Incentive Lessons

By Malcolm Fleschner

With more than two decades under his belt as a top performing sales executive and a sales trainer and motivator, Paul Shearstone ( has witnessed firsthand some of the best – and worst – examples of incentive programs ever produced by the sales profession. While he believes that the ancient art of carrot dangling remains a terrific motivator for salespeople, he cautions that no matter how attractive the carrot, improper execution can doom nearly any sales incentive program. With that in mind, Shearstone offers the following recommendations for sales organizations bent on proper incentive execution.

1. Don’t show them the money.
An incentive program’s motivational value is not simply a matter of price. When he was a sales rep, Shearstone recalls recognizing that if he was winning the trips, merchandise and other goodies, then he was already pulling down a sizeable income. For winners, he notes, the monetary value of a reward often is secondary to the recognition that comes with winning.

2. Line up your targets.
Typically, 80% of your sales will come from just 20% of your salespeople. Incentive programs too frequently are designed to motivate everyone on your team, though the one-size-fits-all approach might wind up working for no one. Rather than using incentives to try to boost efforts among the top 20% – who likely need little extra motivation to drive them – focus your incentive strategy on the next 20%. By increasing sales among this group you could potentially double your business.

3. Keep it simple, Simon.
Salespeople naturally gravitate toward the path of least resistance. This doesn’t make them lazy – it just means they look for the simplest solution to any problem. By creating an incentive program with uncomplicated recording and reporting systems that make it clear what they need to do to win, you increase the chances of getting critical buy-in from the folks you’re trying to motivate. Increased ambiguity diminishes interest and wastes the time of the people who charged with administering the program.