Sales Force Motivation: Time to rethink the carrot – ETBrandEquity.com

By Sreeram S. and Saurabh Malhan

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The above quote can be interestingly applied to salesperson motivation. In sales management literature, the term sales force motivation implies a set of positive incentives for salespeople. This could take the form of monetary incentives or other inducements which may include recognition programs or fully paid trips to exotic locations. The causal chain is expected to run as follows.

Sales, in most sectors, is very tough due to a variety of reasons. Salespeople have to face rejection regularly and need to be constantly encouraged. This usually takes the form of dopamine shots which are delivered through money or other incentives.

While this theory is robust with a lot of empirical support for this relationship, the results are non-linear. Sales increases with incentives up to a point beyond which it gets constrained by ability, bandwidth and the time available to salespeople. There are also issues related to malpractices brought on by high incentives. High incentives may lead salespeople to indulge in mis-selling, foster unhealthy competition within the team and result in bulldozing of customers. This may cause significant reputational damage to firms.

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Surveys of millennials and gen-z salespeople seem to suggest that while money is important, purpose and work-life balance are also equally valued. As successive generations get prosperous bases (of their families) to launch from, salespeople will also re-calibrate their motivations for doing a job.

Look beyond money

In this climate, monetary incentives are slowly losing their effectiveness. And leaders and HR professionals are already feverishly trying other motivators. A study of millennials in the workforce suggests that millennials like to make a difference with their work and prefer team incentives to individual incentives.

Another interesting development is that buyers are far more knowledgeable today than they were a decade ago. In the B2B sales world, it is well established now that salespeople enter the sales process much later than earlier. Buyers prefer to collect information by themselves and then call in the salesperson when they are ready to purchase. This changes the role of the salesperson from merely scouting for leads and introducing products to prospects. The salesperson is now engaging in far more sophisticated conversations with prospects and the nature of the B2B sales job has changed drastically over the last decade.

de Saint-Exupery’s quote becomes important here. Rather than think about motivations from a “what can we give” perspective, sales leaders may wish in terms of “what can we take away”. Sales leaders need to research and reflect on what demotivates salespeople and remove the sources of demotivation than simply think of the next carrot to dangle in front of the salesperson.

Head to the field for insights

This might require sales leaders to speak to salespeople or spend several days with salespeople to understand their lives. This might throw up issues that hitherto were not visible when watching the forest from atop an ivory tower. While the sources of demotivation may vary across different industries and firms, there are a few that can immediately be resolved. A quick, critical look within one’s firm may provide opportunities.

Do away with cumbersome processes

These opportunities could lie in the company’s internal processes. Most large organisations, over time, develop processes based on their collective experience. Most of these processes are for the smooth functioning of the sales organisation but also end up constraining salespeople. As the adage goes, intentions may be great but there may be second-order consequences which may not be great. One of these could be too much focus on hierarchical decision-making. Inevitably, salespeople in organisations have to seek approvals for price discounts and other offers to customers.

This is a tricky situation since many organisations may not wish to disclose the actual costs of the products or solutions to salespeople for fear that it might lead to a temptation to price low or just above cost. This is important in organisations which have embraced value-based pricing where the price would be determined by the value communicated by the salesperson and the customer’s willingness to pay. However, it may be worthwhile revisiting some of these policies and empower salespeople to the extent possible. This could be done by providing an acceptable band (for price, payment terms or a combination thereof) to salespeople and then measure the team on the performance within the band.

The feeling of autonomy and control that could pervade a salesperson while taking such decisions may energise the salesperson during a customer meeting or negotiation. Such measures can also give sales leaders a great platform to coach and develop the sales team by having discussions around the decision-making processes that are being followed by the salespeople. This might be a win-win for all concerned.

Remove screens around decision-making

The feelings of dis-empowerment and lack of autonomy also gets exacerbated when decisions regarding deals and customer relationships are taken without involving the salesperson. Salespeople are made accountable for business, their customers and their customers’ satisfaction levels. However, when it comes to decisions regarding some large deals, it becomes dispiriting for the salesperson if she is not involved in that decision-making process. As a sales leader, one needs to empower salesperson to take critical decisions for the account which will drive ownership and hence motivation. The salesperson needs to be the one delivering both good and bad news to the account. This also follows from the earlier point made on giving salespeople more decision-making powers.

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Get rid of obstacles to required information

One thing that separates a good salesperson from a great salesperson is a speedy and complete response. However, the salesperson is also dependent on various stakeholders and robust internal processes to deliver this speedy response. No B2B sales process is devoid of documentation. There are a lot of documents (spec-sheets/certificates/tender requirements/ financial documents/product models amongst others) that a salesperson must submit to customers at various stages of the sales process. Having a central robust document management system for the sales team will do wonders to eliminate the hassles faced by a salesperson in finding the right document. If time is money, then document management can become a goldmine for the B2B sales function. Within a large sales team, different salespeople might need similar sets of documents at various times and easy-to-use central document management systems will make their lives easier.

Relook at and rationalise reviews

‘What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” is a popular saying but it is pernicious since not everything can be measured and the process of measurement could end up defeating the original purpose. In the sales world, this measurement usually takes the form of dashboards and that hated word “reviews”. Any salesperson would say that the most appropriate number of reviews for the job is zero. As a sales leader, the frequency and number of reviews is also something to be re-evaluated. Do reviews help salespeople work out how to handle an ongoing deal or just make them feel micro-managed? What happens when there are no reviews? Do sales drop significantly?

As a sales manager, do you ensure that your team looks forward to a review where they expect to feel part of a team or get some helpful tips? These are all questions that sales leaders could ask themselves about the prevalent review culture in their organisations. They could then either institute some surveys to ascertain the impact of reviews or do some A/B testing to see if reviews are effective. Taking a hard look at reviews, assessing their usefulness, devising an appropriate format and frequency might go a long way in improving their effectiveness. Also, in certain firms, the above assessment may prompt sales leaders to do away with sales reviews centred on numbers and replace them with sales process reviews.

In conclusion

While there is a feeling that the only way to motivate salespeople is to “show them the money”, that is just one dimension, and a limited one at that, in the motivation game. Today, salespeople are motivated by more than money and would like a better experience while working for their firms. Giving salespeople goodies can certainly help, but only up to a point. Removing excess bureaucratic hurdles, obstacles to getting vital information and superfluous reviews could also be effective measures. These can lead to improving the lot of the beleaguered salesperson, motivate the sales team and, consequently, improve sales force outcomes.

-Sreeram is Associate Professor at School of Business Management, NMIMS. Malhan is national sales head (external business segment ) at Cummins Generator Technologies. Views expressed are personal.