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Business Journal
A Failure to Communicate
Business Journal

A Failure to Communicate

by Benson Smith and Tony Rutigliano
Authors of Discover Your Sales Strengths

How well do you set expectations for your sales team? Too many managers think they're doing a much better job than they really are. You might be surprised or even embarrassed at how your salespeople would rate your performance in this critical area.

During a recent sales-management training program, we gave each manager a Gallup Q12 scorecard that measures how "engaged" his sales unit is. This scorecard is an important component of building a world-class sales organization. As we finished distributing the scores, one manager's face turned several shades redder by the second. He was visibly upset by the results we had just handed him.

"This can't be right," he challenged us, as he looked at the score for the very first question -- "I know what is expected of me at work." His score was low -- in the 3 range, versus a perfect score of 5.

"Every salesperson in my team has an annual budget and a quarterly budget," he argued. "They all know exactly what is expected of them at work. How could they have possibly answered with anything less than 5?"

He wasn't the first manager to react this way. You may be wondering -- How is it that as managers, we can feel we have been explicit in laying out expectations, but our employees feel instead that our expectations aren't clear?

This is an important question. When salespeople understand what is expected of them at work, they are much more likely to be engaged in their jobs, produce better results, and generate greater customer loyalty. Setting clear expectations is a cornerstone of good sales management.

But some sales managers do a much better job at setting expectations than others. We have observed managers whose salespeople seemed to understand instinctively what was expected of them. We also have observed sales managers whose reps were completely confused about expectations. What are the best managers doing differently?

While researching our book on great salespeople and managers, Discover Your Sales Strengths, we had opportunities to interview some outstanding sales managers. When it comes to setting and communicating expectations, we observed five areas that set the best managers apart from their less successful counterparts.


Average managers were content to review expectations only occasionally. Some discussions were so rare that their salespeople felt they never had any discussions at all. In other cases, brief dialogues about either annual or quarterly budgets were expected to suffice.

In contrast, the great managers we interviewed talked about expectations constantly, almost in every conversation they had. "Expectations are not static," Bill G. told us. "They are dynamic. So I reinforce expectations with my salespeople in every conversation so they always know what I expect of them." Paul L., another outstanding manager, told us that routinely talking about expectations reinforced the importance of meeting them. "It's human nature," he explained. "The less you talk about something, the less important people think it is."


The best managers were specific about what they wanted their salespeople to do. Average managers tended to be vague, and they offered ambiguous suggestions like "Do the best you can." The best managers, in contrast, discussed expectations that had tangible, measurable outcomes. "Sell $1 million in new business this month" is a lot clearer than "Do your best."

Outstanding managers also ranked their expectations by defining excellent, good, average, and unacceptable performance in readily understandable terms. And the best managers we interviewed usually focused on short-term timeframes. They were more likely to ask their salespeople what they were trying to accomplish this month -- or even this week -- rather than asking them about general or annual goals.


Many times, organizations have sales goals that seem to conflict. For example, sometimes growing the sales line is more important, while other times, protecting gross margins is essential. Sometimes adding new business is crucial, but other times it's more important to preserve existing customers from a competitive threat. Expectations that seem so clear in the corner office often look muddled in the field. On one occasion, we studied three months' worth of conflicting memos sent out from a company's home office to its salespeople. Even the CEO would have been confused.

Great sales managers are able to sort through those contradictory messages and give unambiguous direction to their sales forces. Average managers tend to shy away from such conflicts, leaving their people somewhat perplexed. This can create a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" environment for their employees. Or worse, these managers may layer one expectation on top of another until the sales force loses sight of what its most important objectives are.

Top managers we studied also were careful to set expectations about only the most important outcomes. In some companies, salespeople can become confused about whether generating sales results is more important than sending in detailed reports or responding to every company e-mail. Great sales managers keep their employees focused on what really matters.


Great managers instinctively realize that expectations without consequences quickly become meaningless goals. Imagine a factory where everyone was expected to arrive at work at 7:00 a.m., but workers often didn't show up until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. Yet nothing happened to these tardy workers as long as they were "trying their best" to get to the office on time. What would happen? Obviously, productivity would go down the drain.

Sure, the best managers tend to focus more on the positive consequences that result from meeting or exceeding expectations than the negative consequences that come from missing them. But they are absolutely clear about what they expect and what will happen if employees fail to meet those expectations.


While there are common denominators in the ways that great managers set expectations, they don't all use the exact same techniques. Even in the same company, we find that managers differ in the ways they approach this crucial management task. Some of the best managers we've studied even set expectations differently depending on the employee involved. They appreciate the uniqueness of each of the sales reps who report to them, and they recognize those differences as they go about the process of setting and monitoring goals.

Some sales reps want to be actively involved in the process of setting their goals; others are more comfortable leaving this to their managers. Some reps are more productive if their managers frequently follow up on their progress. Some reps want help or advice. Other salespeople may feel their manager is checking up on them if he or she monitors their progress too closely. Great sales managers pay attention to what best helps each individual salesperson succeed, then they set expectations accordingly.

Your scorecard

How well do your salespeople know what is expected of them? Many managers are surprised when they actually see how their salespeople rate them. Those managers may pay close attention to what they say, not to what their salespeople hear -- and then they're surprised when their team members fail to understand their messages.

When managers set clear expectations, salespeople benefit. The best managers know that clear expectations are like the cornerstone of a new building: Expectations must be firmly set in place before managers can build a truly engaged workgroup. One thing is certain: The great managers we studied did not excel in this area by accident. They set expectations deliberately. Then they continually communicated and reinforced those expectations with their salespeople.


Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
Tony Rutigliano is coauthor of Strengths Based Selling and Discover Your Sales Strengths.

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