Hitting Your Sales Goals: ‘Goal intentions’ aren’t enough
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Hitting Your Sales Goals: ‘Goal intentions’ aren’t enough

Let’s suppose you’re an ace at maintaining existing accounts, but you know you could do better at drumming up new business.

So you set yourself a goal: Within six months, you’ll bring three new customers on board, worth $200,000 in annual revenue. You follow the S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting model: Your goal is Specific and Measurable – three accounts, $200,000. It’s Attainable – other reps have met similar targets. It’s certainly Relevant, and it has a hard Timeline.

But now, fast-forward six months: You haven’t landed three new accounts. In fact, you haven’t landed any. What happened?

Beyond goals to implementation

The problem is that you committed to your goal — but not to the activities required to realize it, like identifying prospects, reaching out to them, and consistently following up. You had what behavioral researchers call “goal intentions,” but numerous studies have shown that these aren’t enough. What’s also needed is what the researchers call “implementation intentions.”

Consider a research study of three groups of people who all wanted to exercise more regularly. Group A, the control group, got no input from researchers.  Group B received a “motivational intervention” — literature showing that exercise helps prevent heart disease. Group C received the literature, and also filled out a form committing them to at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise during the coming week. They had to commit to doing this on specific days, at specific times, and in specific places: “During the next week I will perform at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise every morning AT 7:oo AT the gym.”

How did everyone do?

Only 29% of the control group achieved the goal. This rose to 39% in the group that received the literature on heart disease. But there was a dramatic increase, all the way to 91%, in the group that wrote down their implementation intentions.

‘When it’s X, I will Y’

It seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? Write down exactly what you intend to do to achieve a goal, and you’re almost guaranteed to do it. But it works, and other experiments confirm it. One experiment involving medical self-evaluations got 100% compliance for those who committed to implementation intentions vs. 53% for those who did not. Another study asked students to submit an optional paper after Christmas break; 66% of those who drafted implementation intentions wrote the paper vs. 0% among those who did not.

Here’s the simple formula for implementation intentions: “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

This formula could describe an action you intend to take at a specific time or place: “As soon as I arrive at the office today, I will e-mail all my customers and ask for a referral.” Or it could describe action you’ll take when you meet an obstacle: “When a prospect is rude on a cold call, I will assume it’s his problem, not mine, and continue my calls.”

Researcher Peter M. Gollwitzer explains that the situation-X-leads-to-response-Y formula sparks a goal-directed behavior in a way that doesn’t require conscious intent. This means that when you map an action to a trigger event, the action tends to happen automatically. Without thinking.

Deploying the strategy

So how might you deploy an implementation intentions strategy to win your three new accounts? You calculate that you’ll need to call 20 new leads a week to hit that goal. To find those leads, you’ll rely on referrals, cold calling and networking events.

Here are your implementation intentions:

  • Within three weeks, I will have identified three networking events I can attend.
  • Every Tuesday and Thursday, I will come in at 8:30 a.m. and call 10 leads first thing.
  • Every Wednesday at 8:30, I will call five existing customers and ask for referrals.

By writing down what you plan and when you plan to do it, you’ve gone beyond mere “goal intentions” to “implementation intentions.” Committing on paper to a series of goal-directed behaviors will, according to the research, activate psychological processes that automate those behaviors.

You get the picture. Armed with firm implementation intentions, you’re much more likely to achieve your goal – and reap the benefits of hitting it.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Why you miss your sales goals– and how to start hitting them.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly articles:

Milne, S.E., et al. (2002) Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation. British Journal of Health Medicine, 7, 163-184.

Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999) Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503.

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