Motivating Salespeople – How Managers Can Get It Wrong!

The approach to motivation within many sales organizations fails to address as many as 3 out of 5 of the factors that motivate people to high levels of performance.  A major lost opportunity to maximize performance and potential.

What motives people is hardly a surprise.  Decades of research has demonstrated the requirements of high performance not just in business, but in sport and practically all other areas of human endeavor.  The findings have filled the pages of countless leadership books, conferences and seminars.

It is time that sales leaders were provided with access to this body of powerful knowledge. Without it they cannot hope to get sustained high levels of performance from their teams.


Understanding What Really Motivates Sales People

Let’s start by addressing (in perhaps the clearest way possible) what motivates people (whether they are in sales, or in any other area). To do this we will borrow on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in order to understand what motivates high performing salespeople.

Human motivation is a complex subject and it is difficult for any one theory to provide a universal explanation of human behaviour. However, in the middle of the last century Maslow suggested a hierarchy of needs and this has remained central to any discussion on motivation since.  He represented human motivation in the form of a pyramid.

hierarchy of needs for salespeople

At the base of the pyramid are ‘physiological needs’ such as food, shelter and so on.  Once those needs are satisfied a person’s needs are elevated to the next level; ‘safety needs’, such as health and security.

As each level of needs is addressed the focus turns to a higher-order need – ‘social needs’, ‘esteem needs’ and at the apex of the pyramid ‘self actualization needs’  – don’t worry about the labels for now, they are explained a little later.  Well, that is the theory at least, but most sales organizations have a slightly different take on motivating performance.


Manager’s Skewed Views Of Motivation

Sales managers have their own take on Maslo’s pyramid of needs and it looks something like this:

the hierarchy of needs for salesmanagers


Bottom line the issue of performance management in sales has tended to adopt an overly simplistic view of human motivation.  In particular it sees money as being the primary motivation for most salespeople.  This is reflected in so many aspects of how sales people are managed, from incentive structures to performance reviews.


high levels of performance


In effect many sales managers hold the belief that ‘if the prospect of earning a wage (and on top of that commissions) is not enough to get salespeople performing, then you have hired the wrong person’.  This is a belief that is self-fulfilling and is a risky false assumption.



The Mistakes Managers Make

As we have discussed elsewhere many sales managers struggle with the issue of how to motivate salespeople to perform to the highest levels.  The reason is that their truncated view of the pyramid of human motivation leads to some very limiting false assumptions regarding sales team performance:

common false assumptions made by sales managers

When it comes to getting the most from their teams, many sales managers think that it is all about money. They think that the purpose of the sales team is to reach target and that its passion is to earn commissions.  But what about the top of the pyramid?


So You Think It Is All About Money?

If you think money is the key motivator, then think again.

Rather than writing pages on why this is the case, here is a powerful short video on the research that proves this point.


Motivation Beyond Money

There is a lot more to motivating people than money and security.  If you want high levels of performance then you need to climb further up the pyramid of motivation.

High performing salespeople have ‘a desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be’.  It is called the need for self-actualization.

High performing salesperson


This leads directly to the need for people to have a sense of purpose about their work – one that goes beyond the corporate mission statement.  If they are really to perform people need to feel passionate or fired-up about what they do.  Yet our data shows that is not the case for most salespeople:Most salespeople are not fired up by their work.

Igniting that passion has to be a key element of any sales performance improvement initiative. It is a key responsibility of sales managers to foster passion and a sense of purpose.


Building Self-Esteem

High performing sales people need to feel valued by others…to feel respected.  They have esteem needs.
Sales motivation
Yet in many sales organizations salespeople are ‘brow-beaten’.  That is because many managers don’t see building the confidence and pride of their team as important to performance.  Indeed our own data shows that a great number of salespeople don’t work within an environment where communication, trust and respect are core values.
trust and respect within sales organisations
Sales managers who want high levels of performance have to build the levels of confidence and pride among their teams.  They need to demonstrate that they value and respect their team members.

Building A Sense of Team

High-performing salespeople have social needs – that is the ‘need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups.’

social needs among salespeople

There may be some good news when it comes to how sales organizations meet the social needs of their people.  Our data shows that most salespeople believe they ‘work well together as a team’.
Salespeople say they work well together as a team
Yet, it may be important to draw a distinction between working well as a team and a sense of belonging to the larger organization. That is because for many salespeople the atmosphere within and around the sales organization may have an alienating effect:

A Call To Action

To conclude.  The approach to motivation within many sales organizations fails to address as many as 3 out of 5 of the factors that motivate people to high levels of performance.
Managers have got to realize that when it comes to motivation they have may have an up-side down view of things. It is the top of the pyramid that matters most and yet is so often neglected.  Here is how management guru Peter Senge puts it:
Motivating sales teams