3 Must-Haves When Designing a Modern Sales Incentive Program

During the past two years, sales professionals have faced budget and hiring freezes along with multiple bouts of layoffs across industries — especially in tech. It’s less than ideal that the average sales turnover rate is 35%, compared to a 13% average turnover rate for all other roles. Why the disparity? Salespeople work high-pressure jobs and often get little to no recognition. 

In a recent study of sales professionals, 67% reported that they are close to experiencing burnout. The combination of historically high turnover and burnout rates with the present day economic uncertainty is a major red flag for leaders. When it comes to keeping sales reps happy and quotas attained, what worked over the past few years is no longer working

One solution is the introduction of a sales incentive program that encourages reps to work toward a goal and receive recognition. Incentives serve as a form of acknowledgement of an employee’s hard work and can make reps feel a sense of belonging. The right kind of incentive can even reduce stress in the form of extra days off or relaxing experiential rewards. 

According to a recent survey Blueboard conducted alongside Wakefield Research, 67% of employed Americans feel appreciation at work is in short supply, and these kinds of programs can boost performance by up to 44% if built correctly. They not only address the issue of turnover, but they also have a greater impact on driving behaviors that lead to more revenue than a simple commission plan. Below, I’ve outlined three key approaches to keep in mind when designing such a program, especially during a time when it’s tough to sell.

1. Design your program like you would a new product

Incentives should be created strategically to support annual revenue goals, and their timing should be in line with your go-to-market cadence. Rather than repeating the same incentives throughout the year, you should instead view your sales incentive program as a roadmap that builds upon itself, using each incentive to build momentum for the next. 

For example, if you have enterprise clients with long sales cycles, you should incentivize new account development and strong discovery meetings to build a pipeline for the first two quarters. As time passes, incentivize different behaviors that reflect the maturing and progressing pipeline as prospects move down the funnel and get closer to a closed deal.

A good product roadmap empowers teams to maintain the existing product, be proactive in building new tools, and fix any bugs that pop up. Another way to apply this thinking to your incentives program is to include some slack for incentives to course-correct if you get sidetracked. 

2. Make your incentive program flexible

Once you’ve designed your incentive program as a roadmap, encourage sales leaders to be flexible with what they choose to incentivize. What you incentivize should evolve based on what your company’s needs are, from both a behavioral and product-centric lens.  

One client of ours noticed that their win rate doubled whenever their sales reps held in-person meetings with leads as opposed to video conference meetings or phone calls. They took that information and pivoted their incentives program to reward sales reps based on how many in-person meetings they scheduled, which directly impacted their success rate. 

Beyond flexibility in the program itself, maintaining a sense of flexibility to incentivize specific products is also a proven approach. A client of ours that sells hardware was having trouble driving revenue to a new product. The company found that its sales reps weren’t comfortable with the product, so they often avoided bringing it up in conversations. This product had high margins and acted as a gateway to purchasing several other products in the company’s suite. To help amp up sales, the team’s leaders decided to only incentivize pipeline generation and won deals for this particular product. This targeted approach helped the company land several millions of dollars in additional sales and ultimately benefited its bottom line. 

3. Zero in on the reward

What recipients often pay the most attention to is the reward itself. It may seem simple, but rewards need to feel worthwhile to each individual they are offered to. You can design your program like a product roadmap and stay flexible on what you incentivize, but if a rep doesn’t care about the reward, the program will flop. 

The reward is the driving factor of any sales incentive program and must be carefully selected to motivate sales reps. The key to selecting the perfect one? Don’t. Provide sales reps with a menu of rewards to choose from themselves. Choice is key here, as one sales rep may want tickets to see their favorite band, while another may be missing quality time with their family, and another may want their partner to choose the reward for the both of them to enjoy. When you open up the playing field to allow choice in the reward, it becomes automatically impactful for every sales rep. 

While cash has been a staple for many sales incentives programs, a study by the Incentive Research Foundation reveals that cash “did not highly correlate to motivation or job satisfaction.” Alternatively, the same study shows that rewarding with experiences creates a much longer-lasting motivational impact. 

Offering experiences as a reward provides incremental loyalty, thus reducing turnover and further encouraging preferred sales rep behavior. Even more impactful is rewarding reps with a novel event they can enjoy alongside family and friends. In fact, research shows that 47% of employees would strongly prefer experiences with their families as incentives. 

By rewarding with experiences through a platform like Blueboard, sales reps subconsciously motivate their peers as well, a cycle that becomes more powerful over time. A sales rep might not want to share that they received a $2,000 check as a reward, but they’ll post and talk about an experience they earned, like the Michelin-star meal they shared with their partner, or the zoo trip they took with their kids. Socializing the reward makes the incentive more visceral and motivates the rest of the sales team to work toward the next incentive 

Economic uncertainty has increased pressure on sales reps. With sales cycles lengthening and budgets shrinking, employees working for companies with high turnover rates are also battling burnout. A well-designed sales incentives program that’s built like a product roadmap, that prioritizes flexibility and that allows reps to choose their own reward can not only ease burnout and lower turnover, but also align rep performance with more new customers and a healthier business. 

Kevin Yip is a passionate tech entrepreneur focused on helping companies worldwide celebrate and recognize their top talent in a more meaningful way. As co-founder and president of Blueboard, a San Diego-based experiential rewards and recognition company, Yip partners with sales leaders and HR innovators to build exciting sales incentives and employee recognition programs that drive real impact across metrics like employee motivation, engagement, company culture and revenue.

  • Originally published April 6, 2023