Imagine accepting a sales position at a company without knowing how much money you'd be making.
If you're thinking, "That wouldn't work for me," you're not alone — it wouldn't work for me either.
Compensation is an important factor when attracting and retaining talent on your sales team. That's why getting your organization's sales compensation right is crucial to your success — you want to give the best talent a reason to accept a position on your sales team and stay with your company long-term.
However, sales compensation can be tricky to get right. Not only are salespeople notoriously good at figuring out and exploiting loopholes in the pay structure, but there are also dozens of different variables you need to balance to ensure you're allocating your resources appropriately.
In this guide, we'll discuss the importance of a sales compensation plan, types of sales compensation plans, and how to create one of your own.
Let's get started.
Sales compensation is the amount of money a salesperson is paid. Compensation varies by company but often includes a base salary, commission, and additional monetary incentives.
Now, let's look at what a sales compensation plan is and why you need one.
Sales Compensation Plans
Your sales compensation strategy is the plan that drives the sales team's performance and helps them increase revenue. A sales compensation plan includes details about all aspects of a salesperson's earnings such as their base salary, commission, and any incentives or benefits they may be eligible for.
The purpose of a sales compensation plan is to encourage positive behaviors across your team, set expectations and standards for compensation for all salespeople, and drive results to achieve overall team and organizational goals.
The structure of a sales compensation plan varies by business and is typically based on team organization, resources, and goals. For example, one sales organization might offer a higher base salary, while another might prioritize commission based on their budget, business structure, employee needs, and team targets.
There should be a compensation plan for every member of the sales team based on their role, experience, length of the sales cycle, and the type of deals they engage in. Here are some other factors to consider while thinking about your sales compensation plan:
- What’s your budget?
- Does your company culture impact how you compensate employees?
- What’s your competition paying?
- What are living costs like in your area?
- What are your team and organization goals?
Before we review how to create your compensation plan, let's take a look at some important sales compensation terms to know.
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Sales Compensation Terms to Know
Depending on how you structure your sales compensation plan, the following terms and concepts may come up as you start the development process.
A sales quota is a time-bound target set by sales managers for sales reps to hit — either individually or as a group. The most common time constraints for quotas are monthly, quarterly, and annually. They can be measured however the sales managers and company leadership see fit, whether that's by profit, deals closed, or overall activity.
A sales accelerator kicks in when one of your reps hits a specific amount over their quota. This type of payoff is exponential for your reps — they may end up with a huge commission check if they have a highly successful month or quarter (so be aware of your resources and budget). For example, if a rep hits 110% of their quota by the end of the month, you'd pay them 1.0x on their performance above 100%.
Sales decelerators have the opposite effect as accelerators — they penalize under-performing reps. A decelerator may kick in between 40% and 60% of their quota. In other words, if a rep only hits 60% of their quota, their performance would be multiplied by a decimal (like 0.5) to calculate their compensation.
A clawback kicks in when a customer churns (i.e. stop using your product or service) prior to hitting a specific benchmark. They cause the rep to lose their commission and are common among subscription companies in an effort to keep customer retention rates high.
At HubSpot, we instituted a four-month clawback. If a customer cancels their plan one to four months after signing up, the salesperson who sold it to them is forced to give back their commission payment. This ensures reps focus their time and attention on businesses that can really benefit from the product.
On-target earnings (OTE) provide salespeople with a realistic view into what their total compensation for a position would be when their expected and reasonable goals and quotas have been reached. Typically speaking, OTE would include the base salary and the realistic commission resulting from closed deals.
Sales Performance Incentive Fund or Sales Contests
Sales performance incentive funds (SPIFs) or sales contests are ways to incentivize high performance among your salespeople.
These tactics are often used to change behavior and include monetary (such as a $500 cash prize to the first rep who closes 10 deals of a certain product) or non-monetary (a nice dinner for every team that increases their retention rate by the benchmark percentage).
These sales incentives and contests should run for short periods of time — about one to four weeks total. If you run them any longer, reps will lose the necessary sense of urgency for this tactic to work.
Also, keep your sales contests limited. The more behaviors you reward, the likelier your team will be pulled into conflicting directions — making it difficult to drive specific outcomes.
Now, let's review the different types of compensation plans.
Sales Compensation Plan Examples
There’s not one specific way to pay employees in sales. Many companies tailor their plans according to how they conduct business, and generally speaking, there are four main types of compensation — hourly wages, salary, commission and bonuses. Compensation plans are more detailed and can contain different forms of commission or no commission at all, they are all tailored to the size and scope of a business it applies to.
The following ten examples include the most common types of sales compensation plans. Each example has a different structure, so you'll be able to tailor your plan to your specific sales team and business based on your needs, resources, and goals.
1. Salary Only Compensation Plan
With a salary-only structure, you decide ahead of time how much you'll pay your salespeople. It doesn't matter how much (or how little) they sell, their take-home earnings are set.
A salary-only structure is fairly uncommon for sales teams. That's because, without commission, reps are usually less motivated to go above and beyond. After they've hit quota, they may relax instead of pushing for the next deal because there's no incentive or reason to continue onward.
Plus, many salespeople love the thrill of scoring commission — the high stakes and competitive nature of earning a commission is often part of the reason reps go into sales in the first place. Not to mention, your top performing reps may just leave your company so they can make commission elsewhere.
So, are there any positives to a salary-only compensation plan? They make it simple to calculate sales expenses and predict hiring needs. Additionally, your reps may be less stressed because they don't have to worry about the financial consequences of missing their target or the weight of the competition.
2. Commission Only Compensation Plan
A commission-only structure means you pay reps purely based on their performance. If they don't sell anything during a month, their salary is zero. If they sell $50,000 worth of product in a month, their salary may be anywhere between $15,000-$22,500 depending on the commission percentage you offer your employees.
Due to the simplicity of a commission-only compensation plan, you forgo a lot of risk — when your salespeople succeed, revenue increases; when they fail, you lose nothing.
It also motivates reps by giving them the freedom to earn as much money as they can while saving you time trying to identify any poor performers on your team. However, commission-only plans can make it challenging to forecast your expenses and stick to a tight budget.
In terms of the commission percentage to pay reps, you may decide it's anywhere between 5% to 45%, which is standard.
Additionally, the more support you expect reps to give customers (such as implementation help or account management), the higher their commission should be. Remember to factor in their level of involvement in the sale as well, meaning if they're only producing leads (rather than closing them, too), you should allocate a smaller commission.
3. Base Salary Plus Commission Plan
The most common sales compensation pay structure is the base salary plus commission plan. This structure provides reps with a fixed yearly base salary as well as commission. They get the security of a steady income with the economic incentive to sell.
This plan is ideal for most businesses because you benefit from greater clarity into your expenses (since there's less variability) and the opportunity to hire highly-motivated, competitive salespeople. Furthermore, since you're giving reps a base salary, they're obligated to fulfill some non-selling tasks such as training new team members.
In this plan, the commission percentage is lower because of the base salary. To determine your base-variable (or fixed) compensation split, think about the following factors:
- How difficult the sale is
- How much autonomy is needed (for example, are you providing your reps with leads or are you asking them to generate their own? Are you giving them technical support or none?)
- How much experience is necessary
To determine the variable compensation think about the following factors:
- How complex your sales cycle is
- How much influence the rep has over the purchasing decision
- How many leads reps work with at a given time
Essentially, the shorter and simpler a sale is and the less impact a rep has over the customer's behavior, the smaller the percentage of variable compensation should be.
If you need more guidance, you can think about the industry standard, which is 60:40 — meaning 60% fixed to 40% variable. A less aggressive ratio (think 70:30 or 75:25) is common when reps are required to teach the prospect because they're most likely selling a highly complex or technical product.
Account managers may have a similar ratio of fixed to variable pay, driving them to spend more time helping their existing customers than finding new ones.
4. Base Salary Plus Bonus Compensation Plan
A base salary plus a bonus compensation plan is common when your reps tend to consistently hit their pre-set targets. This approach offers a high level of predictability and still motivates your reps to close sales.
For example, you might pay $30,000 base and $15,000 for selling X amount per year. If you know about eight of your 10 employees will consistently hit quota, and total earnings are $55,000, you can set aside $440,000 in your annual budget for the bonuses. But again, this prevents reps from feeling any motivation to over-perform.
5. Absolute Commission Plan
An absolute commission plan requires you to pay your reps when they reach specific targets or milestones. For example, you might pay your salespeople $1,000 for every new customer they obtain or 15% of upsell and cross-sell revenue.
These plans are easy for reps to grasp which typically drives good results. And because the output is directly tied to salary, reps are usually highly motivated to perform. In addition, you don't have to set a quota — instead, you can set benchmarks or recommendations, but ultimately, you're only compensating reps for what they sell.
However, this structure doesn't take into account market penetration or the number of opportunities. For example, one rep may be getting twice as many leads as their peer, but they'd both be treated equally.
Additionally, you'll need to carefully consider what's best for the overall company when determining the commission. If you're trying to drive the sales of a certain product line, you'll need to compensate reps accordingly (hint: reps will often do whatever is most lucrative for them, regardless of greater business objectives).
6. Relative Commission Plan
Unlike an absolute commission plan, a relative commission plan uses a quota or predetermined target. This target can be based on revenue (X dollars) or volume (X units).
When a rep hits 100% of quota, they make their OTE which consists of either base plus commission or pure commission. For example, if a rep's yearly quota is $60,000, their at-plan commission is $50,000, and their base is $80,000, then their OTE would be $130,000.
7. Territory Volume Commission Plan
With a territory volume commission plan, sales teams work with prospects and clients in clearly defined regions. Your reps are paid on a territory-wide basis versus individual-sale basis. Once the compensation period is complete, the total sales are split among the reps who worked that territory.
This type of compensation plan is a good fit for team-based sales organizations where each rep works towards a common goal and focuses on a specific territory or region. To attract reps to this type of plan and grow your sales teams, you may offer them an attractive commission paired with a well-developed territory.
8. Straight-Line Commission Plan
A straight-line commission plan rewards reps based on how much or little they sell. For example, if a rep reaches 86% of their quota, they'll receive 86% of their commission. If they reach 140% of quota, they receive 140% of their commission.
Although this approach is relatively easy to calculate, it's not perfect. So, what's the issue? You want to encourage over-performance as much as possible. If you're already paying base, getting a rep to hit 140% of their quota from 120% has a greater financial impact than getting an under-performer to hit 100% of quota from 80%.
Plus, a rep may be just fine making 80% of quota — you don't want to disincentivize any of your reps to sell because they're content with a lower salary (which is when you'd incorporate an accelerator).
9. Gross Margin Commission Plan
Maybe your company will pay reps based on profit rather than sales. In other words, a rep would be compensated more for selling a product with a $2,500 gross margin than one with a $1,000 gross margin.
This works well because it discourages discounting. Reps can become reliant on discounts to close deals which isn't good for your business. Not only are your margins eroded, but the perceived value of your product goes down and future customers will come to expect a price slash. Tying commission to the product's final cost encourages reps to give fewer and smaller discounts.
Additionally, gross margin commission plans promote the sales of specific product lines. Not all of your products are created equal — whatever the case, paying on gross margin motivates your salespeople to sell more of your most profitable products.
However, there are three main things to keep in mind when it comes to gross margin commission plans.
- Revenue must be your priority if you use this plan. Perhaps you're trying to build market share or attract the top 20 logos in your industry. You want salespeople to focus on those goals — compensating them on profit may distract them and cause them to pursue the wrong customers.
- Reps must have control over pricing. Reps have to be either selling multiple products at different price points or have discounting power.
- You must be able to track your gross margins. Shifting product and/ or distribution costs, rebates, and territory changes can make calculating this extremely hard.
10. ‘Draw Against’ Commission Plan
Draw Against commission plans are regularly occurring payments made in advance to the sales rep, or subtracted from the rep’s total commissions. While it seemingly emulates salary schedule payments, they are regular commission payouts given to the employee before they need to earn that money back. If there are remaining commissions after a specific time period, you will payout the remainder.
Recoverable draw payouts are basically loans to employees that you expect to gain back from their earned sales commission. For example, if an employee draws $2,500 per month, they’re expected to earn a minimum $2,500 in commission each month so your business doesn’t lose money. If this threshold is not met, their debts roll over into next month’s pay period. There are two main Draw Against commission plans:
Typically suitable for newly beginning sales reps, this draw is a payment you will not expect to gain back. It is unlikely for these employees to earn much in commission from the start, so use this draw until their training period is over.
Now, let's look at how to implement one of these types of sales compensation plans on your team.
How to Create a Compensation Plan
- Use a sales compensation planner
- Determine compensation plan goals
- Choose a type of compensation plan
- Decide when to provide compensation
- Choose a payroll software
- Set quotas and expectations for compensation
1. Use a Sales Compensation Planner
There are dozens of potential approaches to and combinations of sales compensation strategies. To ensure you land on the best plan for your sales team, use a sales compensation planning template to calculate how much revenue you can expect and how much reps will be paid.
2. Determine Sales Compensation Plan Goals
The first part of developing a sales compensation plan strategy includes setting your goals — laying out your business objectives is a critical part of any strategy.
So, here are some common primary and secondary goals of sales compensation plans for your consideration. Clarifying your priorities will help you decide how to compensate your salespeople in a way that works for your business.
Remember, your goals may be a mix of the examples below, or look completely different — your targets should be a reflection of what you hope to get out of the sales compensation plan and your unique needs.
Primary goals of sales compensation plans
Secondary goals of sales compensation plans
Increase cash flow
Drive sales for specific product
Increase average contract length
Attract target customer
Increase average deal size
Reduce discounting frequency
Increase percentage of repeat customers
Reduce average discount size
Increase retention rate
Acquire seed accounts
Increase upsell or cross-sell rate
Manage deal flow
3. Choose Type of Sales Compensation Plan
Now that you have your goals, it's time to choose which compensation plan you'll implement at your company. Refer back to the sales compensation plan examples to review the most common options.
While determining which plan is best for your business, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my overall budget?
- How many reps do I have?
- What types of compensation plans do my competition use?
- What will my salespeople expect out of the plan implemented?
You'll also need to determine when you'll provide the compensation for employees. There are four standard options for paying commissions.
When Customer Signs a Contract
Paying when the customer signs the contract is good motivation for the salesperson at hand because they immediately see the monetary impact of closing the deal.
However, this payment plan can also lead to cash flow problems if there's a significant delay between the signed agreement and the first payment (especially if you're an early-stage business and/ or it's a large deal that's being closed).
When You Receive the Customer's First Payment
Compensating reps when you're paid is the most common payment method. There's less lag between the time of the commission and revenue payments. You can also use clawbacks to incentivize salespeople to focus on good customer fit (rather than just anyone who will buy) which often boosts retention rates.
Note: If you're a subscription-based business, this timeline can disrupt your cash flow. After all, if you give a rep commission on the entire contract when you get the first check, you're paying in advance of the customer's subsequent payments.
Every Time a Customer Pays
Paying each time you get an invoice is ideal if you want to protect your cash flow. Nonetheless, it can be complex to plan if you're on a tight budget especially if you have a large sales team of reps closing and managing deals.
When Deal Goals are Reached
Also referred to as tiered commission structure, this compensation plan is made to motivate reps and reward top performers that close a certain number of deals on a monthly basis. After reps exceed a predetermined benchmark, their commission rate increases. This model can also implement commission reduction for those that underperform.
4. Choose a Payroll Software
Once you've determined your plan goals, type, and payment plan, you can choose a payroll software to assist in the action of compensating your salespeople.
Depending on how long your company has been established and whether or not you have an HR team who handles pay and benefits, you may or may not already have payroll software. If you do, it should be easy for you to incorporate your new sales compensation plan in the software.
If not, you might consider one of the following three popular payroll software options to help you carry out your plan.
- Gusto: This software offers an all-in-one service which includes payroll, HR, and benefits so you can handle all payment-related work from a central location.
- Intuit QuickBooks Payroll: With automatic payroll tax calculations, paycheck accuracy, and native payroll integration for your accounting software, this option will allow you to focus your time and attention on other important tasks you need to manage.
- Patriot Software Payroll: Patriot is a great option for anyone with a low budget who needs the bare minimum payroll-related features and capabilities.
5. Set Quotas and Expectations for Compensation
Now it's time to set your quotas for your individual reps and/ or your team as a whole. This will allow you to establish expectations for compensation with your salespeople so everyone knows what's expected of them and how they're going to have the opportunity to make money.
Of course, this begs the question: How do you decide what quota should be? There are two main approaches to setting quotas.
The bottoms-up approach requires you to consider your team's capabilities as well as the perceived market opportunity to determine what each territory's and/ or salesperson's quota should be. The more data you have here, the easier this will be.
Your inputs will vary depending on your product and type of sale, but generally, you'll want to consider the following when using the bottoms-up approach to establish quota:
- Average contract value (ACV) or average deal size
- Average revenue per salesperson
- Number of salespeople
- Number of qualified leads (per month or quarter)
- Percentage of qualified leads that close
These considerations will tell you how many deals a rep should be working and thus what a reasonable quota should be.
Alternatively, you can simply multiply the typical number of closed deals by the average deal size. This will give you a baseline number to use for your quota.
But beware — the more successful and experienced your salespeople become, the more deals they'll be able to work and the bigger their contracts will be. This means their quota may quickly become inaccurate, so you'll want to consistently evaluate it if you go with this approach.
With a top-down approach, you combine market data with your revenue targets to figure out what your team needs to bring in.
So, if most companies in your space pay their salespeople in the X to Y range, and your reps need to close Y amount in total for your business to hit the established goal, you can determine a reasonable OTE as well as your optimal team size.
6. Maintain Your Sales Compensation Plan
As your business goals evolve, teams grow, product line changes, and competition adjusts over time, your compensation plan will need to be revisited. Like any business strategy, it's not going to stay relevant forever — what works now might not suit any of your needs a year from now.
Remember to consistently review and analyze your compensation plan to keep your reps happy, motivated, and ensure you're implementing a plan that helps you positively impact your business's bottom line.
Begin Creating Your Compensation Plan
Remember, no sales compensation plan is perfect — your priorities are constantly shifting, your reps are always looking for new loopholes, and your prospects are periodically changing their preferences.
Follow the tips above and develop a sales compensation strategy to fit your specific business needs and resources to help drive your bottom-line success.
This post was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Apr 1, 2021 1:45:00 PM, updated May 14 2021