Motivating Your Sales Force Is the Foundation of Success

Joe Weinlick
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The collective behavior and attitude of your sales force can make or break your reputation with customers, so revenue is often a reflection of employee engagement. In 2012, Harvard Business Review reported that American companies annually spend $800 billion on sales force incentives, which is three times greater than yearly advertising costs. Employee motivation should be an ongoing priority, but avoid alienating your workers by hounding them with criticism, ultimatums and competition. Evaluate the skills, obstacles and relationship dynamics of your sales force to help individual workers achieve success.

Understand What Hinders Performance

Be prepared to hit one dead end after the next when you develop incentives without knowing why workers aren't reaching their sales goals. Communicate with your sales force to find out what obstacles they face and whether they feel adequately equipped to meet your expectations. Use employee feedback to categorize different types of problems:

1. Operational: Are you enforcing counterproductive policies or failing to provide effective guidance, training and resources? Do your methods promote individualism over teamwork?

2. Service/Product-Based: Is your sales force fighting a losing battle because you're targeting the wrong audience or ignoring product flaws? 

3. Cultural: Are your incentives diversified enough to suit different personalities? Do you reward or punish workers for trying new methods?

4. Behavioral: Do your workers cope well with rejection? Do they respond to coaching or continually follow negative patterns?

Once you identify productivity barriers, you can separate real and perceived problems, says Dr. John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University. Perceived barriers stem from an employee's personal insecurities or resistant mindset, and breaking through these limitations can improve your sales force.

Match Rewards to Personalities

Individual salespeople have different degrees of ability and drive, so use motivational techniques that address multiple levels of employee engagement. Focusing solely on top earners creates an unbalanced environment in which the small minority of star performers always reaps the benefits. Meanwhile, the rest of the sales force is accustomed to losing and has little incentive to aim higher. Another factor is personal stake. Some of your most hardworking salespeople may not be motivated by bonuses or competitions, so find out what makes them feel valued.

Experiment with different types of performance and compensation models. Try implementing a tiered achievement system for workers who are discouraged by high sales goals. Make the employee's average sales total the starting tier. When workers pass the first tier, higher goals are less intimidating, and they are inspired to keep going.

Balance monetary compensation with other benefits by offering cost-efficient, high-value prizes at lower performance tiers. The ambitious rising star may covet the big bonus, while other workers are perfectly satisfied with a vacation day, gift certificate or public praise. By offering a wider range of success markers and prizes, you encourage workers of all achievement levels to stay motivated and participate.

Leverage Employee Strengths

As an employer, it is your job to put talent in the right places, so don't assume that poor performance is caused by a bad work ethic. According to Gallup, workers who use their strengths on a daily basis are 8 percent more productive and six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Assign salespeople to roles that emphasize their strengths. Your observational skills as a manager are essential, as employees can easily overlook their own talents. Pay attention to which employees thrive in a specific retail department or perform best at phone sales, floor sales or online support. Pair teammates who feed off each other's energy to promote constructive, upbeat competition, rather than all-out war.

Focusing on weaknesses kills motivation, while providing training and on-the-job coaching shows your interest in employee growth. In a Gallup survey, respondents rated the statement, "My manager maintains a coaching relationship with me that emphasizes my strengths" on a scale of 1 to 5. Approximately 93 percent of participants who rated it "5," or "strongly agree," are engaged at work, compared to 11 percent of people who chose ratings between 1 and 3.

Instead of criticizing employees for weaknesses, motivate them by setting good examples. Show employees you understand the hurdles they face in sales by demonstrating how to assist or persuade customers. Provide a clear model of what you expect salespeople to accomplish and how you want them to treat clients. Teach your workers to better interpret customer responses and body language, so they know when to back off and how to adapt their sales strategies.

Eliminate Unnecessary Pressure

Employees who believe they are doomed to fail are more likely to give up when customers challenge or reject them. You can relieve some of that pressure by making it clear that rejection doesn't equal failure. Tom Hopkins, an expert sales strategist, suggests using a sales ratio to remind your team that the next win is a few rejections away. Let your sales force know your company's average number of attempts before a successful sale, so they remember five or 10 rejections is normal, for example.

Salespeople hold the fate of your company in their hands, and while anyone is replaceable, you can build a stronger business by strengthening the talents of your existing sales force. Look at your business from every angle to determine where you can improve workflow or motivate others to take responsibility for their own success.

Photo Courtesy of Stuart Miles at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shaday that's a great idea! And you are right that the cost would be minimal but it could really help to motivate the sales force as well as maybe offer different ways of closing, too. @Jane sadly, when a company portrays a doom and gloom mentality, the best way to turn it around is to clean house - from the top down. Negativity begets negativity and nothing will change until the negativity is removed.

  • Shaday Stewart
    Shaday Stewart

    @Jacqueline Parks, I think it's important for sales managers to give demos every few weeks. Many smaller companies don't necessarily have the resources to provide individualized training, but it costs very little to host a short demo with a Q&A during business hours. When I attended a vocational school a few years ago, the program was extremely fast-paced, and as it was both a creative and technical subject, instructors wanted students to understand that different approaches can be equally effective. Guest instructors would come in and show their alternative methods for achieving results, and even the creative director occasionally did short guest lectures, which everyone looked forward to. It showed us that everyone at the school truly understands what it's like to start on the ground floor and keep learning throughout their careers.

    For sales managers, this could mean taking a live call and having the team watch and take notes on how each step is handled. The manager could follow up with an explanation of what goals the salespeople are shooting for and how to move closer to conversion at each step of the conversation. There are many different types of learners, and employers gain better results by showing people that they don't have to try and force themselves to mimic the top performers. They can follow the same effective principles, but use those guidelines to tailor their sales methods to their skills/personalities.

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    I once worked for a company that had a doom-and-gloom mentality among the rank-and-file workers because management had a habit of reminding people how replaceable they were. It was quite demotivational for many employees and thus they had a high turnover. What kept me going is that I was so good at the work that I was winning the prizes the company had made available to its top people. If you could advise a company like that how to change their environment into one that was motivational for all employees, what would you tell them?

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    I love this article because it places emphasis on positive ways to motivate teams. Placing negative pressure on employees may initially achieve results, but ultimately, the bad atmosphere it creates hampers progress and creates a really pessimistic work environment. I say stick with rewards, praise employees for hard work, and try to cut out punitive tactics altogether.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Jacqueline thanks for the questions. Have you tried pairing two employees up? Pair a great sales person up with one that is not performing well and see how that goes. Maybe the poor performer didn't even realize that he was doing things wrong. By pairing him up, he can see what he was doing wrong and can make corrections. The employee who is performing well can offer some comments and/or criticisms - professionally, of course - to help correct any issues and to motivate the poor performer. After all, one bad apple can spoil the whole basket so it's in everyone's interest to help the poor performer turn things around.

  • Mike Van de Water
    Mike Van de Water

    I totally agree with the idea of matching rewards to the personalities of your employees. Additionally, having a range of bonus options helps everybody feel like they are working toward something worthwhile. On top of these personalized rewards, you can also set team goals for group rewards, such as pizza parties and accepting "casual" attire for a set period of time. Team goals are also a good way to find out which employees take a leadership role and attempt to motivate their coworkers.

  • Jacqueline Parks
    Jacqueline Parks

    I find that there isn't always a lot of time for training. What are some quick ways to train and motivate workers. For example, how can managers consistently set a good example, especially when they themselves do not participate in direct sales? I need some ideas for quick and effective methods to teach poor performing sales team members to do better.

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    I have to respectfully disagree with the idea of not criticizing under-performing team members. I believe that criticism sometimes motivates the lazy and careless members to come out of their slumber and build their reputation. I think criticizing them, while at the same time showing them by example, will propel them to new heights

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    My current sales team is completely metric driven. There is no acknowledgement of situations or effort, it is just a data point - close ratio, customer touches, profit line, often with competing goals (a large sale takes time and a rep risks being reprimanded for not having enough calls that day). Companies would do well to take heed of many of the points raised in this article. Salespeople, at the end of the day, are people that have different motivations and needs.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    The article seems to indicate that sales people should have the opportunity to switch roles so they can use their strengths to bring in revenue for the company. But how does the company know what strengths sales people have if they don't know what they can do? Generally speaking sales people are recruited to work in one role and are evaluated based on how much they sell. How do managers assess individual sales people on strengths beyond sales numbers?

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    Knowing what is hindering performance is the first step to correcting a problem. We may just assume an employee is unmotivated or lazy, shirking their duties because they simply don't want to work. However, there are usually underlying issues that need to be addressed. Every employee is unique, so finding the right balance for each individual employee will make things run much smoother, and should eliminate many problems associated with motivation and goals.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the great comments. @Shannon it has been my experience that a small company usually just does "on the job" training which typically includes a lot of reading and then maybe shadowing another sales person for a week or so. This way they can ask questions and learn what they need to, at least to get started. @Lorri I happen to agree that rewards should be given to the high performers, not to everyone. It does take a lot away from the reward - especially for that top performer. There's a commercial on TV - can't remember what it was for - but all of the kids on the team got a participation trophy regardless of how they did. The Dad looks at it, shakes his head and then gives his son one of his trophies instead. Competition is good as it does make us compete to win - to do our best.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I like the idea of friendly competition. Gamification works on so many levels, whether you're in kindergarten learning how to put words together to make sentences or if you lead a sales team on its way to success. I wish every company had some sort of game-playing aspect of attaining goals, because it's human nature to compete and to win.

  • Lorri Cotton
    Lorri Cotton

    I have to respectfully disagree with the statement that rewards should be given as often to underperformers as they are to high-achievers. This stifles the will of employees to be innovative and do outstanding work, if they're not yet in the list of top performers. A reward should be given only for outstanding performance, not given out like a participation trophy. Rewarding less quality work, will lead to more of the same. Reserving rewards for outstanding work, encourages other employees to strive to meet that bar.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    When your sales team is not provided with training opportunities and clear expectations, it negatively affects morale, the team dynamic, and productivity levels. Too many sales professionals are hired in and expected to just know how the company operates without any type of orientation or training. I realize that this takes extra time, money and resources. How would you recommend smaller companies with limited staff go about incorporating regular training for their staff without impacting the bottom line?

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