G.I. Joe and your sales incentive


At the end of each episode in the 1980s cartoon series featuring G.I. Joe, our hero would explain the moral to the story and remind the viewers, “And now you know, kids, and knowing is half the battle.”

Not the case. Not. Even. Close.

Simply sending an email announcement of your next incentive to make the reps aware of the program will not maximize results. Have you ever noticed a car in the left lane moving slower than the traffic in the right lane? Do you think they don’t know that the left lane is for passing? It’s not about knowledge; it’s about much more.

Effective incentives are more than awareness

Sales managers are wise to use incentives to improve their results. Incentives stimulate the parts of the brain that respond to happy emotions. When something feels good, the brain seeks more of that thing. But not when the only message is “If you sell more widgets, you’ll earn more money.” Sales managers must move past letting the reps know about the opportunity, because knowing is not even half the battle.

Here are four things sales managers can do to go beyond creating awareness of the incentive details to maximize the value of their incentives.

Help reps emotionally engage. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio noted, “emotions may give rise to irrationality in some circumstances, [and] they are indispensable in others.” By promoting the thrill of earning a prize, the joy of winning, the emotional value of the reward, sales managers can generate more results from the incentive. Maximizing results starts with engaging both the mind and the hearts of the reps. Sales meetings, inspirational pep talks, posters, clay models, books, team outings...There are an infinite number of ways to gin up emotion. Don’t hold back.

Help reps build skills. Again, knowing isn’t sufficient if your people aren’t trained to do what’s being asked of them. Without the ability to navigate the sales process properly, poor-performing reps fail and middle-performing reps flounder. Those groups need coaching, role playing and support to improve. Sales incentives are frequently launched quickly and sometimes without consideration of whether all the reps have the skills to do what they’re being asked to do. Train them. Coach them. Create the environment they need to be successful.

Help reps set individual goals. Every rep’s DNA and circumstances are different, and they each need and desire different things. So it should be no surprise that each of them should have individual goals. Sales managers can help unpack each rep’s motivations to set individual goals. Reps with individual goals will contribute more than the reps who simply “know” they’ll do well if they sell well. Set goals (stretchy ones) around prospecting, proposals, presentations, demos, closes and make them all relevant to the reps’ current state of achievement.

Help reps get focused. Every sales incentive has some reps participating enthusiastically and some who don’t. The easy explanation is that the poor-performing reps didn’t try as hard as the top-performing reps. Experienced sales managers recognize that focus plays a critical role. Sales managers may need to snowplow some short-term obstacles out of the way to help reps focus and be more effective. Alternatively, it may be as simple as eliminating unnecessary requirements during the incentive period. Focus makes a rep more likely to act on what they know.

Email is not enough

Many sales managers, especially those with close-knit sales teams, too often rely on a single email to signal the start of the new contest. That, by itself, won’t get you — or your reps —  where you want to be. Reps improve and deliver great results when they are engaged, focused, trained and have established their own goals. Sales managers need to embrace these as fundamental to success, especially for the reps who are not regularly in the top 5%. Knowing is not enough.

Tim Houlihan is chief behavioral strategist at Behavioral Alchemy, LLC, which blends the best of experience research and the challenges of the real world to make investments in behavior more effective. He can be reached at Tim@BehaviorAlchemy.com.

Online Bonus: Sales managers who try to motivate reps as if they are coin-operated are thinking too narrowly. Effective motivation requires both economics and psychology. Managers must appeal to each rep’s personal self (which is focused on ability, ambition and goal achievement) and to the interpersonal self (defined by acts of caring, social connections and similarities). Read more at SalesandMarketing.com/lift.


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