The value of fresh starts

Author: 
Tim Houlihan

How important are end-of-month/quarter/year dates for sales revenues? On one level, they’re everything. Deadlines drive activity. On another level, they’re just numbers, dates and made-up deadlines that are creations of our imagination. However we frame them, the undeniable truth is they matter.

Sales managers rely on these made-up deadlines to generate urgency and motivation. To a large degree, they work. If we use deadlines to add motivation to end things, can dates add value when it comes to getting something started?

In research conducted by Wharton Business School Professor Katherine Milkman, she and her colleagues discovered that new habits are more effective anytime you have a fresh start. Milkman recently told me that a fresh start “can be as simple as a birthday, anniversary, a new role, a new week or the start of the quarter.” Her research suggests that fresh starts help people to stick with their new habits.

Strong starts = strong finishes

Incentive designers have come to know this from years of their own experiences and observations. They have witnessed successes with the classic Fast Start component of incentive programs for decades. In Fast Start, reps who reach prorated milestones in the first few weeks of an incentive period are offered additional rewards. This tool is tremendously powerful at turning motivation in to results.

Data collected by my colleagues at BI WORLDWIDE indicates that sales reps who start strong in an incentive period have a high likelihood of finishing strong.

There is a reason for this: our brains are lazy. Big, round numbers and dates that have significance in our lives are easy to remember. Big, round numbers help reps remember that President’s Club is achieved at $7 million, not $6,907,633. And sales reps quickly learn the end-of-quarter dates by heart. But those are for ending. So why not starting dates, too?

The research is clear on two fronts: First, use meaningful dates to get new initiatives going, to launch a new incentive plan, to begin a new training series, or to introduce a new product to the team. Second, use a Fast Start initiative to encourage high productivity and output at the start.

If sales managers need a date that means something to everyone, use the start of the month or quarter, or your company’s Founder’s Day, the first day of spring, or the first Monday after Memorial Day. By teeing up the date in advance of the announcement, sales managers benefit from pre-promoting the initiative.

Fast Starts for newbies

Another way sales managers could use Fresh Start days is to challenge a group of newbies to get started on training modules. In this case, the relevant dates could correspond to the (month? year?) anniversary of their start date or a date they finished their initial training. The key: Make it easy to remember.

If the initiative is targeted at a single rep, then use a more personal date. For instance, if a rep wants to challenge themselves with new tools, techniques or goals, the most effective start dates will be their birthday or their work anniversary.

All of these can be combined with Fast Start incentives to help reps get up to speed faster, which is the most productive way to achieve great results at the end. Use Fast Starts to dole out extra rewards for extra effort at the beginning of the period.

We all agree that good starts need good plans. In the sales world, good starts also need to be accompanied by good rules and good rewards that focus reps’ activity on what needs to be done now – at the beginning of the period. As I’m writing this, Memorial Day is nearly here. Use it to your advantage.

Tim Houlihan is chief behavioral strategist at Behavior Alchemy, LLC, blending applied behavioral science with experience and knowledge. He is also the co-founder of the podcast Behavioral Grooves.

Online Bonus: For additional insights on why Fast Starts can be game changers, read Tim’s online bonus content, and find past Lift columns at SalesandMarketing.com/lift.