Tasers and Candy

I'm not a sales manager, but I play one at work sometimes.

It’s pretty amusing how the “spare the rod, spoil the child” debate about child-rearing seems to continue well into our adult lives when we find ourselves in the position of either “parenting” or “being parented” in the workplace. Especially in sales. I personally haven’t worked directly in sales very much; my work has usually been more related to marketing, but I often find myself working closely with sales people or departments. Two things make me a horrible salesperson. One is that I refuse to sell things I don’t believe in. This is in itself not a bad thing, but someone like me is likely to kill a lot of sales that would otherwise happen with an especially inquisitive customer. When selling, I’m very prone to reaching a point where I want to yell at the buyer “How DARE you doubt me. Why the hell would I be selling it if it weren’t worth buying?!?” Not very conducive to selling, as you might imagine. The other thing is that when working in marketing, I’m merely thinking of ways to make people aware of a product. I’m not literally telling them to buy it. Things change for me when it comes down to someone letting go of their hard-earned money. I worry WAY to much about whether they’re doing the right thing with it. We’ve discussed integrity here before, and this is one scenario where “too much” integrity might not be benefitting anyone.

So as I said, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe sales methods, and I’ve put a lot of energy into at least studying them. This year though, something really struck me. I’ve been calling it the “Tasers or Candy” dilemma. Because I do contract work, and am not directly employed by anyone, I get to see things from a different angle than both employees and their bosses. And I also get to work in quite a variety of settings. Recently I was working with two different projects, one with a global cosmetics firm which shall remain nameless, and one with a group of what I’m going to call “ethnic businessmen” who are variously of Arab, Central European, or Mediterranean descent. They joke about their ethnicity all the time, and if this makes you squeamish, maybe you better go away now. I’m about as “color blind” as people get, but the simple fact is that different cultures bring different approaches to doing business, and if you can’t learn the reality of this, you may bungle opportunities that otherwise could be very successful if you didn’t have your politically correct undies in a bunch.

So this whole Tasers vs Candy theme began one day a few months ago when – within a two hour period – I had to work directly with the global cosmetics firm (hereafter referred to as “GCF”) and the “ethnic businessmen” (hereafter referred to as “EBM”) regarding sales strategies heading into the holidays. First, let’s talk about the EBM strategy. The interesting thing about the core of the EBM strategy is that to the extent that there IS one, it’s largely based on the salesperson understanding the high expectations placed on them, even though they may not be precisely defined. There are no incentives offered beyond straight commissions, but if the salesperson does well and sticks around long enough, they learn that there ARE in fact incentives – in the form of unexpected bonuses or revenue sharing -  which are often far better than what one might expect or be offered in typical corporate American environments. So there’s no candy promised. On the other hand, the Taser is always evident, with lots of profanity tossed around, and the potential for getting yelled at. I call this Poinephobic Performance Maintenance. It’s based largely on the fear of being punished, and the employees in question often resemble PTSD sufferers. But in the big picture, they more closely resemble family members with a verbally abusive parent, because the boss actually DOES really care about them, and much like the “honeymooning” of abusive relationships, the rewards are positive in direct proportion to all the apparent hostility dished out. So. In the Tasers and Candy framework, this method is almost all Taser, and no Candy.

Where’s My Candy?

So this brings us to the more familiar “gimme candy” method. A surprising amount of the sales motivation strategies I see in play are based almost ENTIRELY on getting candy for being good, and NOT getting any if you’re NOT good. It’s often based on goals for a specific period of time, and is literally as simple as “If you sell x amount by x date, you will receive x“, or “you will receive x percentage unless you manage to sell up to x amount, in which case we will give also you the fixed amount of x dollars“. The problems with these basic schemes are manifold, in my opinion. The GCF I referenced above uses these simple models, which – in the real world – fall flat on their face for several reasons. The first is poor training and communication. At one location I worked with, the clerks that could be making commissions were paid about ten dollars an hour if they sold NOTHING. They are rarely terminated for poor sales performance, as long as they dress according to code, and perform all their basic tasks at the counter. This is often called “clerking it”, with a heavy negative implied meaning.

Visualizing the Candy

The approach I used in this situation to motivate the sales people was to pull them aside, and ask them if they understood their commission structure. They would say “sure, I get 10% of all sales and a bonus at x dollars for the month“. Then I would ask how much they made an hour. They’d say “ten dollars, before taxes“, and I’d say “how do you figure?“, to which they’d reply “well, it’s what ALL of us get paid to start, right?” Then I’d slide a thousand dollars worth of cosmetics in front of them. This was easy, because it’s very expensive stuff. Then I’d ask “If we didn’t pay you an hourly, how many of these things would you have to sell in an hour to make double your current hourly?“, and it would start to dawn on them that if they only made a point of selling two facial creams every hour, they’d be raking in twenty bucks just on the commission. We’d then make little charts showing them how it was almost impossible to NOT be taking home thirty bucks an hour, if they were even doing a half-assed job of selling.

Non-continuous Assessment & Thievin’ Dogs

There are other problems that are easily recognized, if you just examine things in action a bit. This probably happens far too little in sales management, where sales managers Taser the salespeople and send them into the wild with promises of candy when they come back with results. One is that many sales goals have great rewards for reaching them, but no incremental incentives. I actually have overheard salespeople say “well, by Tuesday I’ll know if I can make this month’s goal, and if things aren’t looking good, I’m not gonna sweat it for the rest of the month – I know my numbers from the last few years and I’m not gonna waste all that energy if I’m not gonna make the bonus” Which is INSANE if you think about it. The incentive structure effectively acts instead as a DE-incentive. Another incredibly dumb strategy is giving products that the person is selling as the incentive. Sure, make a person you’re only paying 10 bucks an hour sell hundred dollar items all day, and then reward them with one of the hundred dollar items. This is not only a mildly insulting incentive regardless of the item’s retail value, I would argue that the average company really hates to look honestly at the pilfering that goes on, and when they DO give it a hard look, they respond in the wrong way. They institute harsh policies and create a paranoid environment, rather than looking at how the original environment and policies led to hiring people that ended up feeling comfortable stealing from them. The point being that in any case, there’s a reasonable chance the employee has already given THEMSELVES the “bonus”.

So What’ll It Be, Tasers, Or Candy?

So I’ve gone all over the map here to talk about a simple question, which is: what is a good fundamental approach to motivating sales people? I think a talented and successful sales force is much more the exception than the rule. And having sat in on plenty of sales team meetings in wide variety of contexts, I feel confident in saying that the most common problem is the simple-minded and polarized approaches mentioned here: Sell a lot, and you get some candy, don’t sell a lot and you get tasered. The candy approach is more familiar in less aggressive and competitive environments like retail, and the taser approach is more common in high-pressure, high-stakes environments like car sales, commercial real estate, financial services, high-volume tech industry sales, or any position where wholesale sales reps are dealing with entire districts or regions of retailers. One classic example of just how reasonable the “taser” metaphor actually is would be the movie Suckers. I personally know three auto dealership sales managers who make watching this film mandatory for new hires. Why? In spite of the fact that the film is often referred to as a “low rent Glengarry Glen Ross”, the sales meetings portrayed in the film – which are meant to motivate the staff to be ruthless and manipulative in ways that only a car salesman could be – are based on real-world auto sales tricks that only real-world car salesman are familiar with. It’s actually a decent training film for this kind of aggressive and deceptive sales environment, and the minor gratuitious nudity and b-movie heist plot keep the new hire engaged enough to watch the whole thing.

Let’s Put Down Our Weapons & Try Some Peace Talks

So I’ve actually had a lot of luck the last few months with the Taser or Candy question, because framing things in a humorous fashion like this opens up the dialog from both ends. Both the managers and the managed can talk more freely about the core concepts in question when using such absurd reference points. And what happens then? Well, communication. And once the floggers and the floggees are allowed to discuss what’s REALLY important, everyone suddenly remembers it’s the CUSTOMER that’s most important, for one thing. They’re also more likely to try to understand what’s really going on, instead of resenting the demands sent down from some distant VP of sales who – sadly – really has NO IDEA what is going on beyond their office and the documents they shuffle around. In one instance in which I helped the staff look at what they were selling and what an incredible opportunity they had right in front of them, they were suddenly able to connect the crazy numbers sent down from on high with an hourly activity. And you know what happened? Sales at that location increased FORTY PERCENT in sixty days. Yes, I said 40%. I said it ALL IN CAPS and repeated it, because I didn’t want you to think it was a typo.

So the next time you feel like whipping out the cattle prod or throwing bribes around the staff, why not try a little direct communication. I know it sounds archaic and naiive, but you have to admit that a 40% increase in sales is a lot more shocking than a taser could EVER be. And we were still offering the exact same amount of candy, we just did a better job of describing how delicious it was.

About Ian

Ian is a media consultant, writer, musician, and budding public speaker with an eye on being the next Ellen. Ian's interest in helping others find success and happiness stems from his experience with events planning and media consulting with organizations like Interfluence.com and the Kenya/US NGO Amara Conservation from 2000-2008, which taught him how little we all know about what we're really doing. From 2008 until April of 2011, Ian wrote for and maintained the site DissociatedPress.com. Ian learned long ago that the journey to success may take occasional detours, and often eschews the road map in favor of taking in life's scenery. His first business venture was a small telecom company in the late 1980's, but subsequent ventures included pursuing a pop music career, screenwriting, and the foodservice and retail employment that often follows such pursuits. After struggling with addiction for years, Ian is happily embracing recovery and the clarity it brings.