Making it Stick. How to Design your Sales Contest so that it Stays in Focus

Making it Stick. How to Design your Sales Contest so that it Stays in Focus

September 18, 2014

If you’re lucky enough to have a small, direct sales team, then an incentive program isn’t that difficult to communicate. After all, these folks report to you, are paid by you, and spend all day (hopefully) thinking about your products and who to sell them to. But if you’re going to market through indirect channels, you have to work harder to stay “top of mind”.

There are many ways to get more than your fair mind-share of a sales rep or distributor – great products, a responsive inside sales team, or a channel-friendly contract, can all help boost you in becoming the “Emotional Favorite.” But when it comes to sales contests and incentives, it’s a pretty crowded field out there. In my former role with an electronic components manufacturer, it wasn’t uncommon for a Sales Rep to carry a dozen brands, and a Distributor to carry thousands of product lines; and when Q4 came along, every one of those manufacturers was offering a different set of incentives. So how do you stand out from the crowd?

In Made to Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath talk about “Why some ideas survive and others die” and distill their philosophy into six key qualities of an idea that sticks; Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional, and Stories (and yes, the acronym is “SUCCESS”!). It’s worth reading the full book to truly understand their thought process. But for now, I’ll offer my own thoughts on how to design a sales contest that matches the Make it Stick criteria.

  • Simplicity. The rules of the contest should be straightforward. Hit a target, earn a reward. Maybe hit a second plateau and get a better reward. That’s it. I once encountered an incentive program that applied different point values to different products; gave each region and each sales person a different sales target; and split the contest into three phases, with emphasis on different behaviors in each. Did the sales person understand how to get their reward? No. Did it impact their behavior? No chance!
  • Unexpectedness. Add a kicker or two, at random intervals, to remind the team that they are in a contest. And do it publicly. At the sales meeting, call up the rep who has booked the most POs on a Wednesday afternoon, and give them a year’s supply of coffee (and I mean physically give them a Keurig machine and 12 boxes of k-cups). Next Wednesday, when your sales team stop at Starbucks, who are they going to think of?
  • Concreteness. The reward should be tangible and visible. It should be something you can show easily in promotional materials, and something that the sales team can envision. Travel incentives are particularly strong for this, since the participants will imagine themselves on the beach or climbing the Eiffel Tower. Cash sounds nice, but – unless it’s delivered in 100 dollar bills in a briefcase – it will never seem real, and will end up being used to pay bills and quickly be forgotten.
  • Credibility. Make the criteria clear, and deliver the rewards fully and on time. The first time you decide to cap the rewards because a team member “sold more than you expected,” you’ll lose the momentum. And if you’ve structured the rules properly, the achievement will more than pay for the reward anyway.
  • Emotional. Sales professionals are competitive by nature. Use LeaderBoards to show how they compare to their colleagues. Better yet, include a team reward by region, so they are also competing as a group.  This will amplify management participation at the Regional and Corporate  level.
  • Stories.  Tell them how to be successful. Share stories of how the top performers achieved their goals, and talk about the times when difficult customers were finally converted. And show photos and videos of previous winners, so that they can start to experience  what it’s like to be a Winner.

When you design your next sales contest, it’s tempting to dust off last year’s program. But by thinking through these six success factors, you stand a better chance of rising above the noise, and creating a sales incentive that really makes a difference.