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Sales gamification isn’t just a passing fad. Beyond the flashy point systems and glossy leaderboards, sales gamification works because of basic principles of motivation.

Implemented correctly, gamification harnesses salespeople's naturally competitive spirits to incentivize them to complete goals such as closing deals quicker, following up on more leads, or making more calls. Sales gamification can be wildly successful, yet many initiatives flounder because managers don’t know how to apply gamification principles properly.

Here’s the science-backed way to make gamification work for your sales team.

The Reward Compulsion Loop

Gamification in sales is not about simply offering rewards when employees meet goals or quotas. It’s about understanding how to leverage psychology to motivate and engage employees.

Managers must understand: Gamification in the workforce functions the same as it does anywhere else. Think about popular games like Candy Crush, Farmville, or even the lottery. Why are these so popular? They all contain the subtle yet powerful reward compulsion loop that makes people want to keep playing.

The reward compulsion loop is everywhere. It can be used for good (as in the case of motivating employees) or bad (in the case of getting people addicted to unhealthy substances or behaviors). But however it’s used, it works -- really, really well.

Here's how the reward compulsion loop works:

  1. Perform an action
  2. Receive a reward for performing the action (Examples: Five Facebook likes! A rush of nicotine! A promotion!)
  3. This reward triggers dopamine release, which causes feelings of pleasure
  4. Receive an invitation to perform the action again
  5. Repeat the action in the hopes of getting another hit of dopamine

Psychological Principles of Sales Gamification

In addition to the reward compulsion loop, there are two other psychological principles at work in sales gamification initiatives:

1) Well-timed reinforcements

Motivation relies not only on rewards, but well-timed reinforcement as well. Humans are hard-wired to repeat an action that gave them pleasure in the past. The reinforcement schedule is a core motivating factor to users’ continued participation in a program.

The key to any successful game is knowing when, how many, and at what rate points or other rewards are given or taken away. Proper timing reduces the chance of employee boredom.

2) Intrinsic motivation

Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of "flow" argues that excitement relies on building an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, which comes from finding the fine grey area between certainty and uncertainty. If uncertainty overtakes a player, they will not be motivated to continue playing. Likewise, if a player is certain they will win, they will not be motivated.

Not All Gamers Are Created Equal

Gamification is not a one-size-fits-all technique. Many people say salespeople’s naturally competitive nature make them perfect for gamification. But while this is true, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In order to successfully leverage gamification with your sales team, you need to strategically target different employee personalities. As with any other strategy, you must understand your audience to create games that appeal to them. Employees have different personality types and are motivated by different rewards.

While the best gamification programs offer something for every personality type, it’s important to understand dominant subgroups so you can create targeted campaigns to appeal especially to them. In general, gamers can be divided into three subgroups.

1) Fun Seekers

These are the gamers you will find cozied up next to a book of Sodoku or immersed in the morning crossword puzzle. They play simply for the enjoyment of the process.

Best channels for engaging fun seekers: Interactive advertisements, digital games that simulate real life, and familiar games, such as fortune wheels or word scrambles.

2) Socializers

These are the Foursquare kings and Words with Friends junkies. Socializers are driven by competitiveness to achieve social benefits, such as recognition, networking, or communication opportunities.

Best channels for engaging socializers: Socializers love games that offer tangible, measurable results, preferably with public recognition. Progress bars, leaderboards, and badges are all great techniques for getting socializers’ attention.

3) Reward Chasers

Primarily reward-chasing gamers are the ones most likely to fill your inbox with Dropbox or Uber invitations -- not because of the social recognition they get for the email, but because of the free perks they get for referrals.

Best games for reward chasers: These players are most attracted by rewards in any form, whether that's points, virtual currency, discounts, free shipping, exclusive offers, or other benefits. Sweepstakes, contests, limited-time offers, and daily bonus points are all effective methods to spark their interest.

Many people identify with one or more of these subgroups; however, understanding the dominant type in your sales force can help you highlight games that will attract them. 

Gamification Doesn't Need to Be Complex

The success of a game has nothing to do with whether or not a game is complex, and everything to do with basic psychology. Think of remarkably addictive games like Candy Crush, Flappybird, and Farmville -- they’re simple, but effective. 

Keep in mind that when it comes to gamification, rewards don’t need to be complex, and achieving goals doesn’t need to be difficult. As long as you structure the initiative around psychological principles and player personas, gamification will bring results.

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Originally published Apr 8, 2015 8:30:00 AM, updated February 01 2017

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