The lost art of sales incentive communication

“The new compensation plan is only as good as the sales representative’s understanding and acceptance of the plan.”

This quote is from the December 2010 issue of World at Work’s Workspan journal.  I found it very familiar as we’ve been using the following line in our proposals since 2003 “You can have the best incentive plan in the world, but it doesn’t make a difference if your people don’t understand it or buy into it.”

I believe this with all my heart.

In fact, much of our business is built around this belief.  We work with many of our clients creating communications campaigns that drive understanding and help build buy-in to their incentive plans. We tend to think about this in a holistic way with many touch points along the way.  We don’t just craft a cool looking brochure and leave it at that. Our ideal process involves upfront analysis with interviews of participants and managers to better understand how the current plan is perceived and used.  This analysis also provides us with much needed information as to some of the barriers that we will face in trying to communicate the plan.  Then we need to think about how to break through the deluge of information that a typical sales representative is bombarded with.  We also work very hard at trying to craft words and visuals that explain the incentive plan in a very easy to understand manner – crafting multiple messages, charts and images.   The overall flow needs to be right or the impact is lost.  It is important to understand what medium the message is going to be presented in and where it comes in the continuum of communication touch points – is it the first message that is intended to generate excitement in a flash e-mail; the main presentation at the National meeting that needs to show how a sales rep can maximize their payout with this plan; or the detailed plan books that are the legal documents that contain all the minutia that an incentive plan has?    We then look at follow-up interviews and focus groups  to make sure the message got through and that we didn’t miss anything.  Throughout the year we want to communicate to the field using quick reminders and little teasers to keep the plan top of mind.

It is both an art and a science.

Which gets us to the title of this post.  The science part of incentive compensation is increasing every year (IMHO).  Companies are conducting more analysis, running more and varied models of IC payouts, experimenting with new statistics to highlight how goals and plans get developed.  This plays over into the communication of plans as well.  We have been asked to convey this information more and more – for instance I’ve had companies want to include 4 different statistical scatter plots to show how the plan didn’t have biases for large or small territories (fyi – we didn’t include them, we explained this a different, less complex way).

What they are missing  is the art.

There is increased pressure to not have the WOW factor in incentive communication.  Case in point (and yes, this is a casuistry example).   We had two different clients this year tell us that we needed to stick just to the facts and to “tone down” our creativity.  Not that they thought the creativity was bad, but that their legal/compliance/senior management were against it.  They were concerned about potential litigation (see my take on how lawyers can wreck communication here).  This leaves us with little room to add anything that will get the sales people engaged and motivated.  We are reduced to providing only the plan details and eligibility requirements without the creativity to show how the plan can be used or what the greater potential is (now granted, we try to sneak this in even in these cases).

I think they are missing the big picture.

Sales incentives are by their nature designed to get people excited to go out and sell more.  If they are not accomplishing this, then they are failing.   Achieving this goal of getting people motivated requires a combination of good incentive design AND good communications.  While I understand that litigation is a major issue facing companies, the potential liability from the communications aspect of that is very slim.  Which means that while communications cannot over promise or mislead, they definitely can and should be creative and motivational.

Sales incentive communications need to break through the clutter that a typical sales representative gets every day.

Sales incentive communications need to highlight and expound on the benefits of the plan.

Sales incentive communications should get the sales representative to dream about the potential they could earn!

Sales incentive communications should help the sales person understand what they can do to maximize their bonus!

Sales incentive communications need to make the field excited and motivated to go out and do the extra little things required that will drive sales and increase their incentive payout!

This requires not only communication that expresses just the facts, but communication that engages the heart and mind.  It requires that we put some creativity into the thought and design of what we do.  It requires that we challenge our previously held beliefs about how IC plans need to be communicated.

It requires that we bring back art into the equation.

Would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this.  Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying (you can leave a comment by clicking “comment” below)? Also share this if you think it has value.

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