How do you motivate someone to perform a complex task with lots of moving parts and that develops over a long period of time? Specifically, salespeople. Should money be a part of that compensation equation? Should other stuff be a part of that equation?

In attempting to answer this question, some refer to research that suggests that money motivators inhibit success in complex tasks – which would lead one to presume that money doesn’t work as a motivator in a sales environment. Almost all of that research is done in laboratories and with puzzles. I’m not convinced that this is a good proxy for sales that happen in the real world, and when the stakes are not a lab experiment, but ones livelihood.

But these complex puzzle experiments do raise a good point. One which can be applied to sales compensation, as soon as we get past a one dimensional interpretation of the results.

Many of these experiments suggest that you can’t motivate someone to do something with money if they don’t know how to reach the results, but they also show that the corollary is also true – that you can motivate someone with money if they do know what to do.

You can watch the first few minutes of this popular TED talk video the see the experiment called The Candle Problem used to make this point – but watch the rest of the video as well if you like, and see how the corollary (the “for dummies” part) was not properly accounted for.

Let me illustrate what I mean with an example. Let’s say that I gave you the ingredients for a pizza crust, but you never baked before. Offering you money and nothing else to bake me a perfect pizza crust won’t help you do it any better. What you need is a recipe, so that you know how to dissolve the yeast in warm water, then mix the ingredients, then let it rise before trying to make a pizza out of it, etc.

You need to know the steps.

Money is not a proxy for knowledge, and we can’t always figure out how to do complex tasks without a little guidance, but money is a great way to focus ones attention, and if you focus attention AND give directions, you have a winning combination

This was actually the (missed?) finding of the puzzle studies. To focus attention when someone doesn’t know how to complete a tasks shuts down the cognitive process. The false conclusion was that money, therefore, can’t be used as a motivator for complex tasks.

The secondary experiment made the task less complex, and money did increase performance.

So the conclusion should be that if we make tasks less complex and motivate with money then the results can be positive.

Now let’s get back to sales – what all of this means is that money motivation does work when the person being offered the money knows what to do.

[NOTE: They also need to be empowered to act, can’t have much affecting the result that is outside of their own control, etc. – but this post is not meant to be exhaustive, just a push back on the bogus idea that you can’t ever use money to motivate complex tasks.]

So in sales, that leaves us with two possibilities:

First, we have a salesperson who is fully self sufficient – one who knows just what to do to generate more new business. Money motivation should work well for this salesperson.

But let’s face it – most salespeople need a bit of support and direction.

In my books and my consulting practice, I use the sales process as the foundation for this kind of knowledge transfer. A properly developed, relevant and measurable sales process offers managers the ability to track salespeople working through each sale and each time period, and if they are capable and so inclined, to offer support in the form of coaching, mentoring and motivation based on the analysis of the sales process and the salespersons efforts to work through it. Salespeople who are self motivated can develop their own sales process and do their own self analysis to empower themselves to reach complex results.

When sales managers and salespeople have and apply the information they need to help improve sales efforts, and money exists as a reward for successful completion of the larger goals, then the complex tasks of getting sales can be made more effective with money as a vehicle for focusing attention and directing correct effort.

The puzzle experiment was exactly right – but the interpretation of many was too shallow. Money can work as a motivator, when you make the tasks less complex, and use money to focus attention and bring out a more focused and directed effort.



Authors note (AKA shameless plugs)

So, this 7-step sales process and associated topics…. Yup, I write about that a lot. I’ve been working with it since I developed it about 25 years ago – in my own diverse work experiences, with my teams when I had them, and with clients ever since.

If you would like to develop you own personalized and customized, highly effective and efficient B2B selling system, here are some further steps you can take:

The Salesman’s Guide to Dating is a free or very cheap (depending on Amazon) Kindle book that walks you through the sales process using the familiar analogy of dating. It’s a good, fun and quick way to get your mind around the whole process and how the pieces fit together.

Building Your Sales Process (BYSP) is a free and very thorough exploration of the same 7-step process that will walk you through the development of your own customized, personal B2B selling system. When you are done, you will know exactly what to do to get new business.

The Momentum Selling System® is an inexpensive but very robust online sales training course that is similar to BYSP, but goes deeper into the concepts behind each of the steps, and also helps you develop a plan not only for the 7-step process but also addresses mindset, repeat business and client base management.

If none of that sounds right, I do personal coaching and offer a free 30-minute intake session so that we can both learn if it makes sense to work together 1-on-1. If this sounds interesting, click over to the coaching page on this site and sign up for the free session.

Here’s to your success!