Tag Archives: Base pay

Base Salaries for Sales – annual merit increases, or not?

The question: Should we be using our standard annual merit pay adjustment process with our sales team’s base salaries, or should we just expect them to earn their own raise through increased sales?

The answer will depend on a few characteristics of your company, your sales jobs, and your sales incentive plans, so find your situation below for some best practice pointers.

If you’re in an early stage business with less than 50 sales people, or if most of your sales people have at least half of their annual compensation coming from their commission or variable pay…

In this case, it is most common to find that base pay is adjusted rarely, if ever. Adjustments are usually triggered by significant increases in responsibility (quota size, team lead, etc.), and are not done on an annual cycle. Over the long run this may lead to a very incentive-rich pay mix as the most tenured sales people build a book of business which rewards them more and more while their base pay stays the same, potentially over many years.

This may eventually require adjustment via increased base pay and a change in the core incentive structure as the business matures and the focus of the relationship with the customers shifts from being primarily with “their” sales person to being a larger overall relationship with your company. But in many businesses, this arrangement can persist for years and is a sensible approach.

If your business is more mature, your sales force is larger, or if your sales people have a more base-rich pay mix (60% or more of total compensation at target in the base)…

This indicates that your sales people are probably part of a larger selling team and/or your brand and customer relationships are strong enough that the customer would see their relationship and decision to buy as more influenced by the company than by the specific sales person. This doesn’t mean that the sales person is unimportant, just that they are executing their part of an overall customer life cycle that is primarily orchestrated by the company.

In this case, it’s important to maintain the pay mix. So expecting the sales person to “make their own raise” would eventually result in a pay mix that is too incentive-rich, and run-away compensation amounts for the most productive sales people. So, to keep the pay mix in balance, the base and variable sides must be managed. Some businesses manage the base through the regular annual merit cycle so that each person’s base is adjusted based on standard company criteria. At the same time, the variable opportunity at target is generally increased in alignment with the annual merit guideline.

In other businesses, the base pay and total compensation for sales are managed, but not necessarily on a strict annual cycle. Adjustments every two or three years can also work well to manage position against market as well as pay mix. And, of course, there will be a need to do some between-cycle adjustments for specific situations as they arise. However, it should be noted that there’s usually more required in these businesses than just making the sales numbers, and the annual performance management, assessment, and merit adjustments provide a good opportunity to reward for all the things that matter and that may not be directly reflected in sales results each year (skills, experience, leadership, long-term potential).

How do we move our pay mix so that there’s more in the incentive and less in the base?

This is always a difficult move and not one that we recommend often. We’ll outline two possible approaches here:

1. Stop base pay increases and add to the variable pay over time.

If you have a pay structure with salary ranges you can red-circle* the reps who are above the salary maximum, and over time hire in newer reps at a lower salary level.  From a practical standpoint, the red-circled reps will be ineligible for salary increases unless they are promoted into a position with a higher range, or the range moves for their position based on market adjustments.

The problem with this approach is it does nothing to increase the motivational value of the incentive plan for the reps who have high base salaries, and it also will likely increase your overall cost of compensation if you simply layer on a higher fixed target incentive for all reps in the role, without decreasing base salaries.

2. Treat a portion of the current base as a non-recoverable draw against variable pay during a transition period.

If you find you must decrease base salaries, it is best to do it over time, converting the salary to a draw in a series of steps.  Under this methodology, if a rep had a salary of $100,000 that you wanted to reduce to $80,000 with a $20,000 target incentive, you could convert the salary to a non-recoverable draw in $5,000 increments over 3 to 6 month periods.  The first $5,000 in incentive earned would cover the draw, and any incentive earned above the $5,000 would be paid as additional income.  If the draw is not covered, the negative is not typically carried forward (which is why is it called a “non-recoverable draw”), but if by the end of the transition period reps are not covering their draw they will be in jeopardy of losing their jobs.

This approach allows reps time (typically 12 months) to adjust their finances to the new lower salary amount and to make whatever adaptations are needed to begin earning the additional pay from their incentive.  If done properly, the increased upside should more than outweigh the risks for your top performers, but expect that you will have some turn-over among your lower performing reps, and even among some of the higher performers who cannot or will not adapt to the new reality.

*”Red-circle” is comp-speak for freezing base pay at the current level for a period of time.

Managing base pay for sales roles

Not managing base is a relatively common practice. It’s not a best practice in my opinion, but it’s not unusual. There’s a philosophy that says

  • Make your own raise – sell more
  • We like to keep our fixed cost (base) low and don’t mind if people are paid well as long as they have produced (higher risk, upside).

A better approach is to manage your base (+/- 20% of a range midpoint) if you can clearly articulate what you are paying for in the base, and what you are paying for in the variable pay. A good starting place would be…

Base pay is for




Long-term potential.

Variable pay is for contributions to company success this year, ideally directly affecting the income statement.

If you don’t have a solid performance management system, you may find that latitude in base pay levels will result in not-best-practice practices. Some I have seen include…

  • Base pay raises to underperformers to “keep them whole,” sometimes (and you can’t make this stuff up) accompanied by low/no raises to top performers because they already got their money via the variable pay plan
  • Everyone at the top of the range – so no differentiation in base
  • New hires coming in at a higher base, because that’s what it takes to get them in the door, so that green and less skilled sales people have the highest base pay levels.

All of this is to say that there are potential pitfalls of managing base within a range, and if you aren’t ready to support it with solid performance management, put that foundation in first. But once you do have that in place, you will find that managing base pay within ranges has these advantages:

  • You have a way to differentiate pay for people who are highly valuable that does not rely on this year’s sales results
  • You can manage your base pay ranges so that they increase over time, along with the variable piece (if you don’t do this, you will end up with a pay mix that is inappropriately incentive-rich because variable will grow while base stays the same)
  • If you do decide to change your pay mix to be less incentive-rich (which would be the typical change as a company matures over the years), you will be able to directly control the base pay levels and ranges so that you can do this gradually over time.

In summary

A key concept to keep in mind is that while base pay should vary, variable pay should vary more. We have seen companies with a substantial investment in variable pay (the actual payouts + the design, administration, and management of the plans), with the variable pay not actually varying much from person to person/year to year. Keep these two ideas in mind as you manage base pay:

  1. If you’re going to have a variable pay plan, use it to meaningfully differentiate pay for short-term (year, quarter, month) measurable performance, and
  2. If you’re going to have base pay, manage it, varying base pay levels to differentiate among people based on value-creating attributes that don’t change year over year.