The Inside Scoop on Goal Setting for Sales: Part 1


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Recently I had a chance to interview Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist specializing in the study of motivation and goal achievement. She’s also the associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.

Heidi is the author of some of my favorite books including Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and No One Understands You and What to Do About It (just released).

I hope you enjoy my interview. There are some great tidbits in it that you won’t want to miss. You can read it below. Or, you have these options too.

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Jill: Thanks for being here today, Heidi.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Thank you so much, Jill.

Jill: I am delighted to have you here talking with my sales readers and listeners about goals. I want to talk about some very specific things that you actually say in your book because I think that they’re so relevant to those of us in this profession.

So, I’d like to start out with how you say that to be successful, you can’t just do your best. That you need to do something more tangible. Can you give us an overview of what makes a good goal?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: It’s easier in some ways to start with what makes a bad goal. There’s a very natural tendency, a very pervasive human tendency, to think about our goals in very abstract terms. So, we tend to say things to ourselves like “I want to be more successful” or “I want to be a better communicator.” “I want to be a better sales person.” “I want to lose some weight” and . . .

Jill: I’ve had that goal before!

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Everyone has. Most of us have that goal. The problem is when we think about our goals in that way, even though it’s very natural to do so, it’s not enough.

We now understand a lot more about how our brains are wired with respect to how we pursue goals. And without a very specific goal in mind, a lot of the systems in the brain designed to help us reach our goals — the systems that control what we pay attention to, our working memory, what we think about at any given point in time, how much effort we put into something, how much willpower we use and self-control, how much planning we engage in…

All of those things are controlled by the presence of a specific goal. If you have a very vague goal like “I want to do better.” “I want to get better at this or be more successful at that,” your brain doesn’t really know what to do.

One of the very first things I recommend people do when they’re setting goals is really get specific. Of course, the question then is “How specific do you need to be?”

I think the level of specificity you’re really shooting for when it comes to your personal and professional goals, is to be able to picture the moment you will succeed.

In other words, when you say something like, “I want to be more successful.” Well, how will you know when you’ve done that? What does “more successful” look like? It’s very vague.

If instead you say, “I want a promotion to a certain level” or “I want to reach a sales target of a certain level” or “I want to lose a certain amount of weight.” You’ll know the moment you reach that goal. You can imagine what that moment looks like and you’ll know when you reach it.

That’s the level of specificity you really want to be looking for. It doesn’t take a lot of time for people to do this, to reflect on the things they’re trying to do in their professional life, in their personal life, and say, “Okay, do I really have a handle on exactly what success looks like?” When you can say that you do, you’ve gotten specific enough.

Jill: I think what’s fascinating is that without having a kind of specific goal, your brain doesn’t do what it can to help you.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Absolutely. We tend to think of reaching goals and pursuing goals as very conscious and deliberate acts. And they can be.

But actually our brains work on autopilot the vast majority of the time. In any situation you are trying to pursue multiple goals at the same time. You’re not consciously thinking about how every single thing you do is getting you closer to a particular goal you have. But, that’s in fact what’s happening.

A lot of this happens non-consciously. We have a lot of systems in the brain that run largely below our awareness. They are designed to help us reach our goals, to help us select actions and persist in the face of challenges and to give us the resources we need to do the things we need to do. But, the brain runs much like a computer. It needs the right input and that input is very specific goals.

Jill: Cool, one of the things in sales is that salespeople do have specific goals.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Right.

Jill: Most people who are listening today are in the sales field. In the beginning of every year, they are assigned their quota, which might be $500,000 or $5 million, or whatever it is. For most sales people, it’s usually a challenging goal and they kind of gulp when they hear it.

I know you say challenging goals are good but is it enough to be able to say, “It’s January, my goal is $500,000” or “it’s January and my goal is $5 million.” Is that enough today?

Heidi Grant Halvorson: That’s a place to start. What the research shows us becomes motivating and effective is how you think about that goal of $500,000 or $5 million or whatever it is. There are really two ways that are both really useful.

The first is the “why” question. “Why am I pursuing this goal?” Because it’s really what’s motivating. So spend some time thinking about why a goal is important and how reaching this target influence your other important goals. “Why is this important to me?” “Why is this important to my organization?””What do I get from achieving that goal?” “How will it benefit me?”

Those are all the Why questions. The why of a goal is what makes us feel motivated. When you need a little bit of motivation, it’s thinking about that Why that really gets your juices flowing.

On the other hand, you also need to think about the What. What exactly do you need to do? Again this is something that people tend to not do very naturally.

We don’t naturally think about our goals and break them down into concrete actions. So we need to think in terms of What or How. “How am I going to reach that target?” “What do I need to do to get the job done?”

That allows us to be prepared for what lies ahead and to handle challenges more effectively because we’ve already thought it through.

Both of those levels of thinking are very important – but often people will do one and not the other.

Jill: I think the hardest thing in sales is to stay motivated because there is so much rejection and it can take so long to achieve a sale. A sales cycle might be three months or maybe eighteen months depending on what you’re selling. Knowing how to stay motivated is crucial.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Sometimes when we’re bogged down with challenges, we forget the Why because we’re so busy concentrating on the What. When you feel that your motivation is ebbing and you feel enthusiasm, you need to take a moment to think about your goals.

Take a moment to think Why. Take a moment to think about whether or not you’re being specific. It’s so incredibly powerful and yet it’s something we generally don’t do. We don’t carve out those moments to think about what we’re doing and to think about that strategically. It’s really an incredibly productive tool.

Jill: I’m going to just throw in some thoughts; I had my own Why when I started the sales. Not a lot of people grew up wanting to be in sales in my time. It was looked down upon and I think many realms today still think of sales people as sleazy.

But I had a real Why in terms of why I went into sales. I had a business idea that I brought to the SCORE (Service Corp of Retired Executives). They looked at my business plan and said “This is great, Jill, but who’s going to sell this?”

I was shocked and literally said “I thought you said this was a good idea!” And they said “Yes, but somebody has to sell it.”

My one and only one goal when I went into sales was to figure it out so I could go back to my business idea. That was my Why!

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Right!

Jill: That got me up and running. I’ve told people before that I’ve actually fainted in sales calls from sheer terror and I had to literally pick myself up off the ground to go forward. But the reason I was able to do that was because I wanted to start my own business.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: That is such a good example of what I’m talking about. That Why that keeps us going. The challenge is that Why can very easily get lost when things are difficult. It is very natural to start concentrating on the nitty gritty, instead of the big picture.

Yet it is the big picture that keeps you going. Again, the nitty gritty is important too because it makes sure you get things done. But we have to deliberately go back and forth between the big picture and the nitty gritty. I think your story is a great example.

Jill: I’ve also seen salespeople who believe that what they sell has value. I mean, they truly believe what they do matters and will help their customers. That’s also a Why goal.

So these salespeople stay motivated even when the same customer doesn’t get back to them. They’re prospecting because they know what they’re doing it matters. I don’t think people in sales sometimes think about that, they just think they’re selling stuff.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: That’s a very good point. What you do really does matter and taking time to think about what that value is is very powerful.

Jill: I’m going to share another story. When I called on Medtronic many years ago for my sales training services, I met with the Vice President of Sales for the Neurological division. He had a picture of somebody behind him and it was a tall cut-out picture. I asked him about it.

He said “That’s my customer, Jill. I just look at that person all the time and I think about the difference I’m making to his or her life.”

Heidi Grant Halvorson: That’s wonderful!

Jill: I was like “Whoa! This guy is motivated at a deeper level than anybody else because he’s literally looking at that person the whole time.”

Heidi Grant Halvorson: People pursue all different kinds of goals. Everybody wants to make more money and everybody wants to move up in power and everybody wants people to think that they are smart and talented. All of those things are very, very natural.

But it turns out that the goals that really sustain us and make us what I like to call happy with a capitol H — the happiness that is lasting and not just a momentary or quick moment.

The goals that really sustain us are those that feed into what we call the three basic human needs. One of them is the need for relatedness: to feel that you have meaningful relationships with people in your work life, your family, and your community. That you’re connecting with other people. That VP of Sales you were talking about has this very real sense that he’s helping real people in his community to thrive and so that feeds a much bigger need than just making a lot of money or getting lots of power.

The second type of goals that sustain us are goals where it’s really about developing ourselves, learning and growing and growing in our skills. That’s also fundamental.

The last one is autonomy feeling, which feeling like the things you do reflect something about you, your values, something about who you are, and that you’re making choices that reflect those values and who you are.

Again, the VP of Sales is a great example of someone who’s connecting what they’re doing in sales with how it helps other people and how it’s a reflection of his values. That’s going to be very powerful Why that keeps him going when things are very, very challenging.

To be continued ….

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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