One of the most memorable sales contests Nikki Ivey has ever participated in was one she didn’t even win.
At the time, Ivey was working as an account executive at the real-estate software company Qualia. The competition centered on social selling, with the goal of seeing who could make the most LinkedIn connections in one evening. The topic alone was a refreshing twist from the run-of-the-mill sales dial-athons and quota-based competitions she had participated in at past stops, but that wasn’t what made this contest so meaningful.
“It was like, ‘Oh, that’s how simple it is to build this audience, and this could be a way to build a brand, a career or to get more leads.’”
Before sending the team off to start, the sales leaders conducted a training on how to create content on LinkedIn to make meaningful connections and translate those connections into sales meetings. Leaders also showed examples of how reps have boosted their careers through LinkedIn.
This opened Ivey’s eyes to a new skill and created an environment for her to practice it. As a result, the contest became about more than winning for the sake of boosting sales — it became about honing a skill that could help her throughout her entire career.
“I did not win the contest, but it inspired me,” Ivey said. “It inspired everyone. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s how simple it is to build this audience, and this could be a way to build a brand, a career or to get more leads.’”
Ivey ended up using those skills to become a thought leader in sales and grow her career. She’s now the co-founder of the community group SDRDefenders, a sought-after guest on sales podcasts and an SDR at the corporate culture software company Emtrain.
Ultimately, Ivey’s experience reflects the power a well-designed sales contest can have on reps. It’s not enough to attach a sales performance incentive fund (SPIFF) to a sales activity, like making dials, and expect it to serve as motivation. Often, the most meaningful competitions are the ones built around skills that actually make reps better.
Tips For Making the Most of Your SPIFFs
- Incentivize progress and behaviors, not outcomes. This creates room for all reps to succeed and develop a new skill.
- Focus on improving the fundamentals. Incremental improvement around basic sales skills can have a big impact on a rep’s bottom line.
- Incorporate new resources and training. Help sales reps develop good habits and reward them for it.
- Show you care about the team beyond its performance. Sending a surprise gift as a token of appreciation can be its own performance booster.
Incentivize Progress, Not Outcomes
Before a sales manager can start designing meaningful incentives for their team, they first have to create the conditions for reps to succeed.
To do that, Gong SDR Manager Gabrielle Blackwell takes a page out of former NBA coach Phil Jackson’s playbook. One of Jackson’s 11 principles of leadership is that it’s the coach’s job to focus on the spirit of the team, not the scoreboard. That same sentiment applies to sales, Blackwell said.
If a manager makes everything about hitting quota each month, a rep can become so focused on that number that they “end up freaking out,” she added. Instead, incentives and recognition should be tied to the progress a rep makes.
To do that effectively, the first thing a manager needs to do is build trust with their team and understand what motivates each person.
One way Blackwell did that as a new manager was to send a survey to her team asking about why they joined the company, what their strengths are and how they liked to be managed. That carried into conversations during one-on-ones and helped her set expectations with each rep and figure out what motivates them.
“Even as we’re thinking through contests or SPIFFs, we have to be mindful of what is going to get people to demonstrate a set of behaviors that’s accessible to everyone.”
While SPIFFs can be a useful motivator, it only works if the person has an internal drive to accomplish that goal, Blackwell said.
“To truly empower a person, I need to understand where they’re at today,” she said. “What does being empowered look like for them, and what keeps them from experiencing that? Then I need to be able to meet them where they’re at and move with them.”
Once her team members are in a headspace where they know what it takes to succeed, she can then start creating sales contests. However, rather than tying an incentive to scoreboard results like meeting quota, she suggests incentivizing the behaviors that lead to success.
“Even as we’re thinking through contests or SPIFFs, we have to be mindful of what is going to get people to demonstrate a set of behaviors that’s accessible to everyone,” Blackwell said. “And it’s not dependent on an outcome.”
After all, if only 70 percent of reps reach quota most months, then at least 30 percent of the team won’t engage in a competition tied to quota, Blackwell said. Focusing on outcomes also creates a risk that a rep will take a shortcut. At a past company, Blackwell recalled a competition that measured who had the longest talk-time with customers. In it, one rep juiced their numbers by playing around on the switchboard.
However, if the incentive was tied to an activity like improving quality conversations measured by call transcripts, then it would’ve held reps more accountable. Plus, by focusing on behavior, everyone has a chance to succeed and develop new skills, Blackwell added.
Focus on the Fundamentals
When it comes to figuring out what activities to design a SPIFF around, Glenn Ladd, co-founder of sales consulting firm Rose & Dagger, has a tried and true philosophy: Design around the fundamentals.
As a former sales leader for companies like Qualia and Rethink, Ladd found that slight improvements on fundamentals can be the difference between a team succeeding and falling short of quota. Building a contest around a granular skill like asking questions during discovery can help reinforce good habits that stick with the rep long after the contest, he said.
To figure out which fundamental to build a contest around, Ladd suggests first looking at all the available sales metrics that lead to a deal — from the number of outreaches to appointments scheduled to conversion rates. Once you have a holistic view of the sales pipeline, you can pinpoint what stage the team might be struggling in.
“[Focusing on an outcome] gives people a million different things to do, and if it’s something complicated, you’ll have people skipping steps.”
At one company, Ladd found that his team was successful in scheduling appointments, but a large percentage of those customers didn’t show up for the meeting. Improving the rate of meeting “holds” became the focal point for their contest.
But pinpointing the problem isn’t enough. If he created a contest around “who can get the most meetings to hold,” it would lead to a lot of wasted time and energy. The sales reps would either put a lot of effort into coming up with a new strategy that may not work, or they’d become discouraged because it’s a skill they struggle with, Ladd said.
“It’s really easy to say, ‘You need to sell more,’ and it’s also a big mistake,” he added. “It gives people a million different things to do, and if it’s something complicated, you’ll have people skipping steps.”
The key is to be granular with the incentive activity and to tie it to a strategy you want the team to adopt, Ladd said. To boost the meeting hold rate, Ladd and the managers created a new script for reps to use while booking meetings. They then gave reps points for booking a meeting with that script and sharing the call recording as proof. This approach held reps responsible and allowed them to record how successful the strategy was.
While only one person won the incentive, everyone benefited from the exercise. The reps developed a new habit, and they saw more of their meetings stick, which meant higher odds of reaching or exceeding their quota.
“If all individuals are getting more sets [appointments] and holding more sets, that’s a big win for everybody involved,” Ladd said. “It’s not just the incentive ... we’re actually creating good habits that are going to last for a long time because they see the benefit that comes with it.”
Create Teaching Moments Within the Contest
Managers can elevate a sales contest by incorporating training into the exercise.
The reason Ivey found the social sales competition so rewarding wasn’t just because she enjoys competition (which, as a salesperson through and through, she does). It was because of the education that went with it. She learned how to surface connections on LinkedIn and relate to them based on the content they engaged with; how to share her own life experiences to build a following; and how it could help her improve her sales.
In that way, a sales contest should be used to build excitement around a new process or strategy. When Ladd and the other sales leaders recognized that the team needed to improve its meeting hold rates and rolled out a new script for that purpose, the script came with a training session.
“You want to develop habits so that on people’s worst day, they’re still leaning on good habits.”
But the key, Ladd said, was to then tie the training back to what the sales rep stands to gain from trying the new strategy. In this case, it would be a stacked pipeline of meetings.
“You want to develop habits so that on people’s worst day, they’re still leaning on good habits,” Ladd said. “So, it’s creating these small tweaks in the habits and explaining throughout the SPIFF what’s in it for them.”
This can also be done at an individual level, added Blackwell. In one instance, a rep of hers had reached their quota with half the month to go. So, Blackwell worked with her to set a stretch goal for the end of the month and created a plan for how to reach it. As an incentive, she let her pick out anything she wanted worth $75.
This can work for any rep, even low performers. The key is to value progress and provide resources to help them reach that goal.
“You can introduce individualized incentives to get somebody to either stretch themselves or recognize, ‘I have the ability to grow,’” Blackwell said.
Everyone Is a Bad Day Away From a Bad Month
Sometimes the most effective incentives have nothing to do with performance. Blackwell recalled how a manager once learned each rep’s favorite Starbucks drink and would frequently bring them that drink in the morning as a surprise.
“People just want to feel like they’re cared for and they belong, and somebody is looking out for them.”
Ultimately, SPIFFs are only one form of incentive a sales manager has at their disposal. Managers need to also make sure they detach from the outcomes and find the little moments on the team to celebrate, Blackwell said.
After all, sales is a stressful profession; everyone is a bad day away from having a bad month. Little gestures, like bringing in a cup of coffee for a rep or sending a surprise Amazon gift card, can motivate people to try new strategies and improve on what they already do.
“People just want to feel like they’re cared for and they belong, and somebody is looking out for them,” Blackwell. “If someone is well and they feel well, then we’re going to get better results from them.”