Sales Incentive Plan Design: Guiding Principles

Apart from all other benefits, an incentive improves your sales team's enthusiasm and energy more quickly and consistently than anything else. An effective Sales Incentive Structure helps firms to produce targeted results and enables you to pay people who are accountable for those accomplishments. It must be straightforward and intuitive to put in action. The salesforce's expectations should be well communicated. Before constructing the strategy, it's critical to agree on and follow fundamental guiding concepts. A Sales Incentive Structure's principal goal is to incentivize salespeople to accomplish defined goals that have a direct impact on the company's bottom line. A sales compensation plan's structure varies per company and is often dependent on team structure, resources, and objectives.

There are a few key design principles that need to be considered are:

1. Business Objectives Alignment

The design of a Sales Incentive Structure is built on the foundation of goals. A good Sales Incentive Structure should be connected with the company's goals, easy to comprehend and explain and provide salespeople and managers with specific targets to strive toward. You must have a thorough understanding of the company's overall business, brand, and channel strategies, as well as the sales commission plan's ability to achieve those goals through the use of relevant performance indicators. Whatever strategy an employer employs, the objectives must be clear, realistic, and quantifiable. Although most firms base their objectives in part on revenue or profitability, it is preferable to take a more detailed or precise approach when defining goals. The strategy should encourage salespeople to target the appropriate customer segment.

2. Pay for Performance

The sales Incentive Structure should be intended to reward salespeople for achieving better company results and performance. Paying workers according to corporate values also demonstrates the good behaviors you want them to display. Salespeople should be compensated not just for their effort but also for their real influence on sales success and growth. Pay for performance links employees' pay with their efforts at work, encouraging them to create more in order to earn more. Employees realize they have a higher chance of improving their assessments by hitting specified objectives, even though this approach still relies on performance reviews. At a high level better performers should be paid more than lower performers. A general consensus is that the top performers should be paid disproportionately more. Performance goals should not be set so high that they are impossible to meet. Likewise, they should not be set so low that meeting them is a certain assumption.

3. Equal Earning Opportunity

The Sales Incentive Structure is considered to be fair when it provides equal earning opportunities to all salespeople irrespective of their territory size, geographical location or book of accounts. The sales Incentive Structure should ensure that localized challenges are accounted for and hence removing any biases that may work against an individual salesperson.

4. Financially Responsible

The total incentive payout for the entire salesforce should be in line with the national performance. Ideally, a well-designed Sales Incentive Structure should pay for itself and should allow sharing of failures and successes with the salesforce.

5. Competitive in the Labor Market

An organization may effectively set compensation ranges for each position and specify the goal, commissions, bonuses, and other incentives needed to maintain sales operations competitive using market data. The components of the Sales Incentive Structure and overall target pay should be established in such a way that they attract the best salespeople in the market and allow top performers to stay with the company. One of the biggest reasons for sales attrition is out-of-sync variable compensation plans and non-competitive sales incentives. Offering an attractive Sales Incentive Structure guarantees that the company can hire and retain excellent salespeople.

6. Simple to Understand and Administer

The main objective is to develop a Sales Incentive Structure that sales teams can understand. Salesforce's ability to comprehend the sales commission scheme is crucial to its success. The way you explain and carry out the strategy is, without a doubt, the most critical factor. After you've put your strategy in place, keep an eye on it to see whether you need to make any revisions in the middle of the year. It should be simple for salespeople to comprehend and implement without the need for manual involvement. Automated systems for obtaining data and monitoring the performance of your Sales Incentive Structure can be quite beneficial.

7. What-if Scenarios

What-if planning is all about making better decisions and lowering possible risk, both of which benefit the bottom line. It helps managers to make the correct decision at the appropriate moment with confidence. Because various departments and divisions have different demands, it's a good idea to create a few alternative Sales Incentive Structures and test them against what-if scenarios to verify the plan fits the organization's business needs. It's critical to figure out how different levels of sales results would affect the total commission budget. Sales operations may develop the most successful structures by modeling a number of plan adjustments, such as commission rates, thresholds, accelerators, and performance distribution. Risk identification can aid in the reduction of cost overruns, forecasting bias, and other erroneous predictions that can distort reporting and budgeting. Managers may make choices based on real-time information if they can plan for anticipated challenges, which reduces mistakes that damage the company's bottom line. What-if scenarios can be performed in minutes, not weeks or months, for firms that need to make changes on the go.


Motivation is an art rather than a science. Despite the fact that these tactics have been proven to work, it's worth trying to find the best Sales Incentive Structure for your team, goals, and culture. However, this is easier said than done. Balancing the above factors in an effective, cost-effective sales compensation plan is both a science and an art. There are inherent counteracting pressures between these guiding principles that require Sales Incentive Structure designer to maintain a fine balance:

  • The incentive plan needs to be simple to understand but should also remain fair.
  • The sales compensation plan should be motivating and should attract top talent but at the same time, should be fiscally responsible.
  • The incentive plan is desired to be fair but should also be easy to implement and cost-effective.

About Author

Amit Jain

Sales Compensation Expert, Founder, Mentor - Helping organizations transform their sales incentive programs into growth engines