In today’s post, we’d like to pose a question to sales managers: Which of the following is the most powerful motivator for your salespeople:

  • Compensation/incentives
  • The thrill of the chase
  • Making progress/winning
  • Recognition

Sales performance guru Donal Daly asked that question in a LinkedIn poll. The sample size was small, but the results are intriguing. The winner, at 40%, is making progress/winning, followed at 35% by compensation/incentives:

Even more intriguing results emerge when you analyze the results by various job functions within sales:

Biz-dev folks — the bleeding-edge hunters — said they were motivated by the thrill of the chase. Sales consultants said compensation was the #1 motivator. But 67% of sales reps — the bulk of the respondents and the backbone of most sales organizations — said their number-one motivation was making progress.

That finding is consistent with ground-breaking research from two Harvard researchers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. They surveyed all kinds of workers and found that for most, the key difference between a good day at work and a bad day at work wasn’t about how much money they made, or how much they liked their boss, or how much they believed in the mission. It was “progress toward a goal.”

The book that came out of this research, The Progress Principle, argues that organizations would do well to set clear goals and establish visible mileposts so that people could see their progress toward those goals. And, I would submit, Daly’s poll suggests that salespeople are no exception.

And yet, traditionally sales organizations focus on other things: Compensation packages. Recognition programs. Pep talks to get reps pumped to go out and sell.

Sales managers might want to spend more time thinking about how to apply the Progress Principle to their organization. They might want to focus more on creating — and celebrating — visible milestones in the sales process. For example, they might want to highlight appointments made, meetings held, commitments earned, and so on — and not just wins and losses. They also might want to give some thought to how salepeople feel they’re progressing in their job. Is there a clear career path? Is there an emphasis on improving reps’ skills over time? Or are sales reps treated like hamsters on a wheel — running as fast as they can just to end up in the same place year after year?

Provocative questions, but ones worth asking if you’re looking to build a sales organization for the long haul.

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