From July 2010 Sales Compensation Focus, a Publication of World at Work.
By Beth Carroll and Donya Rose
The economy appears to have taken a positive turn and many companies are starting to think about growth: hiring more sales reps, launching a new product, or breaking into a new market segment. One of the first questions that is raised when a company returns to growth mode, especially if there has been significant retrenching, is, “What should we do with our sales compensation plans?” Odds are high that the right focus for the recession is not going to be the best focus for the company’s growth phase. It may be time to take a hard look at your sales incentive plans. There are some key indicators you can check to determine if it’s time to make a change, and if it is, if you can afford to wait until January 1 (or the start of your next fiscal year) to implement the new plans.
- You scaled back (or perhaps eliminated) incentive compensation during the recession, and now you see that your people are not engaged fully to capitalize on sales opportunities.You need to act as quickly as possible to regain momentum and re-energize your sales staff. While this is not a situation that should be left in place until the start of the next fiscal year, a full redesign of the plans may not be the only alternative. First, consider SPIFFs, contests and recognition programs. Are there things that can be done that will quickly drive new sales and create increased enthusiasm in a cost-effective manner? Second, consider adding a small “bounty” type incentive that provides additional income tied directly to the performance you need most right now (e.g., new customer acquisition), but that limits your exposure if sales opportunity radically exceeds or falls short of your expectations. Third, if you can, consider a stub-year plan that will shift people in the direction you will want to go at the start of the next fiscal year. If you filled in an incentive gap by increasing base salaries, you can start to move them back down again. If your employees have been earning 60% of what they earned in better years, you can start to bring that number back up again by developing a more modest incentive program with less leverage than was appropriate in more stable market conditions. In addition, you should consider the culture that has been enforced (or created) by your sales compensation program. Should you add a team-based element to keep the focus on working togethe
- You scaled back your expectations in terms of goals or volume production, and now you are starting to see payouts that are far higher than you expected. This is also a situation that has the potential for serious negative consequences on two fronts. First, your company’s financial performance could be adversely affected by overpayment in the incentive program. Second, your employees’ sense of their own value in the market place could be inflated beyond reasonable expectations. It is remarkable how quickly salespeople come to expect a higher level of earnings on an on-going basis once they have experienced it for a few months or quarters. It can be very hard for them to accept the adjustment that will inevitably be required. Quick action is needed to recalibrate expectations, supported by thorough modeling to make sure that pay levels return to appropriate levels without damage to morale, and while still providing significant upside earnings potential for true top performance.
- You are finding it difficult to hire top talent, and the reason cited is the lack of a competitive compensation package. You can take a two-pronged approach on this and develop a plan for new hires that would be a lead-in to next year’s plan for the existing staff. Because many companies provide a guarantee for new hires, such an arrangement is possible for a few months before any significant discrepancies in the two versions of the incentive plan are felt. However, you will want to make the transition strategy clear for the incumbents so they know that at a specific future date they will be moved onto the new incentive plan as well. Many salespeople have become leery of 100% variable plans, as they’ve seen what can happen when they fail to cover their draw month after month. Even top salespeople in industries that are highly risk-tolerant may be more interested in finding programs with at least a modest base salary. A 40/60 to 60/40 pay mix is reasonably aggressive, and yet either option allows some degree of control from an employer/employee perspective while providing salespeople with a greater sense of security. Of course, the less variability in the plan, the less leverage on the upside, as this is a necessary trade-off. But it is one that can be designed to provide very attractive earnings opportunities to true top performers.
The consultant answer is “it depends” but unfortunately that really is true this time! For starters, I’d ask how much time the manager is spending managing vs. doing. You want to allocate his/her incentives accordingly. If 75% of his/her time is spending being a player, then 75% of pay should come from his/her individual performance (on the sales rep plan) and the other 25% should come from duties relating to managing the team (coaching).
Overrides can be problematic as a way to pay a sales manager, although they are very common because they are easy and economically straightforward (just take the % you can pay in total for a sale and split it up between reps and managers – your CFO will love the economic simplicity and direct alignment to profits). The problems arise because the manager ends up with a little “empire” of people that, if they are good, the manager will not want to have transfer to any other division even if that is best for the employee and the company. Also, managers can get “fat and happy” on an override plan without too much accountability. It is better to set a goal for the team’s performance and hold the manager to attainment of that goal rather than give them a % of the total team’s sales. Also, your managers likely have higher base salaries (less variable pay mix) than the reps, so you may not need to pay them as much (or as soon) from an incentive standpoint. It’s not uncommon to pay managers quarterly when their reps are paid incentives monthly. However, this varies from industry to industry and some industries are “locked in” to paying managers monthly on a plan that looks and feels much like a sales rep plan but is based on overrides.
The other thing to consider is a “Coaching Effectiveness” bonus whereby the manager is paid for the % of reps on his/her team who achieve target performance in their key financial metric. This encourages the manager to work with all members of the team to manage everyone to a higher standard (or get rid of the ones quickly who can’t get there). A plan based purely on an override formula can make a manager a lot of money based on the performance of one superstar on his/her team without pushing the manager to work with everyone on the team. I almost always recommend the inclusion of a 20% element for Coaching Effectiveness for my clients and universally they report that this is a great measure and fills in a missing link in the sales manager’s incentive plan.
If you do want to calculate a comission rate for an override plan (in spite of my warnings above) then you do that much the same way you do for the sale rep plan. You need to approach it from 2 directions. First, how much can the company afford to pay as a % of revenue or profit and how should that be allocated among reps and managers and second, how much do you need to deliver in pay at target performance to attract and retain top sales managers. Often we start with the second question, which gives you the numerator (“our managers need to make $50K in incentive pay at target performance”), then ask productivity questions to determine the denominator (“and we expect a good manager to generate $10M”), and the result is a starting point for a commission rate (in this case 0.5% or 1/2 a percent). Then you check this against the answer to the first question and see if it lines up with what is feasible to pay and still generate the requisite profit for the company. If it doesn’t, then you may need to adjust the assumptions you used to generate the numerator and the denominator. However, this is often the point in a design discussion where some compromise is needed (or a change in the staffing model – maybe for $50K the manager needs to manage 15 reps each generating $1M rather than just 10 – which which case his rate would now be 0.33%; or maybe the reps need to generate $2M each instead of $1M). Just be sure you model out the results, factoring in the reps’ commission payments as well as the managers’ to make sure your plan is affordable and will help you continue to attract and retain top talent.
An “override” (also sometimes called an overwrite) is a commission paid on the sales someone else makes. For example, you may have a sales person with a 5% commission (earns 5% of the sales value of whatever they sell). This person may have a sale manager with 6 direct reports, and may receive as his/her compensation 1% of the sales of all the people reporting to him/her. The 1% to the manager is an override. It is a common sales compensation mechanic in small or early stage businesses.
Over time, most businesses benefit from moving their sales leaders to a goal-based plan with payout thresholds (e.g., no variable pay earned under 75% of the year-to-date goal), and acceleration for over-goal performance.