Why Bigger Isn’t Always Better

By Malcolm Fleschner

Too often, designers of sales incentive plans make the fundamental mistake of believing that the more expensive the prize offered, the greater its motivational value. In truth, there’s a great deal more to motivating sales professionals than simply dangling the biggest, shiniest carrot in front of them, explains Barry Maher, speaker, consultant and best-selling author, most recently of No Lie: Truth Is the Ultimate Selling Tool(McGraw-Hill, 2003).

“The critical question that needs to be asked,” Maher says, “is: Does this big old hulking blue and green whatever-it-is really stimulate the behaviors and ultimately the sales you want?’ Maybe the thing only appeals to some of your reps. A big problem for years was that male managers picked incentive prizes that often didn’t particularly appeal to the growing number of women on the sales force. Or maybe no one but the top people really have a chance to win the thing. Often these people are making enough money that the prize may not be that big a deal to them. I’ve heard more than a few top reps say: I can buy my own damn golf clubs or my own TV. The top reps still win the awards. The prizes just don’t motivate them to make the extra effort.”

Maher is quick to point out, however, that not all large-scale, costly incentive rewards are a waste of managerial effort. One important factor, he notes, is how the incentive plays around the kitchen table.

“High-ticket incentive programs – something reps can shoot for over the course of time, such as a trip or a major award – can work well,” Maher says, “especially if the company can get the rep’s spouse involved. Nothing motivates like having your significant other asking: How are we doing on that trip to Italy? I’ve already asked the boss for the time off. How can you possibly let that trip slip away? We all want to be a hero to the most important person in our lives. My wife still talks about some of the trips and major awards I won in which she got to participate.”

The critical element in any successful incentive plan – no matter the reward – is that the awards must have the kind of value that’s not reflected in the price tag. “Even with major awards,” Maher explains, “it’s not the cost of the incentive, it’s the value. In this case I’m talking about the value to the rep. Some of the least expensive incentives are (or can be made to be) the most valuable. I still have the personal note from the CEO thanking me and noting a specific sales accomplishment for which there had been no contest or award. Cash value: probably about $1.25.”