Generally speaking it’s a good idea to align the payout frequency with the length of the sales cycle. If sales cycles are under a month, monthly payouts should be considered.
If sales cycles are 1 to 3 months, then consider a quarterly payout. For sales cycles of 3 to 12 months you should probably consider an annual plan paid quarterly based on year to date performance.
If sales cycles are longer than 12 months you can get into a trickier situation. If a typical sales person closes many deals per year, even though the sales cycle is long you might use a quarterly year-to-date payout as well. However, if the sales cycle is very long (> 12 months) and if there are few deals per year (less than 10 or so), you may need to consider other options. Here are two:
- A more base-rich pay mix with a “kill bonus” approach: The sales person has a base pay that is close to their market value, and receives a handsome “bonus” payout upon closing one of those large deals – either a small percent of the deal value (commission) or a fixed amount per deal (bonus), depending on how much influence they have over deal value. If they strongly influence deal size or deal value (margin), then a percent of the margin expected from the deal can be a good measure. If not, a fixed bonus may be a better approach. This is most appropriate for large deal “hunter” roles.
- A commission on revenue or margin payable as the revenue is recognized: This will be paid out over the first year, first two or three years, or the “life” of the deal. This will have the effect of creating an annuity stream for the future, will help to retain good talent, and may make it less appropriate to continue to pay that high base once a few deals are landed. This is appropriate for sales roles in which an ongoing account management (“farming”) emphasis is expected. If this is your situation you should consider the early-on high base as more of a non-recoverable draw against earnings which will disappear after the first 18 to 24 months in the job.
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.