore my quota each year and instead focus on my territory, analyzing it in a variety of ways to determine what I think I can sell and where. If I make my quota, so be it. If I don’t, I just assume management screwed up again setting revenue targets for the company and, by extension, for their sales teams. 🙂

    • Always love your comments Ron! I tend to agree with you, too often the problem starts with management. Putting pressure on sales people to give them the answers they want to hear, rather than the real answers is dysfunctional and will drive overall performance down. Managers have to be open to hearing what’s really happening in the field, the good or the bad. Sales people, must be straightforward. Managers may be unhappy, but misleading them doesn’t accomplish anything.

      • Ron Garland permalink

        Precisely! Having a title doesn’t make someone right. One can argue over opinions but the truth is the truth. And in sales, the truth is in the marketplace, not in the vivid utopian sales paradise of a management team’s dreams.

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