Salespeople who have worked in sales for any length of time have heard, “You’re only as good as your last sales numbers!”

The sales quota — or, as many sales professionals refer to it, “hitting the number” — is one of the most common metrics used to measure the effectiveness of a sales professional’s performance, including whether he or she is meeting expectations by reaching a target number within or by a specified time frame. It’s true that selling is about performance and meeting quantifiable business objectives — but should the sales quota be the only way to measure a salesperson’s effectiveness?

Sales managers in different industries would probably have competing answers to that question, but some would agree that there are other metrics to take into consideration when evaluating the effectiveness of sales professionals. After all, being an effective salesperson isn’t a only about “hitting the number.” It’s also about the people behind the number and what they are doing to meet the quota. It’s the salespeople who consistently performing a series of actions well, over a period of time, to attain the quota.

Lagging Versus Leading Indicators

The sales quota is a lagging indicator; it measures the outcome, or the final result. Leading indicators are also useful in measuring a salesperson’s effectiveness. They are actions taken to achieve the end goal. In other words, leading indicators can provide the context of how the salesperson arrives at an end result — the actions he or she took leading up to achieving quota.

Think of weight loss as an example: Let’s say that a man sets a goal of losing weight within a certain time frame. At the end of that time frame, he will weigh himself on a scale, and the number on the scale is the lagging indicator. The actions performed in the process of losing weight, such as such as exercising and consuming calories, are leading indicators, or actions that can influence and lead to the end result. Looking at leading indicators gives an indication of how the person is losing the weight.

One benefit of using leading indicators to evaluate sales performance is that “leading indicators are within a rep’s control,” as Frank Cespedes of Harvard Business School and Bob Marsh of LevelEleven point out in their 2017 Harvard Business Review article “Find the Right Metrics for Your Sales Team.” Another benefit is that leading indicators give organizations the time to track and make changes before the end of the selling time frame. In other words, as Miller Heiman Group’s 2019 article “The Key Metrics to Unlock Sales Enablement Success” states, they can serve as an “early warning system.”

Competencies as a Leading Indicator

In sales, leading indicators indicate how the salesperson will arrive at the end goal. Examples include the number of calls or presentations made as well as sales competencies, such as communication and building and strengthening relationships, can also be leading indicators. In fact, the Miller Heiman Group article states that “combining objective indicators with subjective metrics … adds useful context to the numerical evidence,” and in its e-book “The Ultimate Guide to Assessing Sales Rep Competency,” Allego describes sales competency as “the one factor that’s both a leading indicator and under your control.”

In other words, organizations can use foundational competencies and skills often known as soft skills to evaluate the effectiveness of a salesperson’s performance. As the 2019 American Management Association article “The Rise of Soft Skills – A Paradigm Shift Worthy of Copernicus” states, “we are only just beginning to comprehend what it means to move from a purely objective perspective to one that includes the intangible, subjective, emotional aspects of business,” and “rather than focusing on the numbers, companies should be looking at relationships between customers and employees and between employers and employees.”

The Rest of the Story

So, if numbers aren’t the only part of the story, what are the other parts? Salespeople must perform a variety of actions to achieve their quota, and they intentionally or unintentionally bring their “whole selves” to the process quota. As a result, evaluation procedures must take into account sales professionals’ individual qualities and characteristics, including their interests, diverse ideas, thoughts and personalities, preferences, talents, imperfections, and vulnerabilities.

This holistic approach to evaluation also takes into account major life events such as getting married, having a baby or the loss of a loved one. This year, for many sales professionals, the work environment (now their home) also become a remote learning environment for their children. All of these factors contribute to a whole person and makes sellers authentic and human — and they must be considered in the evaluation process.

In his 2019 Harvard Business Review article “What the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ Do Differently,” Dr. Michael O’Malley of Pearl Meyer describes research he conducted into companies that appeared on “Best Companies to Work for” lists between 2014 and 2018. Before the start of the project, he says, “We considered life events, rituals, and rites of passage — such as marriages, birthdays, and anniversaries — as trivial to the work environment.” The companies he and his colleagues researched, however, “gave us a new perspective. In fact, they made a big deal out of significant dates. Why? Because it is the human, or considerate, thing to do.”

The Whole Salesperson

For the Workhuman Research Institute report “Bringing More Humanity to Recognition, Performance, and Life at Work,” 66% of survey respondents agreed with the statement, “I am the same person at work as I am at home with my family and friends.” Imagine how much more engaged sales professionals are during customer interactions when they bring their “whole selves” to their sales calls! For example, a salesperson who enjoys acting with her local theater could make a call more effective using storytelling and improvisation to improve her communication and to think quickly in the moment while handling an objection. Another simple example is the yoga enthusiast who brings calm to a fast-paced and stressful selling environment.

In the 2016 “Frontiers to Psychology” article “Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Engagement: Enabling Employees to Employ More of Their Whole Selves at Work,” Dr. Ante Glavas cites research that found that “many aspects of the whole self have been lived outside of work (e.g., with family, community, spiritual practices), but the more that work can allow for employees to show their real self, the more engaged they will be.”

For every unit sold, there’s a person doing the selling using his or her own unique style and approach. Buyers aren’t thinking about quotas, but they do want to be engaged. Actions (and leading indicators) like engagement and communication bring the human element to selling and enable sales professionals to reach or exceed their quota in a way they and their leaders have never thought possible.