Motivating Sales Professionals during Uncertain Economic Times

This week’s guest blogger is Jennifer C. Loftus, national director for Astron Solutions, a New York-based consulting firm dedicated to the delivery of sales compensation consulting services.

For years, cash has been king.  Who doesn’t know a sales professional who regularly earns six-figure commissions?  That high performer might even be you!  Incentive compensation and sales commissions historically have been the primary tools used to recognize and reward sales success.

However, with today’s economic climate, most sales professionals will not enjoy the large pay gains for performance compensation they did in previous years.  The Alexander Group, Inc., a well-known sales growth consulting firm, predicts sales compensation pay will increase just 4% this year. With escalating food and gas prices whittling away at that increase, a sales commission plan quickly loses its desired motivational impact.

What can we do to ensure organization success and continued motivation during these uncertain economic times?

Adopt a total rewards perspective that focuses on more than just base pay and commission for sales representatives.

The concept of total rewards is simple.  Sales managers have many tools at their disposal for employee reward and recognition, and they aren’t all about base pay, bonuses, and benefits.  Today’s proactive managers use all five elements of total rewards – pay; benefits; work/life balance; performance and recognition; and development and career opportunities – to attract, retain, and motivate their teams.  When combined, these five elements provide many non-cash opportunities to motivate and retain great employees.

Non-cash total rewards can effectively recognize specific behaviors necessary for success, while avoiding a negative effect on the department’s bottom line.  By using non-cash rewards, managers can also avoid possible negative impacts on cash flow and increases to departmental fixed costs, and enjoy greater flexibility for customizing a package to reach each team member’s motivational sweet spot.

Moving beyond formal cash compensation programs also allows managers to recognize success faster.  Many sales pros like this quick response time. To Generation X and Y team members in particular, waiting six months for a commission can seem like a lifetime.

Lastly, depending on the type of non-cash award provided, there may also be little or no income tax implication; music to everyone’s ears.

When developing a total rewards program, it’s important to consider these key principles:

  1. Link program elements to the organization’s strategic plan, mission, and values.  Individual achievement shouldn’t be rewarded if teamwork is a valued behavior. Likewise, using meaningful objectives such as reducing excess inventory, selling higher-margin products, or increasing customer retention will result in the greatest return on investment (ROI) from the program.
  2. Include short- and long-term goals.  Both play an important role in ensuring sustainable organizational success, particularly in a challenging economic climate.
  3. Tailor the program to the team’s specific needs and wants.  For example, while pre-paid gas cards may possess high motivational power for someone in Texas, a New York City resident may instead appreciate a four-day workweek. At the same time, someone in Chicago may prefer cross-training opportunities.  Build a variety of rewards into the toolkit for maximum ROI.
  4. Ensure that line of sight exists between the team’s job duties, goals, and rewards. A sales professional must be able to influence and achieve his/her goals through regular work activities.

What worked in the past isn’t necessarily what will work moving forward.  Cutting edge sales professionals go beyond the traditional base + bonus + benefits mindset to be successful in today’s economy.

By considering all possible compensation elements – total rewards – sales managers open up a world of compensation opportunities that are better tailored to their team’s personal and professional needs, while also attracting, retaining, and motivating the most talented professionals.

Using a total rewards approach ensures a win-win work environment for everyone, even in the most challenging of times.

3 thoughts on “Motivating Sales Professionals during Uncertain Economic Times”

  1. It is hard out there right now. Here is what’s working for me – regular and positive yet real collaboration with my small team of 5 sales reps about what’s working, what isn’t, new strategies, how our services can help companies in this new economy, etc. We get together regularly and share the reality of our challenge and, short of moving to another planet, dig in to figure out a way to succeed in the midst. We put our focus on helping our clients and the conversation stays positive and “war room”ish. It can be exciting to be helping right now. If Sales Managers lead their teams to fight and get creative, they will feel motivated and powerful and better able to face the next economic challenge (and there will be one). OK, off to vote. Thanks for addressing this topic. Jill (

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