foam_fingersToo often, sales leadership treats sales reps as if they’re coin-operated. Need to boost sales for a particular product or service? Just adjust the compensation plan so reps earn more on those deals. Easy.

But the assumption that underlies this quick fix -- that sales reps will do whatever makes them the most money -- is incorrect. Sales reps aren’t coin-operated -- they’re goal-driven. Their primary objective is to retire their quota, and if the particular product or service will slow their progress against that objective or add risk to the sales process, they won’t do it, no matter how much money they stand to earn. In over twenty years in the sales profession, I’ve never seen a rep sacrifice their ability to retire quota for cash (unless it’s a fiscally irresponsible amount which I have seen on a few occasions, but I wouldn't recommend).

At its root, this is an issue of motivational misalignment. While I don’t think day-to-day motivation is a core responsibility of a sales leader, laying the groundwork for a motivated sales team is. From my experience, these are the three tasks that sales leaders must execute or delegate to ensure a motivated sales organization.

1) Hire self-motivated people. Hard-stop.

If a sales manager is spending a significant portion of their time pondering how to motivate an individual on their team, more than likely they have the wrong person for the job. It’s up to sales management and leadership to hire reps that are intrinsically motivated, and who inherently process and act upon information in ways that naturally line up with the demands of the role.

In an interview, look for people who love to help others see problems in a new light, are excited about personal causes, and who are passionate about setting and achieving goals. The old adage of history being the best predictor is true when it comes to motivation.

But don’t just ask about what goals they reached in their last job, or even in the last year. Go back farther. What goals did they set and achieve growing up, in school, or on sports teams? People who have a very long history of setting goals, being challenged by unforeseen circumstances, and plowing through nonetheless have historically been my best reps.

That said, I make sure to ask my candidate for anecdotes about times they overcame obstacles at many points throughout the interview. Anyone interviewing for a sales rep position is going to show up with a few pat answers they use for these types of questions. But after two or three examples, they’re going to run out of their pre-prepared stories. I tend to breeze through the first few responses and then really dig into the later stories -- the ones I know they haven’t had as much time to think out in advance. This is less to catch them unprepared, and more to get genuine unfiltered reflection. You’ll need to be okay with some long silences here, but it usually pays off. The reasons why they kept going to achieve their goals may vary, but make sure the persistence is there.

2) Set up the right opportunities and resources for success.

If you can get self-motivated people in the door, you don’t want to squander their talents by making it impossible for them to win.

Leadership teams are responsible for defining the market opportunity and territory well enough so sales reps who concentrate on the right inputs will achieve the desired outputs. If there’s too much opportunity, you’re setting reps up for bursts of short-term success. While good for reps’ wallets, this is ultimately bad for the business and bad for reps, as it doesn’t encourage them to learn or improve. If there’s too little opportunity, reps are either going to burn out trying to make it work, or simply quit.

In terms of resources, sales leaders have to provide reps with tools that minimize the amount of friction in completing administrative tasks. In addition, reps should have technology that actively assists them in taking advantage of the market opportunity they’ve been given by pulling in the right data, directing action, and sourcing best practices. The necessary sales enablement resources will vary considerably depending on the length and complexity of the sales cycle, but they’re not to be overlooked.

3) Spend one-on-one time to discover individual drivers.

This one isn’t so much for the leaders as the managers, but leaders should ensure that managers follow through.

Over time, managers should spend enough time with their reps to understand the motivational drivers of each individual on their team. And make no mistake -- it’s a highly personal process. I don’t think any one contest or compensation plan is going to speak to everybody. You simply have to invest the time, rep by rep.

Although it seems easiest to simply ask a salesperson what would most motivate them -- and managers should certainly do this -- people often don’t have this kind of insight about themselves. Managers will need to experiment with different motivational techniques to determine what works best for each individual.  

Most importantly, once a manager discovers the motivators that resonate most with a rep, they need to execute, consistently. One of the biggest downfalls of most manager-rep relationships is that managers bring all sorts of energy and passion when they’re coming up with new ways to work more effectively together, but after the initial breakthrough happens, the excitement and follow-through trails off. Managers need to stay committed to working with the rep in his or her preferred way, and continuously refining the engagement.

And this commitment can be a source of motivation in and of itself.  If a rep feels that a manager is invested in their success, they see more reason to overachieve.

What are some motivational tactics that have worked well on your team?

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Originally published Sep 23, 2014 11:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


How to Motivate a Sales Team