What motivates salespeople?

This is a question that has been asked in generations of companies, looking to improve upon their results. While technology has evolved to help us with mechanical aspects of our jobs, there’s still no replacing the human-to-human contact in many sales transactions.

Sales results and sales motivation are intrinsically linked. If your people aren’t “feeling it,” then their customers are unlikely to either. This makes finding ways to pump and motivate salespeople a key task of their managers.

Which theories and practical actions should you know about? Here are some that work to motivate sales teams:

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Sales Motivation Strategies

The interesting thing about motivating salespeople is that it’s not a “one size fits all” strategy. Surprise! Salespeople are humans and like all other humans, they are motivated or demotivated by different things.

So when we talk about sales motivation strategies, it’s important to keep that fact in mind and think about the individuals on your sales team. You might already know what gets some of them pumped, but it’s important to discover what gets others going too.

Here are a few strategies that commonly motivate people:

Setting Relevant Goals

At this point, most sales teams are probably already setting goals. The theory is well-known that goals help to give direction, focus and a sense of achievement when attained. However, not every sales team is setting goals effectively.

According to research from McKinsey, many companies use goal-setting as a quantitative measure of employee performance, yet they’re often finding that the process of goal-setting uses a lot of their time and doesn’t produce effective results. That begs the question; how can goal-setting be made effective in terms of motivating sales teams?

Firstly, McKinsey suggests that individuals should be involved with the goal-setting process from start to finish. By empowering employees to have a say in their goals, it helps to secure their buy-in.

Secondly, develop goals following the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented and Time-bound). This is essentially a framework to ensure that goals make sense. It’s hard to achieve when something is ill-defined or blatantly unattainable. In fact, it can be demotivating if goals are set around things that are difficult for the salesperson to influence directly.

Thirdly, individual goals should be clearly linked to wider, company objectives. Your sales team can be more effective if they can see where their goals fit into the bigger picture.

smart sales goals

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Lastly, McKinsey recommends that goals should be dynamic and adapted to the current situation, rather than remaining stagnant. The realities of the business environment can fluctuate throughout the year – what if a particular goal no longer makes sense? This is something to consider as we look at the situation with the coronavirus pandemic – how will that impact company and individual sales goals?

Here’s an interesting point to ponder from an HBR report on goal-setting: multi-tier sales targets can draw better results out of core performers. These can be described as the people who generally perform well against sales targets, but aren’t stars or laggards. Here’s what they said:

“Core performers striving to achieve triple-tier targets significantly outsold core performers given only two tiers. By contrast, multi-tier targets did not motivate stars and laggards as much: No significant differences in performance were found for those segments.”


The incentive theory of motivation suggests that people are motivated to do things in return for some kind of external reward. The theory dates back to the 1940s and proposes that, rather than focusing on intrinsic factors, people are pulled toward behaviors that lead to rewards and pushed away from actions that might lead to negative consequences.

Does this also apply to motivate salespeople? Sometimes, yes.

One reward we commonly think of is money. HBR published a meta-analysis of different studies that looked at money as a motivator for people. The bottom line is, money can matter to different people for different reasons, but it’s often related to other things that they value. Here’s an extract:

“Other than its functional exchange value, pay is a psychological symbol, and the meaning of money is largely subjective. For example, there are marked individual differences in people’s tendency to think or worry about money, and different people value money for different reasons (e.g., as a means to power, freedom, security, or love). If companies want to motivate their workforce, they need to understand what their employees really value — and the answer is bound to differ for each individual.”

So an effective way to use rewards could be to figure out what it is that your salespeople really value. For example, if it’s having exciting experiences or spending time with family, you might offer rewards such as an extra paid week off, or activities that they might enjoy.

An important takeaway from the HBR analysis is that intrinsic motivation is a better predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivation. The old incentive theory of motivation works in that people do tend to lean toward the behaviors that will see them rewarded, just remember that their feeling of satisfaction may come from something more intrinsic.

Not all salespeople are motivated by monetary reward – find out what motivates your team members!

A Sense of Purpose

In his book, Start With Why and the TED Talk of the same name, Simon Sinek explains the concept of your “why.”

“The why is the purpose, cause or belief that drives every one of us.”

It’s an intrinsic motivator, as we discussed in the previous section. There’s a couple of factors to consider when motivating salespeople: 1) what motivates them personally and 2) what motivates them to be engaged and supportive of the mission of your company.

Some common personal “whys” include time with family, contributing to a cause that can make a difference, to help other people, to learn new things, to be a problem-solver, to do what’s important and to develop friendships or teamwork.

In terms of motivating your sales team to get behind the mission of your company, a lot comes down to alignment with values. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey found that Millennials and Gen Z’s will support companies that align with their own values, although there is heavy skepticism among both generations about business motives.

Being genuine about your values, living them rather than simply espousing them is important to gain the support of your team.
Sales motivation tips

We’ve touched on three key areas of strategy for sales motivation, so what are some practical tips to motivate sales?

Here are just a few:

  • Seek to build trust with your sales team first. Trust is an important foundation of motivation because if your team doesn’t trust their leaders and believe that they have their best interests at heart, they’re unlikely to be motivated. Being transparent and modeling what you expect of others are good steps toward trust.
  • Focus on the key activities that they can actually have control over. While what a salesperson does influences their sales numbers, it can’t control them because they rely on a customer saying “yes.” Make sure team members have all that they need (training, tools, etc.) to perform those key influencing activities to the best of their ability.
  • Give regular, constructive feedback. Sales targets and associated goals shouldn’t be visited just once per year, people need to know where they stand in the scheme of things.
  • Celebrate and appreciate your team. Whether it’s big or small, you can motivate salespeople by showing them how their efforts are appreciated. Recognition in front of other team members can also be a motivating factor.
  • Promote autonomy in their jobs. You can motivate salespeople who enjoy having a sense of control or autonomy over their own actions and results. Remember to promote how people can have autonomy.
  • Seek ways to promote fun, happiness and team spirit at work. It’s a tried and true principle that when people enjoy their workplace, they tend to perform. Team activities, lunches or some good chocolate can be small, yet significant to people.

The Impact of Motivating Salespeople

There is a positive correlation between employee motivation and the effectiveness of your sales team. When you can successfully figure out what motivates salespeople, you can expect to see a range of sales KPIs improve.

For example, consider:

  1. Client acquisition rates. This is the percentage of clients out of the total your sales reps reach out to who convert and become your customer. Motivated salespeople who enjoy their jobs tend to rub off on potential customers. They are genuine and enthusiastic, and can communicate their belief in the company well.
  2. New leads generated. Motivated salespeople talk. They reach out to their networks and they look for new avenues to generate leads. If your team is motivated, you will often see an increase in new leads generated.
  3. Existing client engagement. As the adage goes, it’s easier to retain your old customers than find a new one. When your sales team is motivated, they will engage clients well and keep them interested. They’ll be particularly good at finding the clients who can really benefit from your products or services and selling them exactly what they need. This creates loyal, engaged clients.
  4. Sales volume (or sales volume by location). This is the obvious metric when it comes to motivated salespeople; your sales volumes should reflect that enthusiasm.

Importantly, you should also notice that morale is high among your teams. Motivated people tend to be happy at work and enjoy good relationships with their colleagues.

Favorite Sales Motivation Quotes

We’ve written previously about some of our favorite sales quotes. There’s something about these that can motivate salespeople, even if they’re not winning every sale. Here are a few for your wall:

  • “Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.” – Norman Ralph Augustin
  • “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison
  • “Great things are done by a series of small things done together.” – Vincent van Gogh

10 Sales Team Incentive Ideas

What sorts of incentives might you use outside of just money for salespeople? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Entertainment incentives. Things like sports or theater tickets can be a popular incentive. Just make sure you know what the preferences are among your sales team.
  2. Fine dining experiences. This can work well, especially if you can get reservations that are hard to obtain, or you can treat salespeople to a restaurant they couldn’t normally afford.
  3. Preferred parking. If you’ve got the sort of office where there are prime parking spots and the rest, earning preferred parking can be a cool, inexpensive reward.
  4. Lunch with the CEO or other top executives. This sort of reward provides public recognition and gets the salesperson an audience with someone whom they may not often get to talk to.
  5. Subscription boxes. There are many to choose from, so maybe have a few possible options from which salespeople can choose.
  6. An adventurous experience. Again there are several potential options: skydiving, bungy jumping, zip-lining, white water rafting, horse trekking…
  7. A pampering reward. Many people love rewards like spa days, massages or salon experiences.
  8. A weekend getaway. Depending on your budget, this might be locally, or you might splash out further and go for a package that includes travel costs.
  9. Culinary classes. Do members of your team want to learn Thai cookery or how to brew their own beer? These sorts of rewards can offer something a little different along with a new skill they can use.
  10. Extra paid time off. This is another idea that doesn’t necessarily cost your company upfront. (You were going to pay for them to be at work anyway).

Final Thoughts

Motivated salespeople get results, but it’s important to recognize that a “one-size-fits-all” approach may not work for everyone on your team.

Motivation is very much down to individual preferences, including people’s own values and reasons “why.” It’s important to think beyond just monetary rewards as those don’t motivate everyone.

Lastly, sales motivation is an ongoing activity! It’s not something you work on once and find a magic cure. It needs to be an in-built part of how your sales team operates in order to keep your people pumped.

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