Article | Harvard Business Review

How to Really Motivate Salespeople

by Doug J. Chung


Much of what we believe about the best ways to compensate and motivate the sales force is based on theory and lab experiments. But in the past decade, researchers have been moving out of the lab and into the field, analyzing companies' sales and pay data, and conducting experiments involving actual salespeople. The findings from this new wave of research support some current compensation practices but call others into question. For example, studies clearly show that caps on commissions hurt sales. If managers must retain a cap, they should set it as high as possible to avoid reducing reps' incentives. Although overly complicated compensation systems have their downsides, research has found that a system needs to include enough elements (such as quarterly performance and overachievement bonuses) to keep high performers, low performers, and average performers engaged throughout the year. Managers should be careful in setting and adjusting quotas. For instance, studies show that ratcheting (raising a salesperson's annual quota if he or she exceeded it the previous year) dampens motivation. The research also suggests that it's important to pay attention to the timing of bonuses: a reward given at the end of a period is more motivating than one given at the beginning.

Keywords: Sales; compensation; motivating people; Motivation and Incentives; Compensation and Benefits; Sales;


Chung, Doug J. "How to Really Motivate Salespeople." Harvard Business Review 93, no. 4 (April 2015): 54–61.