Why you, as a CEO or board member, should stop the use of sales bonuses in your company

Sales bonuses and sales competitions is a common practice in many sales organizations to create motivation, but there is a lot of misunderstandings of how to create a motivated sales team that delivers the results you really want.

In summary money can work to motivate your sales team, but they can also have some really bad side effects, that will hurt your company and your customers.

I have been working with B2B sales in the IT industry for over 20 years, as well as serving on several boards and advisory boards. I have always been fascinated with motivation and creating great results.

Over the years I have come to understand, that you should stop using sales bonuses if you work with B2B sales!

And it is up to you as a CEO or board member to stop it.

Let me explain why.

7 deadly flaws of carrot and sticks

Using sales bonus for motivation is like using carrot and sticks for motivation. These techniques can be highly effective for motivation and productivity. BUT only for routine tasks. And B2B sales is not a routine tasks. According to the latest study by CEB the average number of buying groups involved in a B2B purchase is 6,8, which means that sales is a complex team effort.

If you use carrot and sticks like sales bonuses for non routine tasks like B2B sales they can have some highly undesirable side effects as described in the book Drive by Daniel Pink.

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
  2. They can diminish performance
  3. They can crush creativity
  4. They can crowd out good behavior
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  6. They can become addictive
  7. They can foster short-term thinking

I love this RSA Animation video that briefly illustrates “The surprising truth about what motivates us”. I encourage you watch it.

These side effects are highly unwanted and not in line with why companies typically uses sales bonuses in the first place. That sales bonuses can actually diminish performance will come as a surprise to many people, but the research shows this is actually the case. Similarly, sales bonuses can crush creativity, and B2B sales requires creativity.

So if you want your sales team to deliver great results, don’t use sales bonuses.

How to create a motivated sales team

Instead of using sales bonuses to motivate your sales team you should help your sales team find their intrinsic motivation, but using:

  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery

You can get detailed advice on how to motivate your sales team in this blog post:

How to keep your sales team motivated


When can sales bonus still be relevant?

I often wonder why it is so common to have high sales bonuses and aggressive sales competitions. There is so much research that shows that money is not a good tool for motivation.

The main reason is of course that money does motivate, and people overlook the bad side effects. Secondly sales bonuses becomes addictive, so the people at the top don’t want to stop the use of sales bonuses as it will impact their own bonus. That is also why it is up to you as CEO or board member to stop the use of sales bonuses.

I have found there is one scenarios where I previously still used sales bonuses:

1. Attract the right talent while keeping salary cost down

There is a fight for the best talent in the market. You want to attract the right talent with a high salary, but you still want to keep the salary costs down. So instead of paying a high fixed salary sales bonuses can be used to keep the fixed costs down.


How to design a better bonus plan

Attracting the right talent is a common and valid reason for considering to use sales bonuses. But as an alternative to an individual sales bonus I would recommend the following:

Offer a fair and competitive base salary

  • The best way is to offer a good base salary, that satisfies the employees needs and requirements, and that allows you to attract the right talent
  • Consider if you really need and want the sales people that is only attracted by the aggressive bonus plan. Remember to get the right people on the bus — the people that is self motivated and motivated by your company’s purpose

Offer a team bonus or company profit sharing

  • You might still feel you can not offer the salary you want unless there is an element that is tied to the results.
  • Then consider offering a team bonus or company profit sharing. This focuses more on the whole company or team collaboration.
  • And do use this to motivate, but to acknowledge that when there is profit you also wants share this profit with the employees

Offer alternative recognitions or celebrations

  • An important way to keep your people happy and motivated is to recognize the effort they do, and not only the results produced. And great people attract other great people.
  • Another way to attract the right talent and keep them happy is to offer alternative celebrations. The right celebrations can depend very much on your company culture.
  • If you have a company of young people you might want to have a big party or lavish kick off if certain goals are reached, and if you have an company with many senior people they might be more interested in additional free time, events that include family or dinners including spouses

I hope you found my input useful and I would love to get your feedback and comments. Leave a comment below or write to me at thomas@salesvalue.net or twitter thomasthejn.