Increase Your Input

By Malcolm Fleschner
Ask some of the managers running sales incentive contests today about participant involvement and you might hear back something like this: They get to take home the prizes, don’t they? That’s involvement enough.
But that response won’t pass muster with renowned incentives expert Bob Nelson, president and CEO of San Diego-based Nelson Motivation ( and the author of many bestselling books on motivation, including 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman, 2002). Nelson says that one of the top motivators for all types of employees is involvement – with a capital I – particularly those in the sales field. With incentives in particular, he says, participants involved in the planning and development gain a greater sense of ownership over the program’s eventual success meeting sales goals.
Unfortunately, he points out, this is a concept that remains lost on most companies. “Sales compensation tends to be a set formula for most organizations,” he notes. “The idea of asking salespeople what incentives would motivate them often is an afterthought. Some might run the plan by a few key salespeople to make sure they are okay with it, but few would start by asking their sales force how they’d like to be compensated and what they would like for incentives. Their reasoning is usually: Won’t they just ask for more money?”
In fact, Nelson says, asking participants what they want from a sales contest does involve the risk that expectations will get a little out of hand. But this is an easily managed problem, he explains, and shouldn’t limit management from coming up with different incentive scenarios for salespeople to consider.
“Sure, initial limits should be set,” he says, “such as management is willing to pay a specified percent of sales to X level and a certain percentage above that level. But within that there is still a lot of leeway for what can be done to help motivate goal attainment. Asking what they find motivating is good, but another strategy would be to provide a range of choices or to have a tentative recognition plan that you seek feedback on. Anytime you can give someone a say or a choice the incentive is more motivating. For example, instead of having the big trip for sales reps who achieve their goals, give them other options – such as a vacation with their family. Likewise, a choice of incentives for milestones along the way will go a long way toward engaging reps and other employees.
“Please try to think out of the box and include options other than merchandise!” Nelson exhorts. “Opportunities for visibility in the organization, celebration of milestones, learning opportunities and special assignments, administrative assistance and ways for the sales staff to recognize their support staff are all viable options to consider as well.”

Nelson also emphasizes that sales reps’ participation shouldn’t end once the rules and prizes are established. Consistent involvement encourages a sense of ownership throughout, he says. “You want it to be their program, not management’s or human resources,” he explains. “Having sales staff involved at each step along the way helps maintain their motivation. Let them share their successes, tell stories of how they met their goals, share strategies and insights with others and publicly thank those who helped them. These things will increase the motivational aspects of the program throughout its life.”