Are coin-operated reps a barrier to complex sales?

by Lilia Shirman on September 21, 2009

in Sales Tips

I just watched a great TED presentation by Dan Pink on the science of motivation. The net is that rewards work well for very simple tasks that require no creativity.  They actually produce worse performance for complex tasks requiring insight, creativity, and innovation.  What works for the latter, according to Dan Pink,  in intrinsic motivation created by autonomy, mastery, and purpose in people’s jobs.

How much of these three does the typical B2B enterprise sales rep have?  Some autonomy in terms of work hours and location. But not much in terms of processes, procedures, reporting, pricing, etc…

Mastery? Everyone is moving to “self-paced learning,” which means you watch a video or presentation on your PC while multitasking.  What kind of in-depth, hands-on education can you really get that way?  Hardly the best way to teach negotiation, interviewing and discovery, listening, rapport-building, solution design, or anything else that’s truly core to a complex sale into a large account.

Purpose?  (Other than the commission?)  I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard sales and corporate management say, “the reps are coin-operated.”  Create a spiff, and get the result.  True. You get SOME result.  But what if instead of a spiff (or in addition to one), you convinced your reps that what they are selling is meaningful, significant, and really matters?   That they have to be the sages and advisors who will help customers save their companies? That meeting the quota isn’t about going to “Club,” but about saving or creating jobs and livelihoods for others?

Maybe sales reps don’t operate by the same rules as all other humans. But I doubt it.  Would love to know for sure.  Anyone out there who’s tried something other than a spiff to motivate sales?

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Giving employees motivating purpose
June 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jill Konrath September 21, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Excellent post with a great extrapolation for b2b sellers. Successful enterprise reps realize that they are the differentiator, not their product or services.

As such, they invest significant personal time acquiring business acumen, studying processes, analyzing trends, and more. They bring their brains and their passion to their jobs. And, they find meaning in what they do.

Companies who thing that sales is about coin-operated reps and spiffs may get short-term results, perhaps even at the expense of long-term gains. As my mother used to say, “Penny wise and pound foolish.”

Personally, I think that too many companies have lost their soul these days. It’s hard to convince a salesperson that their work has purpose when everything is focused on 3rd quarter results.


2 lshirman September 21, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Thank you for the kind words. And you are right – Before you can convince the sales force that what you do matters, you have to believe it yourself. Get a generation or two beyond the founders, and that passion and belief often gets blurry, or disappears altogether.


3 Dan Geiger September 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

Good piece and good question. Sales people must be “coin operated”, i.e., they must be highly motivated by money. I have no doubt of this. Nonetheless, like Dan Pink, I do not believe that money can be the only motivation for a major account rep involved in a complex sales cycle. For complex selling and the building of sustainable business relationships, people must truly care about their product, their customer, and their value to that customer. And then the money will come 🙂


4 Mark October 15, 2009 at 9:45 pm

When was the last time you actually through a live sales training? Those days seem to be gone as you said, how much can really be gleamed from a web streaming video in a 320 x 320 pixel window? Dan you are absolutely right unless you can find or cultivate those that care about the business and product…


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