Are sales people different from you and me?

"Sales people are different from you and me."

"Yes, they want money more."

A year – a few months, even – ago, I would have agreed with this. It’s common knowledge that sales people are motivated differently to the rest of us. You need to keep them hungry, drive them with low basic salaries and hefty commissions. The best sales people are not only hungry, but greedy too. Harnessing that greed is the key to succeeding in sales.

Unfortunately, like much common knowledge – that we only use ten percent of our brain, that if you build a better mousetrap then the world will beat a path to your door – it’s wrong.

Simon (the other founder of Red Gate) and I believe this so strongly that we’ve stopped paying commission to all our sales people.

We’ve experimented with sales commissions for the best part of a decade. We’ve never found one that really worked. Every compensation structure can be gamed, and has its unintended consequences. Pay people a percentage above a target and you encourage a sawtooth pattern – there’s a pressure for sales people to undersell one month and save up the sales for the next month. It makes more sense to be 25% under target one month and 15% over target the next month rather than being 5% under target each month. You can fix this – you can play around with the thresholds, add ratchets and fiddle around with commission debt – but the compensation structure gets increasingly complex.

The ancients believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and that the planets and stars rotated around it. This didn’t quite fit the facts, so they shifted the centre of the universe slightly off the earth. There were still discrepancies between theory and observation so they put the planets on circles within circles: Venus didn’t circle the earth, but it circled a circle that circled the earth.

That’s what our sales salary system felt like – a gigantic, complex and medieval spirograph centred on an assumption that wasn’t true.

So we decided to fix it. First, we tried to persuade our business unit heads to stop paying commission. “Interesting idea,” they told us. “We think we should try it, but not right now. We’ve got our hands full.”

Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, once said “when you run G.E. there are 7 – 12 times a year when you have to say ‘you’re doing it my way’. If you do it 18 times, the good people will leave. If you do it 3 times, the company falls apart.”

Red Gate is several orders of magnitude smaller than GE, but the principle still holds. Occasionally – once or twice a year – Simon and I need to be dictators. So we stamped our feet and told our business unit heads that we were tearing the old system down. From October 1st we wanted all our sales people to be on flat salaries.

We managed to get everything in place a month early. Now, towards the end of September, the system has been running for three weeks. So far the signs are good.

It turns out that fear is not a good motivator. Sales people have mortgages to pay, kids to feed and bills to settle, just like the rest of us. Would the anxiety of not knowing whether you’d be able to eat at the end of the month help you code better? So why would it help sales people sell better?

Removing commissions allows sales people to behave in more complex ways. Sure, we want sales people to sell more stuff, but only if it’s right for the customer. As a business, do we prefer to sell $100 of software today or $200 of software tomorrow? It depends – on the likelihood of tomorrow’s sale falling through, on whether we’ll make that sale anyway, on many other things. We need our sales people to weigh up complicated situations and make decisions based on their judgement as to what the right thing to do is. Any sales commissions scheme we could come up with would contradict these complexities.

Sales is no longer a zero sum game. Oversimplifying, in any month there are a finite number of leads we can contact; a fixed amount of money to be made. One sales person’s gain is another sales person’s loss. Imagine you could construct a sales robot, programmed solely by the rules in any sales structure. How would it behave? It would steal deals off other sales people, sell customers software they didn’t need, argue with its boss over its commission and backstab its colleagues. That wasn’t the behaviour we wanted, but our commission structure sent a strong signal that it was.

Now that we’ve removed commissions, sales people are sharing more. If Alice is off sick then Bob will cover for him. If Bob is dealing with a customer that Alice would be able to help better, he’ll hand him over to her. If Alice’s product knowledge needs improving, she can spend some time away from selling. None of those things were happening before.

By removing the simplest, crudest and least effective motivational tool of money, we’re forcing our managers to find more powerful, subtle and productive techniques to motivate our sales people. Rather than relying on carrots (sell more and you can buy that new car) and sticks (don’t sell enough and you won’t be able to feed your kids), we are compelled to make our sales people’s work more interesting, to set better goals, to encourage more teamwork.

We’ve removed an enormous amount of management overhead. We no longer have to spend so much time setting targets (sure, we still set targets, but it’s not so important we get them right); we spend less time deciding who worked on which deal and where the commission should go; our managers can spend less time fiddling with spreadsheets and more time making their teams hum.

The idea that sales people are different to the rest of us is based on what psychologists call a fundamental attribution error. We tend to explain other people’s behaviour’s differently to our own. For example, I was late this morning because my alarm didn’t go off. But you were late because you’re lazy. In the first case, I blame the situation. In the second, I blame your personality. Similarly, I come to work because I love what I do. But you – and sales people – come to work because of the money. I am motivated by interesting work, the chance to make a difference and recognition by my peers. But you are motivated by cash.

Of course, some sales people do their jobs not because they enjoy them, but purely for the cash. Those people will, over time, leave. And that will be a good thing, for Red Gate and for them.

But, on the whole, sales people aren’t that different to the rest of us.

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29 responses to “Are sales people different from you and me?”

  1. David Locke says:

    With full salaries and no commissions, you don’t necessarily need to split your hunters and farmers. I’ve seen a sales rep drop a retained customer who called wanting something, because that customer was worth less to the sales rep, while that customer was worth more the the company, because of the lower cost of sale involved.

  2. John says:

    It has always amazed me that if you sell something you must by on a commission. To agree by comparison; it’s always a pleasure to eat at a restaurant where tip is included in the price AND the establishment is run in such a way that waiters are still friendly. Well done for trying something new – hope to hear it’s still successful 6 months down the line.

  3. Cameron says:

    I’ve thought about this quite a bit too, and I’m curious how you came up with the new compensation structure, especially since you were already operating with a base + commission structure.
    Presumably you had to increase the base salary, or it would have just been a win for you, and a lose for the sales staff. But how much? If I consider two salespeople, one who’s been consistently making 50% of their salary via commission, and one who’s been making perhaps 25%, do they end up with the same new base, or do you adjust the base according to the historic performance of the salesperson?
    In the former case, you’re either screwing the high performer, at least in the short term, or you’re just increasing your costs with no obvious benefit. In the latter case, you still have a commission structure, but it’s only evaluated at annual review time or whatever.
    I’ve struggled with this myself, and the biggest problem with commissions, is that the size of a software sale can be so ambiguous, especially if there’s an element of consulting in the mix. (“I sold a million dollar contract!”, “Uh, yeah, but we’re going to have to do 1.5 million worth of work to deliver it. Thanks for nuthin.”)

  4. Cameron,
    We came up with salaries that were higher than the base rate but lower than the previous base rate + commission. We looked at what we felt was a reasonable salary (benchmarked against other companies, for example) to influence our decisions.
    If you have a high performer you can pay him more money, just like you’d pay happy paying a high performing software developer more than a low performing software developer. But you have the freedom to decouple this from just the amount of stuff the sales person sells. Sure, this is one factor, but you can take into account team behaviours, attitude, work ethic, whatever you like. It becomes a (evidence-based) judgement call, just like it is for everybody else in the company.

  5. Ken Olson (founder of Digital Equipment Corporation) didn’t believe that a salesperson (and his family) should have to depend on commissions for his livelihood. Which was quite different from what everybody else was doing at the time. Source: “The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation”

  6. Grok2 says:

    Would you recommend the same approach if, say, every product you sell was priced in the tens of thousands of dollars (potentially, in a good year, salesmen can make an exceptional amount of money if on commission). In this environment of high product prices won’t you find it hard to recruit good salesmen?

  7. I like the idea of de-coupling commissions from sales because it changes both the perception and personality of the job itself.
    Some folks like the idea of solving customer problems, but would never take a normal sales job because they dislike being seen as a money hunter. Releasing this “pressure” by eliminating commissions should widen the scope of potential employees, and who can succeed doing it, even if you don’t catch the attention of traditional salespeople.

  8. Derrick Colburn says:

    You’ve applied the wrong solution to a problem you quite clearly don’t understand. This is as bad of an idea as deciding to pay programmers by the line of code when you think that they’re not producing enough software.
    * If your salespeople were gaming the system, then you had poor sales management.
    * If you had to constantly shift goals, then you had poor sales management.
    * If your sales people are afraid/anxious of not making sales, then they are not very good at sales.
    * If your sales people were unable to feed their kids after a month of low sales, then you didn’t pay a reasonable base salary.
    Based on what you wrote, it sounds like you never had any real salespeople, just order takers who were paid whenever customers decided to buy. And since you just effectively gave them a paycut, any real salespeople you have will soon leave.
    Or is it that you’re saying the entire sales industry has gotten it wrong (and you’ve discovered this wonderful cure)? Or is it that someone RedGate/software companies are so special that the standard practices of sales don’t apply?
    I find this article to be very troubling. Is this the kind of advice we’re going to get at Business of Software? I thought the whole point of the conference was to teach software people business… so they don’t go doing crazy stupid things like non-commission sales.

  9. Derrick,
    I think I understand the problem fairly well. And I think our sales management is reasonably strong, but I’d definitely prefer its energies were spent helping our sales people, not policing them. Our sales people are good, but not knowing what your salary is going to be will cause anxiety for almost all people.
    And I do think that what large parts of the industry does is a mismatch for Red Gate (and possibly downright wrong).
    I’m not alone, by the way. DEC didn’t pay its sales people commissions; the SAS institute (the world’s largest privately held software company) doesn’t pay commissions; my local Apple store doesn’t). There is also a fair amount of academic research that shows that people don’t tend to be motivated by money, and that paying commissions distorts behaviour in unhelpful ways. Google, for example, Hertzberg, or Jeff Pfeffer’s work (eg here and here ).

  10. Grok2,
    If you can find salespeople who are motivated intrinsically (i.e. by the need to do a good job, to help customers, and who enjoy selling) and pay them a good wage then I don’t see why not).
    Of course, it depends on the type of culture you want to develop / have already developed.

  11. When I was fortunate to be mentored by a leading quality practitioner, one of the benefits was getting to see some data on exactly the topic of business performance and sales remuneration.
    Looking first at the data – and following the LSS tenet that fact beats opinion – there were two conclusions.
    First, having commissions can be neutral or can be moderately beneficial in the long term.
    Second, varying commission policy tends to be highly detrimental in the short term.
    Third, executives with control of commission policy tend to include it in their top three control levers.
    Tentatively, that suggests to me:
    (i) Companies using commissions should hold policy at main Board level
    (ii) In the absence of strong and direct evidence to the contrary, commissionless should be the base case
    (iii) A change to commissionless may lead to a lowering of short-term performance, and in some cases also of long-term performance
    My own practical experience is that it’s virtually impossible to have a practical discussion about this without the temperature going well into the danger zone.

  12. Hmmm, there goes my credibility as a stat cruncher!
    For the eagle-eyed, there were two business data-driven conclusions, my “third” was a standalone (subjective) point from interviews.
    SS and LSS people will recognise the more general point that the tendency among many executives to vary arbitrary things and selectively read business data as vindication has the same effect.
    If a business is a system, and if there is value in delivering “on time, with minimum variation” – then internally administered variation is going to damage both.
    Which isn’t to say that executives should sit on their hands. Just that they need to think systematically and arm themselves with the best data and the best objective analysis possible in whatever circumstances they inhabit.

  13. I find it rather troubling that people (referring to Derrick’s comment above) show a tendency to summarily and categorically state that people are idiots just because they don’t agree with an idea or point of view.
    I have no idea whether Red Gate’s experiment will work (although I’m inclined to think so) but if I were in Derrick’s position I would be:
    1) Grateful that somebody else is trying something ‘unusual’ out so that I don’t have to take the risk myself
    2) Even more grateful that said person/company is bothering to share his thoughts (and possibly results eventually)
    3) Carry out basic research on what constitutes ‘motivation’ (I would suggest starting here: and the pros and cons of financial vs. other kinds of reward
    4) Be very very careful and take a step back when I find myself saying things like “this is how everybody does it, it’s the best way, and you’re an idiot if you don’t follow suit”
    Incidentally, I have rarely met a bunch of sales people who try so hard to be good at what they do (‘better’ in fact because they’re already excellent) and who understand their people+product so well.

  14. Andrew says:

    I just stumbled across this TED talk on the downsides of using incentives to drive behaviour:

  15. jeux de psp says:

    Yes, i can say that sales peoples are different in perception and personality both from others. However, they can easily falter later in the sales process when faced with complex issues from the prospect. Tactical salespeople will typically rely on external factors for success, such as appearance, personality, favorite sales technique, etc.
    Where strategic salespeople bring much more to the process like: emotional maturity, patience, analytical problem solving skills, asking great questions, etc.

  16. Kevin says:

    Back in my earlier days, I remember of group of big iron sales people from IBM who were paid a commission based on the “satisfaction” of their customers. This method was intended to keep the sales people very focused on meeting the needs of the customer, while alleviating the eternal pressure of the quarterly sales crunch. At the same time, I knew a few sales people with a new company (it was Oracle) who were incredibly focused on tough sales goals, both from a quota (e.g the stick) and commission standpoint (e.g. the carrot). The good sales people were extremely good. But even then, they would sometimes sell at a deep discount today to make the quarterly goal rather than hold off one quarter and withhold the discount. Good for them, but not as much for the company overall.
    In a sense, I’m getting a sort of sense that there’s nothing new under the sun and that it’s all been tried before. The important thing, it seems to me, is to find the right mix of sales strategy balanced against your corporate culture. Oracle’s culture was (and still is afaik) extremely competitive, even cutthroat. Other more cooperative and supportive organizations, it stands to reason, can be successful with a less aggressive sales strategy.
    Great post!

  17. Roman Rytov says:

    The target of the reorg is:
    a) more effective sales – sale more
    b) more efficient sales group (read – better team environment, simpler/transparent comp. system).
    The experience above is interesting but the reality is not black&white: low salary plus commission vs. high salary with no commission. Norman Brodsky tells how he solved that dilemma. He introduced a basic salary but instead of revenue-based commission he added a bonus structure based on personal, team performance, and customer satisfaction. The point is that sales salaries don’t have to be low to imply high commissions and the bonus structure may include team-player aspects and anything else you want to nurture (to achieve efficiency) but without a greed factor you may lose the effectiveness aspect.

  18. greta post- quite humorous in a lot of ways- but ultimatley yes sales people are alot like the rest of us!

  19. Michael says:

    The crucial sentence for me was “It turns out that fear is not a good motivator. Sales people have mortgages to pay, kids to feed and bills to settle, just like the rest of us.”
    I’ve never worked for commission… I don’t think I could and I reckon a lot of people feel the same

  20. I totally agree with you. Some sales persons are genuinely interested in making shopping a pleasant experience, and as a result get more sales. Some have strong relationships with specific customers, understand their needs very well and understand their company’s products very well and rarely ever recommend anything that won’t be valued.

  21. game says:

    It was shocking when i read this blog and i believe that the person who sell something in a market. He must be add an extra commission in the original price of the product. This is cmpletely different issue so great work to think about that.

  22. Dov Bigio says:

    Hi Neil,
    I will be at the BOS conference in San Francisco and I am very excited about that.
    I made a free translation of this post into portuguese and published in my blog (, and had an awful reaction… The sales director of my company said “so, that’s what you think about sales people… you will still need us and see how important we are”.
    Well, luckily every day my company is focused on selling products and not customized projects, and every day we are trying to improve the sales experience through our website, depending less on sales people.
    So, my conclusion is that, although I totally agree with your post, most (or maybe some) sales people won’t. They don’t realize that the comission-based model runs against then.
    What do we do to prove that to them?????

  23. Dov,
    Thanks for the translation! It’s quite a hard idea for people to get their heads round, and some people can get extremely defensive.
    Note that I’m *not* saying you don’t need sales people though, just that if you have sales people you should question the assumption that they must be motivated by pay.
    Looking forward to meeting you in November.
    All the best,

  24. mobil bekas says:

    I believe that some sales persons are interested in making shopping a pleasant experience, and as a result get more sales

  25. This was brilliantly illustrated for myself the other day when I bought a new car at Ira Mazda here in Massachusetts. I had the best salesperson experience of my life and surprisingly found out that they do not get commissions.

  26. Rich says:

    Here’s the one statement that shows me it might be your managers or your commission structure that is the problem:
    ” It makes more sense to be 25% under target one month and 15% over target the next month rather than being 5% under target each month.”
    A sales manager should see through the numbers and realize these results are equal. However, as a long time sales rep, I can tell you that most managers can’t. And even when they can, that manager’s boss can’t.
    You may have missed the reason why sales reps fiddle with the numbers, delay sales, and back stab their counterparts. It’s not just for money, it’s also for job security.
    Who gets fired in the above scenerio? The guy who was 5% below for the last two quarters or the guy who crushed it by 25% one quarter and was under by 15% the next?
    That being said, I’m not opposed to your experiment. I actually hope it works. But if you are still basing promotions, pay or job security based on percentages of goal, the backstabbing may continue.
    Thanks for you article.

  27. Jeff Monday says:

    I think this is an incredible experiment and one that shows promise. After watching the Dan Pink talk, I had the opportunity to meet with Dan Ariely, MIT Behavioral Economist, to talk about social vs. market exchanges as they apply to sales people.
    Research has proven time and time again that social and intrinsic motivation are far better motivators for knowledge work (yes, sales is a knowledge work profession) than extrinsic or market motivation ($). Managers have to be aware though that this is a long term investment. If you shift back to the market exchange (commissions) you are likely to loose a good portion of your sales force. More here, “Behavioral Economics of Intrinsic Motivation”
    Thanks for your contribution and please keep us updated.
    – jeff

  28. Ray Taylor says:

    I started reading some of Dan Pink’s online material to help me decide whether to buy Drive or not. My internet induced ADD led me through several hyper-links to end up here.
    Last week our unit’s president asked me what it would take to double my sales. Our industry is trained to think a 10% increase is quite good. Afterall, company sales of print are declining every year.
    I’ve been thinking about the things that really prevent us from growing dramatically. Our traditional compensation plan funds the salesperson with commission. Sales people are responsible for sales and service. It’s very difficult to make changes in territories, accounts and reps because the existing revenue is at risk.
    We have a hunter overlay on the team but that is a very expensive proposition. Revenue realized is never what was estimated by the hunter.
    As I consider my options for breakout growth, I would love to hear your thoughts. Are you still seeing positive results from your salary only strategy? Are you making tweaks?
    Any advice for me?