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How to Effectively Incentivize Your Sales Staff


A highly enthusiastic and motivated sales team can mean the difference between a company that just gets by and a company that’s truly flourishing. So while good leaders are always thinking about how to encourage employees to do their best, it makes sense to give extra consideration to those on whose personal drive so much success depends.

Unfortunately, many managers fail to effectively tap into their salespeople’s reservoirs of motivation, leaving them either bored and apathetic at one extreme, or toxically competitive and burnt out on the other. Here are some best practices for incentivizing your sales team without driving the team off the deep end.

1. Start with competitive compensation overall.

Yes, commissions and bonuses for excellent work can be excellent motivators. But being an employer that people actually want to work for comes first.

The Employer's Guide to Hiring Salespeople

Look at your base pay, health benefits, paid time off (and not the kind of fake time off that people are punished for actually taking, regardless of what the handbook says), parental leave, and other aspects of your compensation. When people work hard just to get a position with you, they’re more likely to work hard to deserve it once they are hired.

2. Help your team set their own goals.

Sure, you have your own dream for sales, but the folks on the ground might have their own personal and goals as well. When employees of any kind are involved in setting their own goals, they feel greater ownership over their work, more motivated to reach these goals, and are generally happier.

3. Cut down on interpersonal competition.

Competition is a classic method of motivating people, and it can definitely be effective. Unfortunately, interpersonal competition can also cut down on equally important things like sharing knowledge, mentoring, and seeking help. So how can you use competition to your advantage?

Try group challenges, where everyone benefits if a certain high percentage of the team meets their individualized goals. Or compete against another, non-sales team to see which can get the highest percentage of employees whose goals are met. Employees can also compete against themselves. What these kinds of challenges reduce is the zero-sum type of competition that pits one team member against another, leading to antagonism and toxicity.

4. Help them see the bigger picture.

Which is more motivating, piling hundreds of bricks on top of each other or building a monument? Sewing bead after bead onto fabric, or making a wedding dress? Do your salespeople have a good sense of how their work fits into the business as a whole, into your industry, and into the community? Do they see how your products make a difference? Are they engaged with as the critical players they are?

Keeping the broader picture in mind taps into intrinsic motivation, which is a powerful motivator even when the work becomes unexpectedly challenging and traditional motivators that come with success are few and far between.

5. Stay away from punitive motivators.

Of course, if someone’s work is not up to par, you will need to take steps to remedy this or replace them with someone more competent. This, however, isn’t a punishment designed to induce shame, it’s a business decision made to improve the sales team’s effectiveness.

What should be avoided are punishments like “walls of shame” or being given cabbages instead of cash for failing to meet targets. Fear-based motivators are more likely to lead to cheating and other underhanded methods of meeting goals to avoid humiliation.

6. If you want to know what motivates your sales team … try asking them.

Buffy would love some extra vacation days if she meets all her pre-holiday targets. Cordelia is interested in the opportunity to attend a major industry conference next year. Neither would find the other’s carrot particularly appealing. But the only way to find this out is to actually have a conversation.

Even something as simple as public vs. private praise can be intensely individual. Don’t assume everyone is motivated in the same way.

Looking to give your sales team a boost?

It starts with hiring the best people for the job. Luckily, we can help with that. Download your copy of The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Salespeople to get started.

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