For early stage businesses, your first sales hire is hard to do well. You don’t have a sales leader to help you confirm that your candidate has the right skills and temperament for the job. You’re not sure what to expect in terms of productivity. And you don’t have a pay structure or comp plan to tell you how much this person should earn, what kinds of special arrangements are needed (car, expense account), etc.

We’ll leave a lot of that to your other advisors and focus here on the compensation piece with the basic steps you need to complete to arrive at the right comp plan for your new hire:

  1. Your first step is to determine a reasonable level of total compensation for a sales person in your business — in the U. S., that’s what their W-2 says at the end of the year. This is undoubtedly tied, in the thoughts of company management at least, to how much the person will sell in that first year — the cost needs to be associated with a reasonable return. You’ll get better at that as time goes by, but you’ll have to start with some kind of working assumption based on others in your industry, leadership’s experience in selling your products or services, even to a certain degree the perspective of your top candidates for the role and/or a recruiter who may be helping you to fill it.
  2. Next you need to decide how the risk will be shared — how much of that target total compensation will be in a fixed base salary and how much in the incentive at target. For early stage companies, the fixed portion may be relatively low, even non-existent. 30% to 50% of the target total compensation is a good starting place. However, if you are trying to attract a well-established resource to bring their network, skills and experience to your company, you may have to offer a higher base since their choices include many with less risk.
  3. Since you know the target total cash and the base, you can subtract to determine the incentive at target. Your next step is to be very clear about WHAT you expect your new sales person to PRODUCE per year. This is usually measured in revenue dollars, but may be measured in units sold or even gross margin dollars in some industries. Whatever the measure(s), you need to design a plan that delivers the target incentive amount for getting to the productivity goal. This is most typically communicated as a commission (to calculate the rate, divide the target incentive by the productivity expectation). There’s more to consider in designing the payout table than this article can address, such as threshold levels of performance (below which no incentive is earne), acceleration and deceleration in payout rates at over-goal levels of achievement, etc. You will also need to be clear about payout timing (monthly, quarterly, etc.), and measurement periods (independent or year-to-date). But many early stage companies do fine with a straight commission paid monthly – a single rate based on the incentive at target divided by the productivity expectation (e.g., x% of revenue, y% of margin, $z/unit).
  4. Your last design step is to check the plan’s appropriateness across a broad range of possible levels of productivity, and be sure you’re comfortable with both the cost to the company as it relates to results and the income level for the sales person. You will very likely make some kind of adjustment after this review, which should probably involve someone from your Finance group or the company’s owner.
  5. Once you feel you have the right design, your next step is to carefully document the plan in a Plan Document to be signed by both the sales person’s manager and the sales person. Here, you should probably ask for a review by your legal counsel.
  6. And finally, determine how you will administer the plan – where the data will reside, what reports will be run, who will do the initial calculation, who will review and approve it, and how the information will be communicated to your payroll processors.

Then after you’ve been living with the plan for a few months or quarters, have a look again to see if it’s meeting your needs. Always include a clause in the plan document claiming the right to adjust as needed, then don’t adjust during the plan year unless you’ve got a BIG problem. But do consider adjustments each new plan year. As your business grows and changes, the perfect sales comp plan will also change.

Donya Rose, CSCP,  is Managing Principal of The Cygnal Group. She is a recognized expert in sales compensation plan design, regularly speaking at conferences and writing published articles. She serves clients from F500 to growth-stage businesses, and advises WorldatWork on sales compensation hot topics and best practices.

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