Pay Commissions to Your Sales Staff

An effective sales force has a huge impact on your company's sales and profit. You can provide incentives to your staff in a sales commission plan. It's important, however, to understand the process your staff uses to make a sale. You can use that knowledge to keep your salespeople on track and reward high performers. Create a plan that is comprehensive, so you can avoid disputes over commission payments.


Setting Sales and Revenue Goals

  1. Decide on company-wide sales goals. These goals represent the total sales generated by all of your salespeople. To create a sales commission plan, you need to know your company's sales and profit goals for the year.
    • Your firm's management team should formally meet to discuss the goals. While projected profits are the basis for a sales forecast, information concerning costs and profitability is generally considered proprietary and not made available to employees except on a need-to-know basis.
    • Management should first establish a profit goal based on the previous year's operation. The targeted profits will the be converted into a organization-wide sales goal. For example, if your desired profits were $2 million and the net margin on sales was 10%, your sales goal would be $20 million.
    • An alternative way to set a sales target is based upon the previous year's sales and your desired growth rate. For example, if sales were $20 million the previous year and your desired annual growth rate was 12%, your targeted sales for the new year would be $22.4 million ($20 million x 1.12).
  2. Consider current economic conditions. Sales may be impacted by the state of the overall economy. If the economy is improving, you might increase your budgeted sales forecast. However, you should consider reducing the sales goal in a slow economy. This analysis helps you create realistic sales goals for your staff.
  3. Analyze the recent sales performance of competitors in your industry. This review can help you plan your firm's sales. You may be able to find opportunities to increase your sales, based on the actions of your competitors.[1]
    • If a competitor increased unit sales of a product you also market, that might indicate more overall demand. You might increase your company's sales forecast for that product. If your company is losing market share to a competitor, however, you may need to review your sales plan to recapture your lost market share and accessing any new demand that is appearing.
    • Take a look at the prices charged by your competitors. Consider how differences in product pricing may impact your sales. You may need to cut your price to compete for customers. If your costs are lower than your competition, reducing prices is an excellent way to gain market share at the expense of your competitor.
    • If you notice sales decreasing for a competitor, that may be an opportunity for your firm to pick up the customers they are losing.
  4. Evaluate the experience level of your salespeople. Also, take into account new products as well as any turnover in your sales staff. If you have new products or sales people, they may need additional training before they can sell effectively.[2]
    • Determine how long it takes a typical salesperson to be fully trained to sell your product.
    • Analyze the time it takes for a fully trained salesperson to make her first sale.
    • Use this information to adjust the sales goals for any new salespeople.
  5. Plan your budget for the upcoming year. Ask your managers for input on each area of your business, including sales. Your budget will be based on a specific number of units sold. Having a budget helps you determine if your revenue goals for the year are realistic, and helps you to compare actual results to budgeted results to see if your sales staff is performing well.[3]
    • The budget also assumes an average sale price per unit sold. The sale price multiplied by units sold equals your budgeted sales in dollars.
    • At the end of each month, you'll compare your budgeted sales with actual results.
    • You can use this analysis to make business decisions about your sales. If, for example, your actual sales are lower than budgeted, you should investigate. Review the sales efforts of your staff and the price you charge for your product.

Evaluating Your Sales Process

  1. Understand what your salespeople must do in order to generate a sale. This process will help you create incentives to increase their sales production. The reward system in your sales plan can help your salespeople stay on track.
    • Sales that require an in-person visit with the customer may take longer to close. The salesperson will spend time scheduling the visit and incur travel time to make the sale.
    • Consider how many contacts it takes (phone, email) to make a sale. The more contacts it takes, the more time and effort required.
    • Understand the number of decision-makers involved in the sale. Expensive products and services may require the approval of a company President and Chief Financial Officer. These complex sales make the selling process more difficult.
    • Some sales are made through a "formal bid" process where your business makes a bid to a potential buyer. Here, the crafting of the bid, the presentation of the bid, and the ability of the salesperson to build a relationship with the buyer will determine its success.
  2. Focus on your product's sales cycle. A sales cycle is defined as the time it takes to find an interested prospect and convert them into a customer. The length of your sales cycle impacts the number of sales your staff can make in a given year. Sales cycles can be as short as a day or as long as several years.[4]
  3. Consider whether or not to let your sales staff discount the sales price for a customer. The commission plan should provide an incentive to sell products that generate the company's desired profit margin. Your commission structure should not grow sales without also increasing targeted profit margins.[5]
    • If discounting is allowed, a salesperson may heavily discount prices to meet a sales goal. Each sale, however, will generate less revenue.
    • When a customer is consistently offered a discount, he will expect to pay the lower price on each future order.
    • Sales commissions should be lower for sales that generate less profit.
  4. Analyze how difficult it is to make a sale. The sales skills required to get business can vary greatly, depending on the product. If your product is difficult to sell (for example, very complex financial or technological products), it may be hard to find qualified salespeople. Make sure that you reward those who can make the difficult sale. This strategy will help you retain great salespeople.
    • A consultative sale requires the salesperson to spend more time explaining the product. Sales commissions should be higher for these types of difficult sales.
    • If your sales staff faces a great deal of competition, they must work harder and employ better sales skills to generate business. The salesperson must explain how his product is different from the competition. These salespeople should receive more commission.
    • A business environment with little competition does not require the same level of sales ability. It's reasonable to pay these salespeople a lower commission, because less skill is required.

Deciding on a Compensation Plan

  1. Consider team-based versus individual commission. A commission can either apply to the individual salesperson or to the sales team as a whole. An individual commission rewards each individual for sales she makes, and may include bonuses for reaching key targets. A team commission provides an equal commission to every staff member when the company reaches key targets.
    • Team-based compensation is appropriate for tasks that are highly team-based. For example, this may be the case if many people are working on a bid together, or if extensive cooperation is required between individuals to create sales (like in a branch banking environment where cross-selling and referrals can add to sales). This type of commission can enhance teamwork.
    • An individual-based compensation model is appropriate where sales are based largely on the ability of one person. A car dealership may be an example of this. In this type of environment, a team-based commission strategy may discourage sales by taking motivation to perform away from top sellers.
    • It is not uncommon to combine these two approaches for extra incentive.
  2. Think about combining a base salary with sales commission compensation. This process is a balancing act. A base salary gives the salesperson some predictability and peace of mind. The commission plan provides the incentive to make more income. Most compensation plans include both of these components.[6]
    • This structure provides a fixed minimum level of income, plus the opportunity to earn a much higher amount. Your decisions about compensation have a direct impact on the sales activities of your staff.
    • As an example, your compensation plan may be a $30,000 base salary, plus a 10% commission on the first $300,000 of sales. If a salesperson sells $300,000 of merchandise, he would earn an additional $30,000.
    • The total earnings at $300,000 in sales is $60,000. You can make a judgment on how likely it is for a particular salesperson to reach that goal. Your analysis may mean that the sales commission plan is changed.
    • Another option is a draw against commission in which the employee is fronted their expected commission (the draw). When the commission is earned, the employee pays back the draw and keeps any additional commission earned. If they earn a commission that is less than the draw, they may have to repay it (refundable) or it may just be considered a loss for the company (non-recoverable).[7] Non-recoverable draws are usually a temporary benefit given to a new sales person as they learn the ropes.
  3. Offer a higher base salary, based on the skill needed to make sales. If your market is highly competitive or sales are complex, it may be more difficult to achieve a targeted level of sales each year.
    • The base salary has a big impact on the salesperson's urgency to make sales and generate additional income.
    • If the base salary is too high, the sales staff may have less motivation to close sales.
    • A lower base salary will incent a salesperson to work harder to cover her living expenses.
  4. Calculate sales commissions as a percentage of a certain dollar amount. Your commission plan should be based on the dollar amount of units sold, and the profit level in each unit. The primary driver of commissions, however, should be profit margin generated, not the sales dollars sold. This helps ensure that the company meets its profit goals.[8]
    • If your business is fairly new, however, your main focus may not be on profit, but rather on sales. New companies often focus on gaining market share first, and then focus on profitability later on. If your main goal is to gain market share, make your commissions based on sales and not profitability.
  5. Increase the percentage commission as the total dollar amount sold and profit margin generated increases. This gives your salespeople an incentive to maximize their sales in a given month or year. Assume, for example, that the salesperson earns 10% of the first $300,000 in sales. If she meets that $300,000 sales level, commission income is $30,000.
    • Say that the commission for sales between $300,000 and $500,000 is 15%. If the salesperson sells an additional $200,000, she earns an additional $30,000.
    • This commission structure motivates the salesperson to keep selling, even when she hits the $300,000 in sales mark.
    • If any of the sales are based on discounted prices, the commission should be reduced on those sales. Full commission should be paid when the customer pays the full sales price.
    • This is known as tiered commissions. To determine the number of tiers, and the limits of each tier, consider previous sales performance, as well as your goals. If your goal is $300,000 sales per salesperson, that could serve as the first point in which higher commissions kick in. This motivates your salesperson to perform above the goal area. If you look at past sales data and determine the top 10% of sellers made over $600,000 in sales, $600,000 and higher could be your top tier.
  6. Explain the payment dates for base pay and sales commissions. This also provides an incentive, and helps the salespeople plan their personal finances. Pay commissions as soon as possible. This strategy keeps your sales force motivated.
    • Your commission plan should clearly state the difference between base pay and commissions.
    • Base pay should be paid in the same way as you process payroll — possibly twice a month.
    • Commissions should only be paid after the customer has paid for the product. This helps you avoid paying sales commission when a client does not pay.
    • If your sales staff are mostly on base pay, commissions can be paid bi-monthly, quarterly, or annually. If they are mostly on commission, commission should be paid regularly (like on a bi-weekly or monthly basis at the longest).

Communicating the Plan to Your Staff

  1. Create a written document for your plan. Make sure that the sales plan can be easily accessed by your sales staff. Use attractive colors, text, and graphics to make the plan easy to read.[9]
    • List some hypothetical sales results and commission amounts. These examples will help your salespeople visualize their own sales goals.
    • Include calculation formulas in the plan, so that salespeople can compute the total commission for different sales scenarios.
    • Allow your sales staff to access the commission plan through a secured company website, including access on mobile devices.
  2. Implement a clear system of selling territories. Make sure each salesperson knows the customers and prospects that they can approach for business. This step is critical in preventing future disputes over territory or commissions.[9]
    • Include a map or graphic of each salesperson's territory in your commission plan.
    • Create a written company policy on the movement of salespeople between territories. This is a sensitive topic, because some territories may have more existing business than others.
    • In some cases, a new salesperson is brought into an existing territory. Their job is to provide more customer support in a territory that is growing in sales. The original salesperson will usually help train the new staff member and support her sales efforts. That original salesperson should be compensated for that training and support.
  3. Include as much information as possible to avoid any disputes over commissions. Ask your veteran salespeople about any areas of confusion in the commission sales plan. Consider their advice about resolving disputes over commissions.
    • The plan may require salespeople to share commissions in certain situations. Document how commissions are to be shared.
    • Clearly state that salespeople will not earn commissions on any unpaid sale. If the customer does not pay, the transaction is not a sale. As a result, no commission is earned.
  4. Explain your commission plan to your sales force. Let them know how they will benefit by selling more and acquiring new clients. Your salespeople need to see how much more they can earn at various sales levels.[10]
    • Demonstrate how the plan works by providing several examples.
    • Use your examples to illustrate the higher percentage commission paid as total sales and profits increase.
    • Emphasize exactly when commissions are earned, and when they are paid. For example, you would state a commission is earned after the customer pays, and the commission is paid bi-annually.


  • If you create an attractive sales compensation plan, you can use the plan to attract talented salespeople to your firm.

Sources and Citations

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