How to set goals that will boost employee performance during the next 12 months

Many of us – from childhood onward – think of Spring as a new beginning. It's a perfect time to clean house, reexamine our priorities, renew our faith and decide to spend more time with people important to us. (Mother's Day always serves as a powerful reminder on that last count.) This opportunity for a springtime surge of energy & effort is especially powerful in deathcare. After all, the 1st quarter is far and away the most hectic time of year for most funeral homes and cemeteries. The 2nd quarter provides the perfect opportunity to catch your breath, take a good look at the previous year's operating results, then set some ambitious goals for the coming 12 months.

The main reason why most owners and managers fail to achieve and sustain a personal goal is really no different than many of the reasons why our employees fail to reach a business goal. The goal – whether merely whispered or even set in writing - is unrealistic, falls victim to "set and forget" and lacks follow-through. With your busiest season of the year behind you, now is the perfect time to reflect on your business goals and the role employees play in moving your organization forward. Here are 5 ways to make this process work even better for your firm.

1. Give your employees direction and something to aim for. What are your chief business goals for the coming 12 months? Are they to increase sales, grow market share and improve customer service ... or simply to maintain the status quo? If the answer is "I don't know" or your goal is broad and unspecific – i.e., "increase sales" or "improve personalization" – spend time defining what you want to achieve. Make sure your business goals are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Example: Grow preneed sales by 15% within 12 months." Goal-setting takes time, but it is time well spent.

2. Translate your business goals into individual or team goals during this 2nd quarter (if you haven't done so already this year). While many funeral homes and cemeteries set organization-wide business objectives, few spend any time translating them down to the individual-employee level. If your business goal is to increase pre-need sales by 15% during the first six months, what will your sales rep(s) need to do differently? Consider giving your employees business goals in advance of a conversation about their job expectations for the coming 12 months. By doing so, you'll have richer conversations about their role in achieving the goals. You?ll give them a chance to provide important feedback that might prompt you to recalibrate those goals ... and you'll improve buy-in.

By the way: Because December to March are such hectic months for many deathcare businesses, you might consider a July to June – or June to May – calendar for annual goal-setting and performance reviews.

Individual goal-setting is also the time to have those difficult conversations with employees, which many funeral-home and cemetery owners/managers avoid in fear of facing conflict or telling a family member the hard truth. If achieving a business goal will require an employee to change behaviors and/or attitudes – or build skills - you owe it to your business and your employee to discuss it. That conversation might sound something like this:

"John, I know hitting a 20% increase in sales will be challenging, but I also know it is achievable. You have demonstrated the ability to close more contracts, like those with the Smith and Jones families, whom we had previously served but who'd seemed to be drifting toward the competition. That was great. In the next 12 months, I?d like you to take your game to another level – and that will require you to further increase your outreach, especially to families outside our historic customer base. What are your thoughts on this? Is there anything preventing you from hitting this goal? What additional resources or support do you need?"

3. Write down his goals for the year and jointly define the specific steps each employee should take to achieve them. Make the goals SMART and be sure to define what success would look like. Indicators of success come in 4 types: quality, quantity, cost and timeliness.

Measures of quantity, cost and timeliness are reasonably easy to come up with. Think of things you can count or assign a number or percentage to: revenue per call ... A/R days on families served by a particular arranger ... preneed contracts closed per month ... average retail casket sale.

Quality measures, however, are more subjective – especially if you don't consistently survey families after each call. They are less about the science of counting and more about what you observe, ideally first-hand.

In general, employees should have no more than 5 - 8 major goals for the year. Give them too many, and their time and energy will be too diffused and misdirected. Also, it is important to provide employees with a historical context or data for their goals. For a preneed sales rep, keep the initial discussion limited to a) a summary of annual contracts he or she has closed during the last 2 years; b) average face value vs. at-need sale during that period; and c) persistency ratio (how many stay on the books). Those 3 measures should serve as a good starting point. The point is to make goals visual, in writing, to reinforce what you say. "John, here's where you've been and here's where you need to get to..."

4. Take the time & opportunity to have both formal and informal conversations with your employees about their progress throughout the year. This is absolutely essential. Informal conversations are those quick doorway huddles we often have without much thought or planning. "John, hopefully, that family will come back and sign that contract. It would be a great sale to lock in." Informal conversations build employer-employee relationships. In HR-speak – that peculiar lingo of human-resources professionals - the boss should always be on the lookout for those "teachable" moments: "John, we know that the Smith family coming at 2 p.m. is leaning toward cremation, even though they?ve always chosen burial in the past. What is your plan for presenting a full array of service options, regardless of which method of disposition they choose? How do you plan to bond with them, and find out more about their motivations?" Your day-to-day communication with employees is the relationship. Nurture it and guide it.

Doorway huddles are great; however, they should take place in addition to formal conversations with each employee; they should not be a substitute for a more focused and structured regular discussion. Sit down with each employee - ideally each quarter, but at least every 6 months - to review progress toward goals and to provide feedback on performance. If you wait until the end of the year, it is too late. As a boss, you?ve lost the opportunity to provide timely feedback and help the employee take any corrective action.

5. Link the achievement of goals to employee recognition and rewards. Remember: If you don't tie at least 15% of total possible compensation toward performance-based bonuses, they will likely have little effect on behavior or attitude. As the boss, your job is to tell John, up-front, during goal setting ....

... what the carrots are for improving the average preneed sale, contract volume, revenue-per-call, A/R days, customer satisfaction or any other benchmark ...

... the potential lump-sum at the end of the year and/or percent increase in base compensation down the line, contingent on meeting key goals ...

... how you will be measuring progress, and what sorts of interim progress reports you plan to provide.

Your feedback throughout the next 12 months should encourage and motivate. But just as rewarding employees is important, so is withholding rewards if they don't meet their goals.

Cynthia Hernan is the chief operating officer (COO) of the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development for Arlington County, Va., and the Vice-President of FuneralServe Enterprises, Rockville, Md.., which helps funeral homes improve profitability, market share and family satisfaction. She can be reached at 301-230-2696 or