Align Sales Compensation with Your Goals

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Note: This weeks blog is a excerpt from my new book: “Creating High Performance Sales Teams”

When it comes to how businesses pay their salespeople, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. That’s especially true for any company that is diverse. Each has its own business, margins and mix of products and services. Some pay commission based on sales, while others only pay on margin; still others blend both with incentives and special bonus plans.

No matter which approach you use, success depends on awareness. Your sales management team must understand your company’s overall goals and structure compensation to align with them. In short, sales compensation should be not just a tactical focus for your organization, but a strategic one as well.

Sizing It Up
Compensation plans shouldn’t be developed in a vacuum. You and your sales leaders need a solid grasp of your overall industry and your organization’s place in it. You’ll need to factor in variables such as new product launches and major promotions, as well as consider your personnel structure.

You should also address these questions: Is your company a start-up or an established business? Are your sales goals orders- or bookings-based? How long are your delivery cycles? What are your objectives: to secure new clients, increase average order size, reduce selling expenses? Do you want to open new vertical markets, focus on the profitable aspects of your business or increase certain activities, such as cold calling? Each answer will help them design a compensation plan tailored to your company’s specific needs.

Finally, take a hard look at your sales organization. Take the time to set goals and analyze gaps. For instance, do you need to attract new representatives to make C-level sales calls? Do you want to retain employees to build a long-term, client-based sales team, or is rapid turnover acceptable because it provides new blood? Such considerations also play into compensation planning.

Understanding Cost of Sales
Of course, you can reduce selling costs and enhance profits by capping sales compensation, but in the long run you get what you pay for. If you hire good salespeople and compensate them poorly, expect high turnover, which comes with costs of its own. A sales plan that compensates strong performance will allow you to attract the best salespeople — and retain them as well.

You can reduce selling costs and enhance profits by capping sales compensation, but in the long run you get what you pay for.

Calculating the cost of sales (CoS) is an important part of planning a compensation package. For a quick CoS ratio, simply take an individual’s salary plus commissions earned at 100 percent of quota and potential bonus opportunities, then divide by that person’s revenues to obtain the percentage. For example, if a salesperson earns $150,000 in total compensation and sells $1.5 million of products and services, his CoS is 10 percent. A more sophisticated approach adds in marketing expenses, corporate overhead, direct expenses paid to the salesperson and expenses related to sales support costs.

Once you have determined an acceptable CoS range, you can fine-tune the commission plan. If you sell Microsoft offerings, services and other more product-focused solutions, it’s critical to find a blended CoS, which takes into consideration the margins of service and lower margins of product sales. That can allow you to achieve the desired CoS within your compensation framework.

Examining the Options
Compensation plans vary widely, but all should include “accelerators,” that is, increased commission rates for employees who achieve target sales levels. Following are a few common examples of different plan structures:

  • Profit-Based: Commission rates change as margin levels increase. These plans are generally based on invoice, product or monthly averages of margin generation.
  • Revenue/Quota: Compensation is based on sheer volume achieved over the previous sales period or on a percentage of a quota achievement.
  • Balanced: Compensation is based on margin, revenue and a third component, such as quota attainment.
  • Team: Bonuses go to all team members when quarter-to-date (QTD) sales goals are achieved.

Let’s examine which types of plans work best in which scenarios. If your company has high revenue-growth objectives in a boom market with little competition, use a plan with aggressive accelerators. Another option involves offering higher base salaries and lower commissions. An advantage to this approach: You may not need reps with top-notch sales skills because, in this case, they’re primarily order-takers.

The situation changes in a slower-growing market with many competitors. Here, you might adopt a “protect-and-grow” revenue objective to play defense against rivals, while using a margin-based plan to upgrade accounts. The idea is to gear compensation to account for growth while providing bonuses for new accounts.

If your company’s goal is to grow revenue and focus on new account conversion programs, choose a plan focused on the percentage of sales growth quarter over quarter or annually over named accounts. Certainly, using a quota-based compensation plan can achieve this objective, too. This scenario requires strong sales compensation with quarterly bonus emphasis on revenue gains from new business.

Tailoring Tips
Here are a few final considerations to keep in mind as you customize your compensation plan:

  • In new organizations focused on expanding within existing markets, the compensation plan will differ dramatically from that of an established company in the same industry. A mature, market-dominant company that receives a large percentage of its revenues from a small, loyal customer base can offer lower commissions and, perhaps, lower overall salaries. But a newcomer to an existing market probably needs to offer higher compensation to attract top-performing salespeople who can build a strong customer base.
  • New organizations in new markets need compensation plans reflecting the volatile environment, usually with higher-than- average base pay.
  • Companies in transition or undergoing a turnaround typically experience a higher CoS ratio; they may be best served by flexible plans incorporating morale- and team-building components.
  • Organizations positioned for high growth should develop plans covering brief, six-month periods. This will let management test theories and change direction while allowing the sales team to adjust accordingly.

No question about it: Creating an effective sales compensation plan is hard work, but the effort typically pays off in both improved sales performance and achievement of your corporate goals.

1 COMMENT

  1. Ken: great summary.

    Sales compensation plans drive behaviors–some intended, and some unintended. Therefore, it’s impossible to overanalyze the consequences for how people are compensated. If management hasn’t worked through all the scenarios, loopholes, outcomes, and ensuing tactics, the risks are high that unwanted behaviors will occur. Show me a customer who has felt betrayed or abandoned by a salesperson, and I’ll show you a sales plan that probably facilitated that outcome. Then I hear, “we don’t encourage those behaviors.” Except that the comp plan does.

    Four things I’d like to add:

    1. Offering commission on profits: Sounds like a good idea, until you ask “do we really want our salespeople obsessing over this?” Be careful what you wish for. Commissions on profits might mean salespeople will resist discounting, but they also mean that salespeople will dive into the guts of how every engagement is sourced and provisioned. It means the books must be opened up to expose cost of sales and consulting rates. Lots of arguments and harrangues. The risk of “gaming the system” is very high. I’ve seen it many times.

    2. Customer satisfaction. You didn’t mention it, but it’s worth considering in the comp plan. But remember, everything in a comp plan can and will be gamed, including “objective” customer satisfaction surveys.

    3. Accelerators. Use them–they’re great! Salespeople should have an upside for crushing the quota. But make them material toward reaching corporate objectives.

    4. Commission caps. Just another way of saying “my ego is simply too big for both of us to work in this organization.” If a salesperson consistently out-earns the CEO, and achieves everything he or she is asked to do in the process, buy him or her a pair of Waterford wine glasses to use on their yacht, and clean them if you have to. What they’re doing is making the shareholders richer too. If it’s not, revise the comp plan.

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