Why do sales Directors set unrealistic targets

Every year there’s a wide range of sales people whining about their targets, how unrealistic they are and the frustration it brings when you’re chasing something that from the start seems a lost race.

Well there are 3 different sides of that story (at least the most common ones):


1)     Scenario where you’re told “speak your mind” but in the end, no one listens: 

Targets are set on a top down mode from CEO/Management throughout the different layers of the organization and at a certain point they reach….exactly…the sales team. So your sales Director doesn’t have much of a choice than passing them through.

Eventually he might challenge his reporting line – depending on his level of ambition and career growth – but he doesn’t want to show a negative mindset and unwillingness to take challenges so (even knowing targets are out of reach and will lead to frustration), so he passes them on to the team.

So, in yearly target setting you’ll express that those targets are completely out of the roof but your Sales Director will tell you “yes I understand your concerns but….”. At this point you should be aware that your argument won’t change a thing. This is not a target agreement it’s a target setting. It’s not about what you think the market potential and reality is, it’s about what the company needs and your availability to support. Might sound harsh, but that’s what it is, regardless how much you’ll moan about it.

2)     Scenario aiming to challenge the sales team out of their comfort zones. Opposite to the first scenario, there’s an open discussion and sharing vision. 

If you don’t stretch people, they will never know their potential. If you set achievable goals, where is the challenge and the extra mile of your team? If you can get 100 why can’t you get 110? Setting challenging targets is – depending on how the message and vision is conveyed – an excellent strategy to push peoples out of their comfort zone. If a project is deemed to be finished in six months, why can’t it be done in four? Yes you’ll need a few adjustments, shift prioritization, delegate more and cut some downtime. But what if it’s worth the effort and that is perfectly clear for everyone?

3)     Scenario where sales people are in auto pilot and don’t like their world to be shaken. They know best their region/country and any target above “conservative “ is unrealistic:

Very often sales people fight or hope to get a “comfortable” target and see anything over their expectations, as “unrealistic”. Well, believe me, I’ve seen many unrealistic targets being meet and exceeded, how can that be?

So for a sales rep, a good target is the one he sees as realistic. But where is the challenge in this case? what’s the point of chasing something that is at reach of your hand? shouldn’t you aim for the extra mile? the cherry on top of the cake?

I do understand that presented in “cold blood”, some targets might seem unrealistic and therefore lead to team frustration and even cut the motivation of the individuals.

The key here is the ability from management and the sales director to sustain those numbers with accurate foundations, with a vision on the how, who, what, when and why it’s possible to reach them. The role of the sales team is to be open, expectant, willing and believing the story they’ve been told. If you set targets without a proper story behind and have a sales team on an “auto pilot” mode, the targets will indeed look like unrealistic. Because there’s a lack of background (Management) and lack of belief and resistance to change (Sales team).

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