Motivating a Small Business Sales Team (And How Not To)

Small Business Sales Team

There’s a well-worn old adage that states, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Salespeople, like the horse in the saying, can be a stubborn lot. As with any horse, some only need gentle prodding to take you where you want to ride. Others need a good kick with spurs, or at times, during a heated race, even a whip. As a small business owner, how can you not only lead your sales team out of the comfort of the office towards new prospects, but motivate them to close more deals? How can you get them to the water so you both can drink in new sales and revenues for your company and commissions for them?

You could try what one enterprising small business firm did – hold a rather unique sales contest:

“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

OK, firing everyone after the top two finishers is probably not a good motivational ploy. But it made for great theatre in the 1992 movie Glengarry Glen Ross. Come to think of it, that sales force not only rebelled, but one of them actually robbed the place afterhours, stole the company’s sales leads and sold them to a competitor!

Let’s try to find some more practical ideas that can help you properly motivate a sales staff.


Yes, the disastrous sales contest above proved NOT to be a very effective incentive or motivational tool…at all. However, that doesn’t mean incentives themselves are a bad idea. Just try to come up with better ones than a pink slip!

Of course, tangible prizes (like the car in the example) or monetary rewards are old standbys in all sales incentive programs. But you aren’t limited to just those types of rewards. Use your imagination and broaden your scope when choosing rewards. For example, you could try awarding extra vacation days or weeks to the top finishers. Or allow the contest sales champ to work from home for a month. Or, best of all, let the staff themselves give you ideas as to what they would want to win in a contest (within reason and budget, of course). The staff might work harder for a prize they truly desire.

Encourage Cooperation

Instead of a sales contest that promotes competition and rivalry, you could try a completely different tack: Working together. Most employers assume salespeople are a naturally competitive bunch. However, that assumption may not be accurate.

Some studies have shown that only a quarter of salespeople want to work in a cutthroat, competitive environment. The uber-competitive nature of most sales offices may, in fact, be turning people away from the profession, costing you the talent that could take you to business success.

You could try instead to develop motivational programs that encourage cooperation, collaboration and problem solving. Make your selling process a team sport. Several ways to do that include:

Focus on team goals – Keep the team’s (company’s) goals front and center and clearly explain each member has a responsibility to ensure the success of the overall mission, not just their own. Demonstrate how each person’s role relates to the team’s overall mission and show how that mission depends on each person contributing fully to the total effort.

Distribute rewards collectively rather than individually – Stress that rewards only come when the entire team is successful, and when the team succeeds, be sure to celebrate as a team. While it’s certainly fine to recognize individual effort, don’t forget to point out that effort aided the team goals.

Let the team itself define cooperation – This will encourage them to collaborate amongst themselves to figure out how to better work together, and with other groups within your company, to meet team goals.

Keep Your Staff Up to Date

Training has become a bad word in business today. Too many companies don’t want to provide any kind of training, thinking it wastes resources, and that training really should be the employee’s responsibility. That thinking couldn’t be more wrong.

How can you expect your sales staff to convincingly explain the advantages and benefits to a dubious prospect if your sales staff themselves doesn’t truly understand how your product or service works? Or how can they advise a client on how a changing regulation might impact their relationship with you if the salesperson doesn’t understand the regulation either? Or worse, doesn’t even know about it?

Your sales staff represents you, the small business owner. When they look bad or sound misinformed because they’re not up to date, you look bad and sound misinformed, too. In addition, your sales staff can sense they’ve been kept in the dark, so if you’re not willing to invest in them to make them the best they can be, why should you expect them to go out of their way to make your company the best (and most profitable) it can be?

Invest in your people. Knowledge is power. That’s another well-worn saying, but it’s also a true one. A smart salesperson is a motivated one, because that staffer understands how to make that knowledge work to increase sales for both the salesperson and for you.

Provide Mentoring

No one knows more about your business than you. Take some time to work alongside younger or inexperienced salespersons to build up not only their knowledgebase of your company, but of the sales process itself. You’ve successfully overcome the same hurdles many of them face. How did you do it? How did you handle a difficult prospect, sidestep their objections and close the sale? Or, even closer to home, how’d you pick out your first suit and how did you dress to impress that first client? Where did you take them for lunch and grease the skids for a long and productive relationship?

Mentoring shows a new salesperson you care not only about their monthly sales quota, but you care about them personally. It wins you appreciation, gratitude and loyalty, and those can be the most powerful motivators of all.

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