Top Tips for Creating Motivational and Achievable Incentive Programs that Drive Growth

February 11, 2020

Top Tips for Creating Motivational and Achievable Incentive Programs that Drive Growth

For as long as people have sold stuff, they’ve been incentivized to sell more of it. 

The sheer staying power of this sales staple suggests that incentives are a must-use motivator. And in most every case, they are – you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful sales team that doesn’t have incentives attached to performance in some way. 

But as time goes by and the selling landscape changes, we’re seeing some incentive programs take a counterproductive turn. Encouraging outdated habits, or implementing short-sighted incentives that don't contribute to genuine relationship-building, can be a legacy issue for many long-running sales organizations.

For sales leaders, the question isn’t whether or not to use incentives. It’s about using the right ones, incentives that motivate in the modern era and also align with mission and culture, leading to sustainable growth. 

Which Types of Sales Incentive Programs Drive Growth in Today’s Environment?

Whether you’re looking for a new idea to try or to completely refresh your sales incentive program, here are a few incentive program themes and ideas you might consider. 

Team-based Incentives and Rewards

Now more than ever, selling is a team sport. Just like it’s become more and more difficult to close a deal when you only have one solid relationship at the account, it’s getting harder and harder to reach the entire buying committee with just one salesperson. 

To expect a salesperson to seamlessly connect with upwards of a dozen people with varying backgrounds and areas of expertise is a tall order for even the most talented pros. By aligning your company’s experts with their peers at your target accounts, you naturally stand a better chance of stimulating meaningful conversations and forging deeper connections between companies. And considering the potential for staffing turnover on both sides of the table, team selling represents a more risk-averse approach as well.’s research also backs the team approach, showing that when there’s at least one call with more than one participant from the seller’s side present, the likelihood of the deal closing increases by 258%. 

What does a sales incentive program that encourages and rewards team selling look like? There are a few ways to go about this. 

One way is to apply the commision structure beyond sales, motivating sales operations staff and leaders, technical experts, business analysts and the like to become more active participants in selling. In lieu of commision, a company might also consider applying sales-related quotas for anyone involved in sales operations. 

Another way is to discourage solo selling by greatly easing a salesperson’s reliance on commission. For instance, global semiconductor leader Microchip achieved greater teamwork, record profitability, and minimal salesforce attrition by significantly upping its sales team members’ base salaries while greatly reducing (but not entirely removing) commissions. 

Start Rewarding the Right Actions in Addition to Results

When commissions are purely based on the end result, it can be tricky to change how and what the sales team sells. It’s hard to fault the sales team for this dynamic – they need to earn money and the surest route to earning commission is to sell what they know using the actions and tactics they know.

This can pose a major problem when companies need to push new product lines to keep pace with the market. During these critical periods, salespeople might shy away from including the new offering – even when it’s in the best interests of both their company and the client – for the sake of not wanting to complicate a well-known path to commission. 

Purely results-based commission plans can also pose a problem when companies need to alter the sales methodology to bring it in tune with modern buying preferences, such as when implementing the team approach mentioned above, for example. 

A good way to get around this motivational roadblock is to make it more advantageous for sellers to focus on what’s best for the company as a whole. For example, suppose you have a new product and your competitive position in the market very much hinges on this product’s market penetration. To get the sales team’s attention, and to make sure they’re educating themselves on the product and including it in their proposals, you might consider a spiff: a comparably higher commission for selling that specific product. Even if it’s an outrageous commission on the very first sale, it might allow your sales team to become accustomed to selling the product so that they’re more likely to include it in future proposals without needing the ultra-commission. 

The same goes for selling behaviors and the overall culture of the sales organization. If you want sales team members to strike up more conversations on social media, build out their professional networks with relevant connections, or connect with a greater percentage of buying committee members at each target account, consider running a “culture contest” designed to call attention to — and sufficiently reward — these behaviors for a specified period. 

You might also consider making these rewards more permanent, but often a big awareness push can be enough to get salespeople to see the value in building new work habits because they’re already profiting from them. 

In addition to accounting for buyer behavior shifts and making sure the right actions are being rewarded, companies are also updating their sales incentive programs to better align with the modern-day realities their sales teams are up against. One example is offering presale incentives to help reps cope with longer buying cycles. McKinsey offers a nice primer on how you might adapt certain incentives in response to sales trends

Think Beyond Cash to Customized Delights

While nobody’s clamoring for their commission to be replaced by prize packs and gift cards, there is research to suggest that cash has limits when it comes to supplying extra motivation. 

This same article points to several examples where other items and experiences were quite special yet still cost less than the cash bonus equivalent, from Rolex watches for the entire team, to a movie-themed breakfast and shopping spree. Plus, items and experiences are more memorable than cash. 

Wondering how to stir up morale and make some memories for your team? We all have wish lists either written down or in our heads. Why not just ask your team to share theirs? It could even be under the guise of, “motivate yourself by writing down some of the ‘nice-to-have’ things you’re working to afford within the next few years”?

Then, whenever your team member drills one down the fairway with their new driver, or foams up a latte with their deluxe coffee machine, or thinks back to those supreme seats when listening to their favorite musician, they’ll likely think more warmly of their company than they would have with an equivalent cash bonus.  

We live in the age of personalization. The cost and effort it takes to customize incentives that enhance day-to-day work and pay heed to the uniqueness of each individual will almost always be worth it and then some. 

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