Why Traditional Methods for Motivating Salesforce Don’t Work

By Joe Laipple

Observing salespeople who operate at peak performance levels and do a good job – whether they are being watched or not – helps call center managers better understand how to earn “discretionary effort” from the rest of the salesforce. Consider what motivates these individuals on a daily and weekly basis. Three sources of motivation provide clues to how one should manage the entire workforce: self-reinforcement, customer reinforcement, and the work itself.

Notice that traditional rewards and recognition aren’t on this list. These employees motivate themselves daily, and they know when they do a good job. They receive reinforcement from clients many times a day, even when they are doing challenging work. They also are motivated by what others, who may be less skilled, consider extra work. They take the extra steps, they ask the extra questions, and they follow up better than others do.

The fact is that top performers manage themselves. Leaders who understand this and take action to encourage better self-management are able to create more discretionary effort. Maintaining and improving the performance of this group, as well as moving other performers to this level, provide the key to positively motivating an entire salesforce.

In contrast, some employees do what they do to avoid being detected. They do what they do because they have to rather than want to. This kind of compliance behavior is created when organizations manage exceptions, approaching performers when there are problems, crises, and issues. As a leader, ask yourself what prompts your actions on a daily basis. There are fires, crises, emails, phone calls, meetings, problems, and challenges – you react and respond to these issues, solving the problems, responding to the emails, putting out the fires. This reactive approach to managing others accomplishes short-term goals, but it also creates a workforce that does what it does only because it has to.

Motivating a salesforce that creates exceptional results requires leading in a way that creates a want to do environment, where discretionary effort is encouraged. This requires that leaders are proactive and influence others to create more self-management. Leaders that help others to be successful by asking questions encourage employees to achieve optimal performance.

Reward, Recognition, and the Real Function of Positive Reinforcement: There are two functions of positive reinforcement: recognition and repetition. Recognizing the specific behaviors that created the desired business results helps performers to look back on what was done. Repeating the specific behaviors helps to ensure that good outcomes will reoccur. When salespeople describe how they connect their behaviors to business outcomes (key sales results), they show how they create conditions that are self-motivating. It is a sense of accomplishment, a story they owned and created.

When these salespeople figured out how to do a good job, the work itself was likely to have been reinforcing to them. When they retell that story, it gives them an opportunity to be reinforced again. Think about a time when someone shared a story of something he or she accomplished and was proud of: The retelling becomes a motivating event.

Rewards and awards like “Employee of the Month” aren’t specific and immediate enough to guarantee good actions and outcomes reoccur. “Employee of the Month” programs are more likely to punish or frustrate those who didn’t win than it is to help employees repeat the good actions that created the positive results in the first place. While employees enjoy getting money and rewards, it’s not possible to hand out enough money and rewards to reinforce the desired behavior. The momentary satisfaction employees experience after receiving a big pile of money is unlikely to lead to repeating the specific actions that created good outcomes initially.

Recognition provided by managers in the form of “Good job!” and “Thank you!” is not frequent enough to result in repeating those actions in the future. They are also not specific, but rather typically are provided based on results – not on the actions that created those results.

Influencing Skills: The leader’s job is facilitating positive reinforcement rather than attempting to provide rewards and recognition. This requires less telling and more questioning. It requires asking, helping, encouraging, facilitating, and supporting rather than telling, solving, doing, putting out fires, and reacting.

Ask employees to tell their stories. Focus on something that happened today or this week. Ask the employees to tell you about their best customer interaction. They can describe beforehand what they would like the customer to say and do, and then they can then say what they said and did to make this happen. After the interaction, they can relay what the customer actually said or did. This line of questioning encourages self-reinforcement: Salespeople will naturally do extra things to create incrementally better customer responses.

The Sales Process Is Not the Problem: Creating a motivated workforce lies in influence and implementation skills, rather than sales training or the sales process. Organizations invest money in sales processes and training to help provide a path forward for salespeople as they attempt to move customers along a sales continuum. While sales processes and training are fine initial investments, they are not the primary factor that limits salespeople as they interact with customers. The problem is not resident within the salesperson; it is how they are developed and motivated.

Key Behaviors that Lead to Better Sales Outcomes: The leader’s job is to help create successful employees. This leads to a culture in which individuals operate at a high and steady rate, even when no one is looking. Coaching that creates better sales performance will create a more motivated workforce.

Helping your salespeople improve creates that motivated workplace. Coach and develop salespeople to focus on one to two behaviors, and ensure there is a daily or weekly focus on those behaviors. Eight behaviors are likely to lead to improvement in selling and coaching impact:

  • Asking questions
  • Active listening
  • Planning (for customers not the organization)
  • Anticipating and overcoming objections
  • Checking work
  • Follow up
  • Observing customer responses
  • Self-assessment

Pick one or two of these to improve sales performance and help create more self-reinforcement.

Coaching Questions: Coaches who motivate their workforce by creating more self-reinforcement rely on questions to encourage more self-management. Coaching questions should not be used just once a month in the formal coaching meetings that are common in call centers – they should be asked daily or weekly. They help encourage incremental improvement among salespeople that simultaneously improves the culture. Ask them:

  • What’s your best example from this week of what you are working on?
  • How did you do that? (Ask this when you see or hear something you like.)
  • What did you learn that you didn’t know?
  • How are you getting better?
  • How did you modify your approach to make it work better?
  • Why do you think that worked?
  • What did you want the customer to say and do?
  • What did the customer actually say and do?

By answering these questions, you are bound to find new and successful ways to motivate your salesforce to deliver exceptional performance.

Joe Laipple is the senior vice president at Aubrey Daniels International.

[From Connection Magazine March 2013]