Do Sales Awards Really Drive Results?

By Malcolm Fleschner

During his frontline selling days, author Devin Hughes certainly appreciated the accolades that came with sales achievement. But the prospect of winning awards never drove him to work any harder.

“When I worked alongside the best and brightest, I wanted to push myself to the brink, but I didn’t zero in on the awards,” says Hughes, who is also a former Division I college basketball player. “It has to do with the difference between success and achievement. I wanted to feel successful. I didn’t really chase achievement. Success was more of an intangible feeling that I was making a difference, doing the right thing, moving the ball forward.”

Hughes considers highly personal (and often impromptu) forms of recognition more effective. “A handwritten letter from someone on the leadership team, an ‘I really appreciate what you did,’ or otherwise being singled out unexpectedly – that always mattered more to me,” he says. “The sterile stuff, the contrived stuff – that’s great, but the more intimate recognition that’s one-on-one always has an impact, even if it’s just a little thing.”

When he managed his own sales team (at Genzyme Biosurgery), Hughes kept the focus on “meaning, not money” and memories. “I try to create events that are memorable,” he says. “Paychecks aren’t memorable, but stuff that’s ‘sticky’ – photographs, laughter, team building – they build an atmosphere that’s congruent with your culture and the meaning behind what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Of course, the adrenaline rush experienced when receiving a trophy or plaque can be extremely effective for teams that are working toward short-term goals. Keith Dalton, a former winner of the legendary Sony Samurai Award and current vice president of sales and marketing for Compusearch, believes that one of a manager’s primary responsibilities is setting expectations of salespeople’s behaviors and providing rewards that reinforce those expectations.

In the past, Dalton managed large call centers, where he would regularly walk up and down the aisles waving $5 bills “like Crazy Eddie,” ring bells for sales, and post updated sales tallies, all in the name of maintaining a fun, exciting atmosphere and improving productivity. Today, he manages a team with a sales cycle that can stretch out as long as 18 months, and he uses short-term rewards to keep enthusiasm up over the long haul.

“Since the commission at the end is the big reward, the challenge is to keep the team motivated through smaller rewards along the way,” he says. “I do this through goal-setting month to month and giving rewards ranging from gift cards to dinners with significant others for accomplishments like new client calls, number of demos scheduled, and accurately keeping our CRM up-to-date.”

While Hughes agrees that individual awards matter and recognizing performance is important, he feels that awards are really a reflection of a company’s values and culture.

“Culture is significant in a sales force,” says Hughes. “Awards are great, but everything else you do [is what] gives a plaque or trophy meaning.”