The Simple Mistake Most Execs Make When Motivating Their Sales Teams

If you’re a high-level Sales Manager who struggles with the fundamental problem of how to best motivate your sales team to hit their target goals, then this article is for you.

I’ve seen it play out time and again with top-level executives; the constant juggling act of pushing your team to achieve higher and higher revenue targets set by the company, while maintaining high morale and reducing turnover.  

Whether you’ve been in a leadership role for 10 months or 10 years, you’ve struggled with the same challenge. What makes a strong leader? What drives the people who work for you to perform to the best of their abilities?

Early in my career, when I had less experience but more hair, I moved into field sales at IBM. It was a big opportunity for me and I was excited to prove myself to the executive overseeing my work. I took the time to dig into the numbers and arrived at what I considered a very ambitious and realistically achievable target revenue for my first three months.

I met with the executive overseeing the field sales team and confidently forecasted $900,000 over the next 3 months. I knew I could do it and I was hungry to prove myself.

As I waited for approval, my sales manager leaned back in his chair, frowned and replied, “I know what you sales people are like. You always sandbag a few deals.”

I walked out of that office with a new target revenue: $975,000 for the first three months. An 8% increase over what I’d considered to be a well-reasoned (and ambitious) forecast.

Three months later, I walked back into that same office, defeated. I’d missed my first ever sales quota.

I’d delivered on my original estimate of $900,000.

It was also the last time I missed my quota. Going forward, I adjusted by low balling all my forecasts. $1.05 million instead of the $1.2 million I knew I would achieve. I’d been educated to misrepresent the opportunities that existed, because the environment that had been created was not an honest one.

My sales manager’s approach was well-meaning; his intent was to try and bring out the best in his team while hitting the highest imaginable sales revenue. Unwittingly, his assessment of his sales team sandbagging deals had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s the problem: companies are desperate to understand their opportunities. As an executive and a sales leader, I understand the desire to want to motivate your team to push themselves past their perceived limits. But in order to achieve that goal, your team must first believe that you trust their own intuition.

The solution is to prioritize authenticity.

Years later, while researching my MBA, I interviewed the chief executive of a construction company. He oversaw four major sales divisions and product areas. For him, forecasting was not about exceeding expectations; it was about meeting them.

He and his team were in charge of resourcing huge construction projects, which meant meeting budgets and tight deadlines. If the sales team over achieved the forecast, then the company didn’t have the resources internally to meet the opportunity and would have to scramble to purchase temporary resources at greater cost.

If the sales team under achieved the forecast, then the company had resources they were paying for and not utilizing.

In this industry, the primary measure of success for the chief exec’s sales team was accuracy of forecast. Whether you were 10% over your forecast or 10% under, you earned the same amount of commission. Overachieving was penalized just as much as underachieving.

The maximum commission was based on 100% accuracy.

As executives, we often struggle with motivating our sales teams, being a strong leader isn’t about pushing people past their boundaries; it’s about establishing a relationship of authenticity and trust.

What if, instead of pushing our sales people towards higher and more pressured goals they can never realistically achieve, we rewarded our team for delivering on accurate and honest interpretations of the data. What if we allowed their belief in themselves and their results to become the self-fulfilling prophecy? Surely we want a team that we know can actually hit their targets? Do we want to believe and trust that our salespeople are delivering us accurate estimates and expectations?

In order for your team to believe in themselves, you must first learn to believe in them.

If you are guilty of any of the sins above, you should recognize that this is not about an individual; this is about an industry. As executive leaders, I believe we need to rethink our approach to how we communicate and motivate our teams to deliver effective and authentic results.  

Develop the ability to trust in your team and they will evolve on their own.


Chris Stock

Chris Stock is one of the world’s leading sales experts. He is founder of the Business Institute for Growth based in San Diego. BIG supports entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises grow their business, through growth expertise, know-how and strategic vision.

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