How (and Why) to Simplify Your Sales Incentive Plan

Chad Albrecht
Chad Albrecht



keep_it_simple-1Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and not one bit simpler.” It's a universal maxim, but he could easily have been talking about sales incentive plans.

Sales incentive compensation plans need to be simple enough so salespeople understand exactly how their performance correlates with pay. Overly complex plans that make it difficult for administrators to calculate payouts and for salespeople to understand their payout structure will result in wasted money and frustrated, less productive salespeople.

According to multiple research studies on incentive practices conducted by global consulting firm ZS Associates, sales compensation managers consistently name plan complexity as a top three issue. Frustrated with complicated plans that are difficult to explain, impossible for reps to understand, and challenging for sales operations to administer, managers are looking for strategies to develop more comprehensible and effective incentive plans that drive the right behaviors and deliver results.

How Did We Get Here?

Before delving into the solutions, however, it’s important to understand just how sales incentive plans can grow overly complicated both at their conception and over time. There are four primary factors that drive incentive plan complexity:

  • Lack of guiding principles in plan design creation
  • Too many “chefs” creating or influencing the incentive plan
  • “Vending machine culture” in the sales organization where the company believes that if you want to encourage a certain behavior, it has to be paid for in incentives
  • “Tweaking” of the incentive plan over time, often to meet short-term needs

Too Much Tweaking Produces Confusion

The most common reason for plan complexity is “tweaking.” At their conception, plans are often reasonably straightforward and easy to understand. Over time, however, the plan is tweaked in response to short-term problems. For example, if product A is not hitting the goal, the plan might be changed to put more weight on product A. If the upside on product B is so rich that they can afford to ignore product A, the upside opportunity for product B might be linked to product A's performance. 

Another example is if a manager notices inconsistent performance and mandates the incentive plan be changed to reward consistentcy. Or if someone wants “balanced selling” or cross-selling, the plan is tweaked yet again.

Individually, none of these changes is likely to have a significant effect on the plan. But the aggregation of these small tweaks over a few years often results in a compensation plan that is unrecognizably complex.

Competing Interests Lead to Complex Plans

Another reason for plan complexity is the fact that most companies have many different functional areas represented in the plan design, including marketing, sales, HR, finance, and sales operations. And these groups have different, and sometimes conflicting, priorities.

For instance, each brand team within marketing may want their product as its own component, as they are allocated a portion of the cost of the sales force. On the other hand, finance might want to pay on gross margin, include a component based on maximizing Average Selling Price (ASP), improve the pay for performance relationship or lower the overall cost of the plan. These competing interests make it difficult to create a cohesive and simple plan that maximizes sales force motivation and boosts profitability.

Simplify the Plan and Keep it Simple

One of the primary ways to bring some much-needed clarity and objectivity to incentive plan design and upkeep is to establish a strategic process and a design team that can systemically evaluate all competing interests and requests against a clear set of guiding principles.

Best-in-class companies use a set of eight to twelve guiding principles that help guide their incentive plan design process. These principles often include simplicity in design, a maximum number of metrics, and upside earning opportunities for top performers. Without these principles, the design process can be unorganized and dominated by influential people who might have the loudest voices but not the best ideas.

After establishing the guiding principles, companies should then begin to develop several plan options that meet all or most of the principles. As the plans are presented to the design group, they should begin with the simplest plan possible that achieves the majority of the principles. As more complex plans are developed, the group should continually ask itself if the incremental business results generated by the additional convolution more than offset the downside. This rigorous process will force the design group to add complexity to the plan only when they can make a business case for it.

Once the plan is designed and in the field, companies should establish a compensation committee to govern the plan and approve tweaks. Each change to the plan should be evaluated against the guiding principles and considered for its long-term impact on the sales incentive plan.

Less Is More in an Incentive Compensation Plan

Technology, overlay sales forces, and increasingly convoluted products make the sales job more difficult today than ever before. Companies can’t afford to add to the frustration by implementing a compensation plan that salespeople don’t understand.

By adopting a strategic, thorough incentive plan design process, companies can create a comprehensible sales incentive plan that will ensure a high level of sales force motivation.

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