Game Plan

By Malcolm Fleschner

What do winning a game of grandmaster-level chess and running a successful sales incentive program have in common? Well, for one thing both depend heavily on executing a well-planned strategy. But sales managers, unlike chess masters, don’t have the luxury of moving their salespeople around by hand – the salespeople have to be motivated to move themselves.

Bruce Bolger, president of Selling Communications, Inc. (, suggests starting with pen and paper when determining your overall incentive strategy. Write a two- to three- paragraph description summarizing exactly what you hope to accomplish with the incentive. This will help you, he says, when it’s time to share your strategy with your team.

The next step is to determine your goals for the program: what your salespeople will have to do to achieve them, the proper timeframe for the program and the additional dollars you expect to bring in with the successful attainment of your goal. Ask yourself: What actions, if undertaken more often or with greater care, could yield the desired result?

Next, Bolger explains, you have three basic options to choose from for incentive contests – open-ended, closed ended and plateau programs.

An open-ended contest allows everyone who achieves a predetermined level of performance to win. Since you can’t know ahead of time how many participants will reach the goal, open-ended contests are more difficult to budget. They often produce greater results, however, because they tend to more effectively motivate the middle 60% of average performers.

A closed-ended program, by contrast, singles out only the top performers, such as the 10 salespeople who show the greatest improvement over the same quarter last year. While easier to budget, these programs might simply wind up rewarding salespeople who would have already performed at high levels.

In a plateau program participants can win ever-greater awards by reaching incrementally higher sales or productivity levels. These programs can motivate salespeople to push themselves just that little bit extra to win the next tier of prizes.

The type of program that will work best for you depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and the nature of your sales team, Bolger says. Many organizations, he adds, use a combination of two or all three programs to reward both top performers for their excellence and average performers for making improvements.