What Motivates Sales People? Results / Analysis / Commentary


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There continues to be debate about what motivates a sales person, or indeed any professional. Does how the sales person is compensated make a big difference? Does marketing drive sales or sales guide marketing? Why are there no (or few) professional qualifications for sales people? Is it all about the money? (Read this post before you answer.) How come there are no standard measures? How can I get the most out of the sales team I have?

The results to this year’s survey are in, and whether you agree with my analysis of the results or not, the important action for you to take right now is not to sit back and go “Hmm, that’s interesting”, but rather to think about what it means to your organization.

The poll that I used on LinkedIn was simple with one question and four possible answers:

What motivates sales people?

  • Compensation or Incentives
  • The thrill of the chase
  • Making progress or winning
  • Recognition

You may have seen in a previous post the summary of the early results. This was the second annual survey on this topic and the results are interesting. 481 people responded to the survey – which, for those who don’t like the answers and wish to dismiss the results as being insignificant, is more than the 384 sample size required to provide a 95% accuracy assessment, according to a statistical significance calculation.

There were differences however between the 2010 survey, and this year’s effort. Last year, I limited the target audience to a purely sales audience. This year, due to (silly) changes in LinkedIn’s survey capability, it was not possible to target the survey, so the respondents come from a broader audience. Nor surprisingly, the results were different. In the 2010 (sales only) survey the primary response to the question ‘What motivates sales people?’ was ‘Making progress or winning’. See the results table below.

2010 Results: What motivates sales people?

This year however, with the broader constituency of respondents, (which of course includes sales people as well as others), the erroneous assumption that it’s all about the money is the prevalent attitude.

2011 Results: What motivates sales people?

Maybe I’m an idealist, or perhaps I’ve an unrealistic expectation of people’s powers of intuition or human understanding, but in my opinion, compensation in any job is only a hygiene factor – albeit a very important one. Of course salary needs to be fair and competitive, and people need to feel valued and appreciated, but most professionals – at least those who seem to make most difference to your organization – look to other factors as well as compensation to give them real satisfaction and to serve as the motivation to begin every day energized and excited.

Think about this. What happens if the marketing, engineering, support, or finance people in your organization believe that money is the only factor that motivates their colleagues in the sales department? Just think about it. Where’s the value in communication? Why should the sales provide any feedback to the product people, given that it’s unlikely to make a difference to their commission check – at lest in the short term? If there any reason why the sales person should be concerned about the effective use of marketing dollars, unless they actually care about the company. Is it all just about the comp plan? I don’t think so.

Where does the motivation come from on those days when the sales person is not closing a deal? Like all professionals, the sales person want to know that he/she is making progress every day and contributing to the overall business. This is one of the reasons why many sales people dislike CRM systems. There is no feedback loop – no meaningful measure of progress for the individual that he didn’t know already.

In my opinion, the best sales people flourish when they are listened to, treated with respect, empowered to be self-directed, enabled towards mastery of their craft, and provided with intelligent support systems (automated or otherwise) that let them monitor and manage their own progress; and of course they need to receive fair compensation for their efforts.

You don’t need to believe me or agree with may analysis, but before you cast these opinions aside consider the far more erudite writings on motivation by Daniel Pink, who was Al Gore’s speechwriter, but is also the author of four provocative books including Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

When it come to sales people specifically, one of the things people say they like about Dealmaker (the sales performance automation solution from The TAS Group) is that it empowers the sales person through knowledge and intelligence – automated deal coaching with Dealmaker Coach Me and the like – and also through the live metrics provides real progress indicators in response to a sales person’s activities. (Disclosure: This sounds perhaps like a commercial from the CEO of The TAS Group – that’s me – but empowering eth sales professional in this way is one of the things that motivates us, so I’d be less than complete here if I did not mention it.)

And it’s not just me or Daniel Pink: Other highly regarded commentators in the professional sales community espouse a similar opinion. Read the thoughts of Jonathan Farrington or Dave Kahle:

Jonathan Farrington: The Myth Surrounding Sales Team Motivation

Dave Kahle: Money motivated sales people a dying breed

You will of course make up your own mind on this matter. Yes, the comp plan is a valuable tool – but should be considered a strategic compass rather than a carrot or stick. Yes, money is important to sales professionals, but to position it as the sole arbiter of motivation is to show disrespect for the profession, and expose a lack of understanding of the human condition. That perspective doesn’t serve either the sales or non-sales constituency well.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Donal Daly
Donal is Founder and CEO of The TAS Group the creators of the Dealmaker intelligent sales software application. Donal also founded Software Development Tools - acquired by Wall Data (NASDAQ: WALL), NewWorld Commerce, The Customer Respect Group and Select Strategies. Donal is author of five books including his recent #1 Amazon Bestseller Account Planning in Salesforce. He can be found on his blog at www.thetasgroup.com/donal-daly-blog or on Twitter @donaldaly


  1. Donal, I think your 2011 LinkedIn poll confirms the mis-perception that sales professionals are “coin operated” and care mostly about money.

    This article at http://bit.ly/j3lGtn references research that found “achievement” the top motivator and “money” only a relatively low motivator.

    Achievement = 50%
    Developing expertise = 20%
    Affiliation = 8%
    Security = 7%
    Money = 7%
    Freedom = 4%
    Control = 2%
    Recognition = 1%

    And more generally this HBR study (see http://bit.ly/7DqdpO) found making progress is the top motivator for knowledge workers

    “Having just completed a multiyear study tracking the day-to-day activities, emotions, and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers in a wide variety of settings, we now know what the top motivator of performance is—and, amazingly, it

  2. Johnathan, I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare sales professionals with CEOs.

    As for other professional positions, I don’t typically see marketing or customer service professionals with commission-based compensation plans. Although I think there is more variable pay these days.

    I think everyone should have some risk and reward, but I still believe that the sales profession has more of a direct tie to financial rewards. That doesn’t make them solely focused on money, of course.

    Of course opinions are easy to come by on this topic. I would like to see more solid research.

  3. Bob,
    Thanks for the comment. All of us are somewhat coin operated, but sales people are more visibly so.
    Most public corporations are themselves coin-operated; focused on the quarterly returns and watching the share price.
    There are however, 2 sides to the coin (ahem)
    We’ve seen what happens when corporations get too focused on share price and lose sight of their customers, their social responsibility, and in too many cases, their integrity.
    The best, and most successful sales people, care about their customer, their company and their compensation – in that order.
    Just my opinion.

  4. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the catch on the Dave snafu. I’ve fixed it in the original post, and hopefully that will make its way here.

    Per my comment to Bob – we’re all in the risk/reward business, and that’s ok. But money without meaning is usually a transient (if not negative) motivator.


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