Hard v Soft Targets

What a thoroughly enjoyable couple of drams I had with a friend the other night.  Among his many skills, he’s a college lecturer.  He was busily bemoaning the target culture in British education and aghast at how widely it misses the mark.

He felt that the purpose of targets was in part to help you improve.  Last year you achieved ‘x’, this year you managed ‘x+1’.  Yet he lamented how what he called the ‘hard’ targets failed to measure what he considered to be the factors that demonstrated or supported an individual becoming a “better” teacher.

He also told me that the weight of the ‘soft’ targets dragged many a good teacher down.  He was clearly perplexed. I tried to offer comfort from the realms of Sales.

We have a similar problem.  We all know what a ‘hard’ target looks like.  Top-line sales and Performance against Quota are the majors.  Then there are other contributory KPIs, like number of meetings, phone calls, family members as prospects etc.  In far too many cases, such targets seem randomly assigned, with little discussion involving the rep responsible, from a figure that appears conjured from the dreams of some faceless corporate apparatchik, devoid of any accountability.  They therefore often fail to combine the needs of the business with the underlying need to grow (or in these credit crunched recessionary climes, protect) last season’s revenue.

And then we come to soft targets.  These tend to be labelled KSOs (Key Sales Objectives).  They aim to promote activity that, whilst not directly attributable to numerical assessment, are considered by management to contribute towards ultimate glory.  Various examples I’ve witnessed include reading a particular book each month, taking specific clients on jollies, demonstrating the development of a certain skill, gathering certain numbers of client testimonials and reference data and a favourite, filling out marketing intel onto crm-style screens.  Perhaps making blog posts could be another 🙂

Let me share how KSOs run in every circumstance I’ve found them.  The short answer is that they disappear in a swirl of acrimony.  A bit like Yaphet Kotto’s inmate trustee to Robert Redford’s new prison governor in Brubaker.  (Every new warden wants to reform, and when each new warden replaces an old one, they bring new reforms and dispense with the old reforms.)  And so it is with sales teams.  With each new management regime a new set of KSOs are heralded as the saviour.  And the same thing always happens.  All the reps in the field know that the only thing that really matters is The Number.  And when those new, lagging or generally keen/indifferent realise that everyone On Target doesn’t bother with the KSO pursuit, a bonus plan change occurs.  I can’t begin to describe the horrors I’ve seen caused by having say ten percent of commissions attached to non-revenue performance…

I’ve never been asked to tackle the vexed issue of how to mandate a salesperson to embrace such soft, KSO style targets, and it’s something that I suspect I’d avoid.  The only time I’ve seen them embraced, and even then it was only by half the salesteam (but then again in every salesforce, isn’t there usually a 50/50 split for those that care and those that don’t?) as there was much debate as to the flaws in the qualitative nature of the evaluation scale, is when the requisite KSO performance provided points towards vouchers.  These could then be redeemed in an upmarket retailer.  It isn’t difficult to evolve this idea for perhaps a winning way forward.

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