Steer Sales Behaviour with the Right Compensation Plan

Careful design of a sales compensation plan and automated compensation management, increases sales performance.

Sales Compensation Management

Why do people choose a sales career? Some non-sales people reply "because they can’t do anything else."

The most common answer from sales people is "the money." Most professions require years of study just to earn the title, Architect, Chartered Accountant, Civil Engineer, Solicitor, Barrister or Doctor. Once qualified these professionals still have to build their experience and reputation before they can command the high remuneration associated with their occupation.

Sales people have no such barriers to entry yet often earn similar incomes. Some can favourably compare their pay with top Barristers. Sales compensation in excess of £250,000 is not uncommon in fast growing industries.

Why do sales people get paid so much? Presumably, because companies find sales people generate business more efficiently than other means. Most employers reward sales success with commission payments because it works. Do sales people deserve it?

Sales people, on average, support the jobs of 27 other people, according to one study. If you take into account those working for suppliers, this statistic holds some credibility. It’s not suggesting sales professionals could do their jobs without those 27 people, just that if their sales weren’t made, the jobs couldn’t exist.

Most sales incentive schemes are initially based on simple principles, and then suffer continuous modification, as circumstance change or unwanted side effects are discovered. Hurried or ill-considered compensation plans need more changes.

Commission based incentives gives sales people what they want - a sense of control over their own destiny and non-judgmental performance feedback. Should we be surprised when they act in accordance with their compensation plan and personal needs, rather than in response to management directives?

Changing strategic objectives prompt changes to incentive compensation. Instructing sales people to focus on services has little effect if most of their compensation depends on product sales.

Quick fixes in the form of special incentive payments can make the situation worse, as they did at one company I worked for. The extra sales incentives were intended to increase sales force attention on low-end high volume products. This worked so well that most of the sales team overachieved and benefited from commission accelerators. The unanticipated combined affect pushed payroll costs way over budget.

Many variables effect sales behaviour and motivation. The mix of base salary and performance pay, the measurement period, when commission is paid, the method of measurement, accelerators, how high the ‘on target’ bar is set, and capping all play a part. Inconsistent levels of payment for different products and services ads a further layer of complexity. Commission plan design and incentive compensation management warrants a great deal more attention than it usually gets.

Everyone has a different profile for sales motivation so no uniform sales compensation plan can hope to have an optimum motivational affect for all sales people. Uniform plans that deliver a consistent compensation calculation are at best an unhappy compromise.

These days, automated compensation management tools makes it possible to design a compensation plan that takes into account each individual sales person's personality and intrinsic motivators.

Let's consider the variables.

Mix of base salary to performance pay

Attention swings towards winning immediate business as the ratio of performance based compensation to salary increases. Aggressive accelerators accentuate the urgency of meeting or exceeding every sales target. Most sales people motivated this way will behave like water and always find the quickest root down the hill.

Opportunity for gain concentrates the mind. Longer-term considerations such as new market development and even new products, may be ignored unless they generate clear upside earning potential. Advocating team behaviour under these circumstances is like trying to push water up hill.

High base salaries with small commission elements encourage long-term focus and good corporate citizen behaviour. Relationships and reputation are better maintained. Strategic sales opportunities receive more attention.

In my first sales position bonus payments based on company performance and individual salary provided team oriented motivation. Sales people were more inclined to visit customers who had no immediate business to place. In larger companies, this approach can direct attention away from profit and revenue milestones towards being seen to do the right thing.

The measurement period

Orders tend to bunch up at the end of measurement periods. Sales people naturally focus on the business at hand and neglect prospecting. Pressure to close business in time for measurement period end dates, pushes pipeline work into second place. Countering this with monthly or weekly sales targets leads to lower value orders as sales people increasingly attend to opportunities with shorter sales cycles.

Quarterly, half-yearly or annual measurement periods tend to result in long famines and larger orders. Activity targets, that are designed to improve order flow, yet are left subordinate to the compensation plan, are largely ignored or receive lip service. Attaching payments to activity targets may encourage manipulation.

When they get their commission

Paying commission against orders causes sales people to move quickly on to their next opportunity and reduces their interest in delivery and implementation.

Deferring payment until the customer pays disconnects sales success from the reward, devaluing the commission scheme. With some schemes, sales people may not receive the commission associated with a sale for six months or more.

In my early days at Sun Microsystems, many of us spent a disproportionate amount of time checking indecipherable commission statements and querying pay cheques. We also became involved in the collection of debts.

As you might expect, such circumstances work against the purpose of commission plans. Happily, for the sales force, and for Sun, the scheme was improved.

The measurement method

Basing performance compensation on profit steers sales people to sell whatever products or services have the highest margin, regardless of management intent. For resellers and distributors this has the advantage of providing automatic feedback of market preferences and opportunities. It also helps control cost of sales.

Yet focussing compensation plans on profit can frustrate marketing strategy. Paying commission on revenue reduces interest in the price paid and helps the pursuit of market share and strategic customers. On the down side, profit margins become more difficult to control.


Changing the value of commission according to performance spurs sales people on to greater effort when the effected number is perceived to be in reach or achieved. This may result in more price pressure from the sales person, so that he or she can buy business forward.

Accelerators can also encourage sandbagging. If a sales person thinks the target associated with the accelerated commission rate is out of reach, he or she is likely to sandbag to preserve orders for the next measurement period. Overall accelerators increase motivation, sales, and earnings. Accelerators are difficult to budget for If more than the expected proportion of a sales team achieve accelerated commission.

Clear goals, careful consideration, consultation, and testing are essential for designing all but the simplest sales compensation plans.

If the task falls to you, adopt a cynical mood and imagine you are a recipient. Think through how the planned scheme or changes will effect your earnings and actions. Ask peers to do the same. Get some of your sales people to give you feedback. Ask your accountant or financial director to pick holes in envisioned schemes before they are published.

Repairing mistakes after a compensation plan is issued is almost always expensive. Sales people will have made target commitments based on the published compensation plan. If adjustments could mean less money, they will have a de-motivating effect.

Effort invested in planning pays dividends in sales results and reduced need for management intervention. Whenever sales compensation needs revision, remember the 1 – 10 – 100 rule. Right first time costs once. Right second time costs ten times. Right third time costs one hundred times.

Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business extols the wisdom of not tampering with pay systems. On the whole this is sound advice. In the case of commission plans, it is seldom possible to follow. Better to use a compensation management system that facilitates a flexible approach.

Article by Clive Miller

If you need to increase sales, develop a new sales compensation plan, or improve compensation management, we can help. Telephone +44 (0)118 983 3887. We will be pleased to learn about your needs or talk through some options. Send email to for a prompt reply or use the contact form here.