Sales Incentives and Managing the Sales Team


It is often said that managing a sales team is a little like herding cats, and for the most part, sales reps just want to be left alone. The two biggest success factors that sales managers can offer their teams are: Eliminating as much administrative work as possible so they can make more sales, and delivering as much positive reinforcement (usually in terms of sales incentives) as possible.

Michael Smith, Senior Managing Director at Blue Ridge Partners, speaks to specific HR issues in managing the sales team in a post-integration merger environment. Smith says that in such cases, after integrating two different sales teams, it is essential to re-create the “esprit de corps.” The most important step is to foster two-way communications between sales management and the sales team.  The integration of sales teams can be very demotivating and generate lack of trust.  Straight forward communications combined with quick decision making can begin to rebuild the team.  Incentives are another key lever.  Here they can range from major spiffs like a two-year lease of a Tesla for successful sellers who quickly buy into the new integrated sales approach. Or it can be something simple – the important thing is to make it personal. “I got cowbells,” said Smith, speaking of a recent project. “They were orange, and one of the colors of our logo is orange, so I got 200 of them for all the sellers. I set up a simple program, if they had a deal that was worth $25,000, they got two $25 gift cards, one for themselves and one to give to somebody else in another functional area who helped them.  We did the same thing for $50,000 and $100,000 deals – two $50 or $100 gift cards.”

The reason behind providing two gift cards was to promote communication and collaboration, said Smith. “My issue here was that there was little communication across the functional areas.  The cowbells was a simple way to recognize the seller’s success as well as others on the team that helped them be successful. And it was simple – you ring the bell, and you get two cards. It didn’t cost a lot of money, but we are ringing the cowbells. The seller also has to send in a selfie of themselves ringing the bell and we post those for all to see.  This not only addressed those working virtually, it also helped people to understand who everybody is, put faces with names, and have some fun with it. In this situation, we were able to get everybody focused on selling, and away from what they had been consumed with, which was merger integration issues.”

Even in smaller environments, managing the sales team and rolling out the right incentives can make the difference between success and failure. Stephen Brooks, “The Pop-up Expert,” specializes in helping “pop-up” retail shops – which are often small and temporary – create a winning strategy. That strategy includes what he calls his “seven secrets of success” in motivating a sales staff.

“You’ll walk past a kiosk and see somebody eating their lunch, or playing with their mobile phone, and completely disconnected with all the retail opportunity walking by them,” said Brooks. “If you’re not motivating your staff properly, you will fail. I can think of many instances where people have invested heavily in products and have worked very hard to get the concept open, and then can’t understand why they didn’t have any sales. It’s because they didn’t fully invest in their training and motivation.”

Brooks says that motivation will of course, include sales incentives, but also involves getting the sales staff to buy into the business’s vision. “They’ve got to understand what the culture of the business is. They’ve got to have some pride in what they are doing, and they need to be well rewarded. I’m keen on teaching my clients to have some kind of commission structured in so that they know the more they sell, the more they earn.”

The company may get lucky and nail down a two-fer – providing something the sales agent needs to do their job, and positioning it as an incentive. Automobiles, travel vouchers and business trips are all necessary to complete the sales task, but these items may also be used successfully as incentives. Whether it’s a $25 gift card, a pat on the back, or a company car, the incentives are essential to success. “Larger organizations often build in either a car allowance, or a company car from the corporate fleet, as incentives,” said David Gauze, Advertising Manager of AutoBodyToolMart. “The corporate car serves a dual purpose – providing a valuable incentive, and also providing a tool that the sales agent needs to do their job. Naturally providing that major incentive is a big investment, and fleet maintenance must also be factored into the expense equation, either with an in-house garage, or a contract with a local service provider.”

“We’re seeing many business travelers taking extra time during a business trip for personal vacations,” said Chris Rivett, travel expert at HotelsCombined. “Extending a business trip by a day or two has become quite commonplace, and often becomes a sort of informal sales incentive for road warriors. Millennial staff especially is interested in work-life balance, and the emergence of ‘bleisure’ trips – business and pleasure combined – is on the upswing.”

Managing a sales staff, providing the right incentives, and then simply stepping out of the way will prove to be a winning strategy in achieving the esprit de corps and communication that is necessary to sustainable sales growth.