Tag Archives: Payout frequency

Looking Ahead: Should We Make a Change?

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.

    1. 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
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

    How should I go about switching from an annual payout to a quarterly payout?

    While it is generally better to pay as close to the selling event as possible, it is not always the case that more frequent payouts are better. All one needs to do is consider the most extreme circumstance (daily incentive payments ?!) to see how you can have too much of a good thing. When companies are considering switching to a more frequent pay cycle, there are several factors to consider:

    1. Is the pay mix changing at all? Often more frequent payments can be a way to alleviate some of the sting of a change to a more variable pay mix (if you have had to make reductions in base salary, increasing the frequency of incentive payments can help your reps meet their regular financial obligations).
    2. If the pay mix is not changing, what impact will smaller more frequent payments have on your reps’ perception of the incentive program? Will the amount paid still be meaningful or will it get sucked into their regular expense budget and not be as noticeable as a larger lump payment would be?
    3. Can your company handle the increased administrative burden of more frequent payments, and what are the limits? Most companies would not find it cost-effective to make daily incentive payments, although I have known some to make weekly payments (against my advice).
    4. How will more frequent payments change the reps’ behavior – are there any unintended consequences and can these be alleviated through selection of the appropriate design option?

    On point 4, there are typically two choices for performance period when switching to payments that are anything other than annual in frequency: discrete and year-to-date (YTD). In all our examples below we will assume the change is from annual payments to quarterly payments, as per the initial question. However, the same logic could work for monthly payments that are on an annual, semi-annual, or quarterly performance period.

    We’ll start with discrete periods first. In this method each incentive payment corresponds with the end of a performance period, and the next payment starts fresh with the next period. There is no carry-over of performance from one period to the next. This type of plan is common in highly transactional, high frequency selling environments where sales are made regularly and there is little ability for the rep to game the timing of sales crediting. If the rep can control when sales are credited, you will likely see peaks and valleys in performance from one period to the next, where reps are pulling or pushing sales to maximize earnings. If your plan has thresholds (that require a minimum performance before payment is earned) and escalators (where payment increases for increased performance) and you are using discrete periods, you are very likely to experience some of this “porpoising” as reps figure out how to get the most bang for each sale. The end result of this behavior is an overall annual performance that may be below target, while the rep has been able to earn above target pay by using the escalators to his/her advantage in high volume periods. If there is little possibility of this behavior, using discrete periods is the most straightforward mathematically and often the most motivating in the short term for the reps.

    The most common solution for this problem is to use a YTD mechanic instead. This requires that performance be tracked against a longer performance period and that each payment is calculated against an annual YTD target incentive amount as well. While the mathematics on this can be a bit daunting at first, once reps and managers understand that pay is not “lost” in a bad period, but may be earned back, they quickly see the advantages. In a typical YTD approach, an annual quota is divided into four even amounts as is the annual target incentive. We’ll use $1,000,000 as the annual quota and $10,000 as the annual incentive. A quarterly YTD approach would work as follows:

    Q1 Quota: $250,000
    Q1 Target Incentive: $2,500

    Q2 Quota: $500,000 (Q1 + Q2)
    Q2 Target Incentive: $5,000 (Q1 + Q2)

    Q3 Quota: $750,000 (Q1, Q2 + Q3)
    Q3 Target Incentive: $7,500 (Q1, Q2 + Q3)

    Q4 Quota: $1,000,000 (full year)
    Q4 Target Incentive: $10,000 (full year incentive)

    While there are many ways to arrive at the amount earned as a percentage of target, the common mathematical element critical to the success of a YTD plan is to calculate the percentage of the YTD target incentive earned and then subtract any prior payments already made. This creates the “true-up” which ensures that sales which may fall later in the year still “count” toward the reps overall annual payment. Those who are mathematically astute will quickly see there is a potential for ending the year in arrears using this method. Therefore we recommend capping Q1-Q3 payments at 100% of target, and saving any payments for performance above 100% until the full-year results are in. That way a strong start to the year and weak finish will be less likely to create the need for a rep to “pay back” money already paid.

    There are some variations on this approach, which combine different aspects of a discrete plan and a YTD plan. Here are two:

    1. Use discrete quarterly periods for payments up to 100% with a year-end bonus that rewards for any full-year performance above 100%. This avoids the need to do the true-up calculation which causes some organizations communication difficulty. It does not, however, eliminate the potential for reps to play with the timing of sales to increasing their earnings, but it reduces it by keeping all the “upside” until the end of the year. As with the traditional YTD approach this also acts as a retention tool for anyone running above 100%. Should they leave prior to year-end they will be walking away from any upside the plan may provide.
    2. Software companies sometimes use YTD quotas while paying using a discrete quarterly target incentive. This encourages more balanced performance throughout the year, but puts a pretty high premium on the accuracy of quarterly quotas. If business is steady and/or seasonality is highly predicable, this may be an effective way to get even performance throughout the year (as there is no true-up opportunity, it really does matter more WHEN the sale happens, not just that it happened sometime during the year). There is another advantage to this method in that it puts more emphasis on sales that happen earlier in the year. If a rep can “fill the bucket” as quickly as possible in the year, he/she will have the best chance of being in the “sweet spot” of the plan design (where the escalators are the steepest) for each quarterly payment period. As there is no true-up, there is also no chance of ending the year in arrears. There is, however, the possibility that a rep who starts out slow but ends strong will make less money than a rep who had a very strong start but ended weak. Consider which outcome is better for your business when selecting between the traditional YTD approach and this variation.

    Words of caution:
    It is common for incentive plans to include hurdles and modifiers. These can become especially challenging when dealing with the traditional YTD plan (using a true up calculation). You must be very cautious to do any modifier calculation AFTER the YTD calculation has been completed and you have the final quarterly payout calculated. Whether the modifier increases or decreases the quarterly payout, you must include the ORIGINAL quarterly amount (prior to modifier) when calculating your next quarter’s YTD payout. If your plan has complex calculations including modifiers, hurdles, and any other type of linkage between elements (especially if they are using different performance periods), you should make the choice to use a YTD calculation very cautiously. If it is important to your business to go this direction, you may need to change some of the other elements of your plan design to ease the calculation complexity and ensure your reps have a clear understanding of how they will get paid.

    How often should sales people be paid?

    Generally speaking it’s a good idea to align the payout frequency with the length of the sales cycle. If sales cycles are under a month, monthly payouts should be considered.

    If sales cycles are 1 to 3 months, then consider a quarterly payout. For sales cycles of 3 to 12 months you should probably consider an annual plan paid quarterly based on year to date performance.

    If sales cycles are longer than 12 months you can get into a trickier situation. If a typical sales person closes many deals per year, even though the sales cycle is long you might use a quarterly year-to-date payout as well. However, if the sales cycle is very long (> 12 months) and if there are few deals per year (less than 10 or so), you may need to consider other options. Here are two:

    1. A more base-rich pay mix with a “kill bonus” approach: The sales person has a base pay that is close to their market value, and receives a handsome “bonus” payout upon closing one of those large deals – either a small percent of the deal value (commission) or a fixed amount per deal (bonus), depending on how much influence they have over deal value. If they strongly influence deal size or deal value (margin), then a percent of the margin expected from the deal can be a good measure. If not, a fixed bonus may be a better approach. This is most appropriate for large deal “hunter” roles.
    2. A commission on revenue or margin payable as the revenue is recognized: This will be paid out over the first year, first two or three years, or the “life” of the deal. This will have the effect of creating an annuity stream for the future, will help to retain good talent, and may make it less appropriate to continue to pay that high base once a few deals are landed. This is appropriate for sales roles in which an ongoing account management (“farming”) emphasis is expected. If this is your situation you should consider the early-on high base as more of a non-recoverable draw against earnings which will disappear after the first 18 to 24 months in the job.