“We’re not a cutthroat culture here, unlike some other sales teams. We work together – the pie is big enough for everyone.” When I first joined the sales organization for a well-established media corporation, I was greeted with this statement regarding the culture of the sales team. However, my interactions with the team painted the real picture of the sales culture – a sharp contrast to what was described.
I was new to media sales, so a girl on my team offered to show me the ropes. How nice, I thought! The first prospect meeting I landed, she came with me and helped co-lead the meeting, letting me observe her and learn from someone with 15 years of media sales experience. As we left the meeting I thanked her, and she said, “No problem. You know this is my account now too, right?” I thought that to be strange, but agreed and continued to pursue the client. She didn’t come to additional meetings and would occasionally ask how things were going.
Weeks later, when the client signed off on the proposal I’d presented, my “partner” asked, “Well, how do you want to split the commission on this?” This came as a shock and disappointment to me as I realized that she was ready to fight tooth and nail for a portion of the payout. Regrettably, I soon learned that she embodied the sales culture – every man for himself, poaching accounts if that’s what it took.
I dug into the facts and realized that there was no articulated sales culture here – no underlying structure that herded individuals on the team to behave in a way that matched their culture ideals. Commissions were formulated in a way that only rewarded individual performance, rather than team performance, so it was no wonder that the words stated and the actions taken were incongruous. If you helped someone else, that was going to be out of the goodness of your own heart, but not an expectation or tangible benefit.
Ultimately, a company can say whatever it wants about its “culture,” but to support the desired culture, there must be concrete incentive design elements that drive selling behavior. According to a WorldatWork article by OpenSymmetry Director of Strategy Services EMEA Jon Clark, these include pay mix, metrics, additional incentives like sales performance incentive funds (SPIFs), and the point of credit and payout structure and rules. A shift in the weight of any of these things would create changes in behavior as people’s paychecks are impacted, and that’s how to put teeth in any kind of statement of culture. Let’s look at how it might play out in a sales team:
Pay Mix – a high variable pay element and low base pay would encourage more aggressive sales behaviors, but if the emphasis is on customer service and retention, a higher base pay and lower variable pay would change the sales behavior.
Metrics – what a salesperson is paid on will shape selling behavior. If a weighted metric that salespeople are paid on includes customer satisfaction survey scores, selling behavior will be different than if key metrics only included number of net new accounts.
Additional Incentives (SPIFs) – short-term incentives such as SPIFs can shape sales culture by encouraging certain behaviors through contests and challenges. Regular SPIFs designed to encourage team selling through team rewards could shape a more team-oriented culture rather than SPIFs that focus on individual goals.
Point of Credit/Payout Structure – sales rep behavior toward other departments can also be shaped by the point of credit and payout rules. For example, if reps are credited on payment, sales reps spend more time hassling accounts payable rather than selling, which can create cultural divisions between sales and sales ops or HR/finance. On the other hand, if sales reps are paid on booking, the culture would shift to be friendlier towards ops and other sales personnel.
Creating alignment of sales culture and incentive plan design is challenging and requires an intentional, collective effort and ownership. To build a strong sales culture, define the behaviors you want and check each element of plan design against those desired behaviors so that you put your money where your mouth is.
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