Let's say you're the sales manager and one of your direct reports is 5 percent behind last year's sales numbers and 12 percent behind this year's budget. You had put him on notice two months ago and since then he has been doing a solid job of prospecting. In fact, he has opened positive discussions with nearly 10 new prospects. The problem is that his sales still just aren't up to par. What do you do?
A. Put more pressure on him to get his numbers up.
B. Cover your rear by telling your boss that you've done all you can to help the slacker.
C. Praise him for his work and assure him that, if he keeps up this effort, he'll see results in the long run.
If you answered A, you are like most sales managers who would simply apply more pressure and hope that the salesperson “gets the message” that he or she is in trouble. If you answered B, well ... you're probably not reading this article. If you answered C, then you are using your emotional and psychological intelligence in a powerful way to reinforce quality behaviors that will create positive results.
Sales managers make the mistake of focusing too closely on short-term sales goals and ignoring the quality behaviors that might create better long-term results. It is not enough for a manager to focus on sales results; it is essential that the sales manager reinforce and support the behaviors and activities—such as telemarketing, territory management, high-quality questioning skills, listening skills, and the like—that contribute to long-term sales success.
So how can you reinforce those behaviors? The answer is through praise. Praise is the most inexpensive resource available to you, and it may be going untapped.
B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who launched the theory of behavior modification, provided significant insights into ways in which both positive and negative reinforcement can shape and mold performance patterns. Skinner's theory begins with the principle of operant conditioning, the idea that a behavior is reinforced with an operant reward or penalty immediately after the behavior occurs. He tested his theory on lab rats in a box that became known as the “Skinner box.” The rats in the experiment were provided a pellet of food each time they tapped a lever. The rats quickly figured out the game and thus tapped the lever whenever they were hungry for food, and only when they wanted food.
Skinner then changed the experiment by offering food only at fixed intervals—e.g., every five taps would release a pellet—an adjustment that the rats quickly adapted to by tapping the lever just enough to get the next morsel of food. Skinner then wanted to discover if the rats could be “persuaded” to perform the desired behavior (tapping the lever) on a constant basis. He succeeded in this goal by creating a variable schedule of enforcement. In other words, the rewards for the rats were random. Sometimes two taps of the lever would release a pellet, sometimes eight, sometimes 20. Because they had no guarantee of when the rewards would be provided, the rats eagerly performed the desired behavior on a constant basis.
Finally, Skinner experimented to see what would happen if the rats were penalized by giving a modest electric shock when they tapped the lever. As you might expect, he discovered that the rats quickly ceased performing the behavior that was penalized and never tapped the lever again, even when food was subsequently available had the rats taken the risk of trying one more time.